Active combat linked to criminal violence in military personnelBMJ 2013; 346 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1717 (Published 20 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1717
All rapid responses
Deirdre MacManus et al. have provided the strongest evidence yet that combat experience is a risk factor for violent offending. Indeed, as the authors note, the automatic matching between the cohort database and the Police National Computer (PNC) database in their study may actually underestimate the rate of violent offending, due to the greater potential for linkage errors resulting in false negatives, and the fact that only offences that the civilian police are made aware of are recorded. The findings demonstrate the need to understand the mechanisms by which combat experience increases the risk of post-deployment violence, and thus allow for the discovery of better targets for more efficacious interventions. Discussion regarding the solutions to high rates of violent offending among military personnel has generally revolved around interventions for two types of targets: screening for pre-existing risk factors such as criminal tendency before entering military service; and more and better post-deployment care for risk factors like alcohol misuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, it is worth considering targets for risk factors that may arise during the training and deployment of those serving in combat roles.
High levels of social cohesion are formally encouraged in the armed forces, since it is thought to improve combat effectiveness. This manifests itself at section and platoon (or troop) level with the formation of highly cohesive, inward-looking social groups: so-called ‘primary groups’. Whilst strong evidence exists for an inverse association between social cohesion and violence in civilian communities, there has been little quantitative study of the relationship between violence and social cohesion in inward-looking, highly cohesive communities such as those found among combat units in the armed forces. Qualitative studies on interpersonal violent offending by military personnel during deployment suggest high levels of social cohesion contribute to these offences by encouraging group members to conceal and support immoral acts by other members.[4, 5] If quantitative evidence corroborates this, the relationship between such social cohesion and post-deployment violence should also be investigated. It is possible that abrupt severances of these strong social bonds for those re-entering civilian life may be a risk factor for violent offending.
If evidence is found to support such hypotheses, small changes to training and cultural norms that de-emphasise social cohesion may constitute a low-cost intervention that reduces the burden of more expensive post-deployment interventions. Whilst there are concerns as to how this would affect combat effectiveness, there is evidence that task cohesion may be just as, if not more, effective.
1 MacManus D, Dean K, Jones M, et al. Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study. Lancet 2013;381:907–17.
2 Janowitz, M. Military Conflict: Essays in the Institutional Analysis of War and Peace. London: Sage 1975.
3 Galea S, Karpati A, Kennedy B. Social capital and violence in the United States, 1974–1993. Soc Sci Med 2002;55:1373–83.
4 Winslow D. Rites of passage and group bonding in the Canadian Airborne. Armed Forces Soc 1999;25:429.
5 Olsthoorn P. Courage. In: Olsthoorn P. Military Ethics and Virtues: An interdisciplinary approach for the 21st century. London: Routledge 2011:44–65.
6 MacCoun RJ, Kier E, Belkin A. Does Social Cohesion Determine Motivation in Combat? Armed Forces Soc 2006;32:646–54
Competing interests: No competing interests