Should judges sentence you to the Army?

In response to this WSJ law blog post, I provided the following comment:

Almost loathe to comment on such a complex issue. First: I am a former Army infantry officer who directly led troops; my own leadership/discipline resume includes enlisted infantry basic training, officer candidate school, airborne school, Ranger School, and a few others.

There were kids in my basic training unit who had been in various amounts of trouble. Many turned themselves around, perhaps as much because of being out of their old environments (including sometimes rotten parents) as because of the oversight of caring and skilled drill sergeants.

However, it’s hard to fail in that environment unless you do something outright stupid (like sneak out and try to buy pot). Where soldiers really face the risk of getting into trouble is when they reach an actual operational unit and have to balance freedom and responsibility much like the rest of us. For those who had difficulty doing it at home, increased responsibility probably only increases the pressure rather than removing the temptation. Good NCOs take the “idle hands” admonition to heart and recognize that if you let “Joe” sit around bored, he’ll get into trouble. We look at that as a leadership failure. (What do you call it when parents leave their teens similarly unsupervised?)

As for the performance of this class of soldiers under the unimaginable stress of combat like our soldiers have endured for several years, I am not qualified to opine. I note that with our own citizens, let alone the world’s, so eager to harp on any accident as military run amok, I would not, as a leader, want undisciplined soldiers in my command, particularly when we hold commanders responsible for the actions of subordinates.

The branches have their own standards for accepting recruits. That should be a necessary and sufficient answer to this question. If a judge chooses to give a defendant some option in the form of an ACD or parole if the defendant meets the service’s requirements, then there’s no real issue and it remains a judicial question, not a military one. But we should certainly not let judges shortcut the process sua sponte. After all, whether you support the death penalty or not, you cannot be entirely convinced that judges, appeals courts, and high courts combined can separate out the factually innocent from the guilty well enough to keep them from getting executed. How can we assume judges will be able to make the close calls of which fallen apples are ripe and which are rotten?

The underlying idea could probably not be more fuzzy. The reference to letting people join the King’s army is indicative of either silliness or subtlety. Soldiers in the middle ages simply died most of the time — wounds became  fatal (infection) and those in charge cared little for peasants and criminals, using manpower as a resource to be expended rather than protected. So, to me, the authors are either implying that it’s no big deal if these people die or that the military cares so little when its own people die that it’s a good analogy. The world has shifted so dramatically in terms of the nature of military conflict that we can scarcely imagine it. 400,000 Americans died in WWII, some 50,000 in Vietnam, and still less than 5,000 in the Iraq war. We have continued using dollars to buy bullets rather than bulletstoppers. It’s offensive to draw a comparison to today’s professional officer corps and those who headed armies 700 years ago. I can’t bring myself to read the full article.

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