The New York Times and Associated Press reported today that the number of felons allowed to serve in the military has surged since the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago. The data, which were obtained by the Michael D. Palm Center at UC-Santa Barbara, show that both the military is letting in more recruits with serious criminal backgrounds, records of drug abuse, inferior educational attainment and other qualities which require a so-called "moral waiver" to allow young Americans to don a military uniform and deploy to the frontlines. It is a measure of how desperate our armed forces are to fill their ranks with bodies to fight in an increasingly unpopular war. (The data are posted at palmcenter.org)
Americans have always believed in second chances and on the face of it, there is every reason to extend that offer to those who have served time. When society metes out punishment with a finite sentence, those who pay their dues and earn their freedom should have the opportunity to-reintegrate into society, so long as it's done with due caution.
The problem is that the Pentagon's current personnel policy is utterly irrational. Under its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it has fired over 11,000 capable troops, including nearly 1000 considered mission-critical and over 300 foreign linguists, just because they're gay. This despite overwhelming evidence that letting known gays serve does not impair cohesion, recruitment or effectiveness.
Yet simultaneously the military accepts those who, according to its own research and standards of review, undermine readiness by virtue of their failure to conform to society's rules.
For all its insistence that letting gays serve openly would be an unacceptable risk to the military - even if they haven't engaged in "homosexual conduct" - the Pentagon bends over backwards to create exceptions in the case of ex-convicts, whose actual criminal behavior is defined by having created a disruption.
A Pentagon report explains that the waiver program "recognizes that some young people have made mistakes, have overcome their past behavior, and have clearly demonstrated the potential for being productive, law-abiding citizens and members of the military."
Yet the Defense Department has acknowledged that it has no tracking program to monitor recruits who are admitted under moral waivers, even though government research shows they are more likely to run into trouble once there. Instead, the Army gives anyone who is considered a risk because of their criminal background "the highest level of review."
Why does the military give a free ride to those who have proven to be disruptive while it gives the axe to proven soldiers who simply happen to be gay? Perhaps because social conservatives never made criminals a cause celebre for their own moral crusades and fundraising drives, while gays have proven a very effective target.
The military would be far better served if, instead of yielding to political expediency and moral animus, it better monitored and assisted recruits who really are prone to misbehavior, while taking a hard look at the data which show that allowing gays and lesbians to serve would improve the armed forces.