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War and Violent Crime - Immediate And Long-term Effects

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On a demographic level, the removal of young males from the general population and placing them into the armed services or sending them abroad should lower the general crime rate, since this age-sex category is typically responsible for an inordinate number of offenses. Engaging in hostilities may even be cathartic. On the other hand, war may beget violence, even among those who are not directly involved in it. During the Vietnam conflict, for example, F.B.I. reports show that in the United States, rates of homicide increased among all age groups (Archer and Gartner). However, as a lost cause on the other side of the world, the Vietnam conflict was unusual. It generated extraordinary levels of dissension and conflict, not only between political parties at home, but between generations and within families, which continue to reverberate almost a half century later. In fact, one of the founders of modern sociology, Émile Durkheim, observed that in his native France rates of property crime dropped during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, only to rise after the war to a level greater than they had been before hostilities began. Although the wartime plunge was less pronounced, rates of serious crimes of violence followed a similar postwar pattern.

Like the Vietnam conflict, the Franco-Prussian War can also be considered unusual. It was followed immediately by the state's destruction of the Paris Commune, leaving thousands dead and a host of communards charged with serious offenses. This was not a typical postwar phenomenon, and undoubtedly had an impact on official rates of crime. Thus, generalizing from Durkheim's observations of the effects of the Franco-Prussian War on crime even to other wars in France is risky, never mind wars in other times and places. However, the most sophisticated contemporary treatment of the relationship between war and rates of violent crime shows that the pattern observed by Durkheim was by no means unique to the Franco-Prussian War. In their analysis of fifty "nation-wars," Archer and Gartner report that postwar increases in homicide are indeed typical in combatant countries and atypical in nations at peace. Moreover, this pattern holds whether wars are large or small, won or lost, produce low or high unemployment, and, curiously, is as evident among female as well as male offenders. They conclude that "sanctioned killing during war has a residual effect on the level of homicide in peacetime society" (p. 96).

This might be true, but research on total populations is difficult at the best of times, and as Charles Dickens noted, war is also the worst of times. This is especially so for statisticians. Calculating meaningful rates of anything is difficult because the denominator includes young males who are serving in the armed forces, but may be doing so outside the country. As a consequence, during hostilities, the activities of military personnel, criminal and otherwise, may go undetected or be ignored in the context of wartime violence, processed in the host nation or by military courts, and not be recorded at home. The result of any of this would be a decline in rates of activities reported for the population as a whole during war.

An examination of rates of various activities during and following the Franco-Prussian War, on which Durkheim's conclusions were based, sheds interesting light on the crime statistics. Basically, rates of almost everything were stable or dropped during the war, and then increased sharply afterward. This may mean that French soldiers were too busy with the Prussians to file for bankruptcy, get divorced, have fatal accidents, or engage in criminal acts until after the war was over, which they then did with a vengeance. Oddly, this pattern also held for the women of France, most of whom were not directly involved in trying to repulse the Prussians. In view of this, it seems more likely that the part of the apparatus of the state responsible for seeing, detecting, and recording such events was either put on hold or operating at a reduced capacity until after the war was over. This was certainly the case for the judiciary. The gendarmerie was administered as a regiment in the French army, and their primary duty was transferred from patrolling the highways, small towns, and rural areas of France to defending France when war broke out in 1870. This sudden shift in the attention and availability of police would have produced a decline in charges and officially recorded crimes. However, when hostilities ceased, the return of the gendarmes to policing would have inflated the number of charges, surpassing the prewar rate if there were backlogs of complaints. (See Gillis, on the contemporaneous and long-term impact of policing on crime in nineteenth-century France.)

The great gift of the research done by Archer and Gartner is substantiating that the pattern discovered by Durkheim is not specific to the Franco-Prussian War. As noted earlier, this conflict and its aftermath were in many ways unique, and other wars involving other nations may not have affected crime in the same way. In any case, it is clear that war affects official rates of crime. What is less clear is how.

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almost 11 years ago

I draw from this article that crime will increased as the Iraq War subside. It also means that the prison poplulation may explode further to transfer the wealth of war stocks to profits that can be made from prisons and related. This really comes down to a management or mismanagemnet of human resources. If we did not have colleges and universities, where would the economy be and where would we utilize all the young people? As an African American, it is a frightening thought.