Created By: MaxWest on February 16, 2013 Last Edited By: StarSword on April 12, 2014
Troped

Trading Bars For Stripes

Character incarcerated or facing incarceration gets a choice: join the military or go to jail

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Trope
A related trope to Boxed Crook and Recruiting the Criminal

A character is currently locked up in prison, either serving out a considerable sentence or awaiting execution, or is on trial facing the same. The judge or some other official offers them a choice: they can suffer their punishment or join up with the military.

For this trope to apply (and to set it apart from the aforementioned tropes), the character in question must already be in legal custody and the only option for freedom/absolution is military service.

There was truth to this, at least in the USA. During the World Wars and even as late as the Vietnam War, it was not unusual for judges to offer this deal to those of draft age. Nowadays, this is more of a Discredited Trope as the US military normally bars those with a criminal history from joining, even if they were adjudicated as youthful offenders.

May overlap with Army of Thieves and Whores and Legion of Lost Souls. Also a subtrope of Consequence Combo, as you either fight for The Government and clear your record, or do time.

Examples:

Comic Books
  • An extreme example in Astérix: A soldier recalls how he was given the choice of crucifixion or being assigned to Corsica.
"And?"
"You know the army. You ask for one thing and they do the opposite."

Film
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II sees the title hero being released from prison on the condition that he complete a mission for the US government to find American prisoners still being held in Vietnam.
  • Played With during the first Police Academy film. Carey Mahoney only joins the police academy (rather than the military) because it was that or jail time.
  • In Blood In Blood Out, Paco joins the Marines instead of going to prison. This happens when the police arrest him after taking part in the assault on the rival gang that sees their leader getting murdered by his brother Miklo.
  • In Private Benjamin, one of the other trainees in boot camp was apparently this trope. After she flipped off the drill sergeant behind her back (during the typical "first day at training" scene), sarge says that she'll soon wish she'd chosen Attica.

Fanfiction
  • The Ranma ½ fanfic "Adulthood of a Modern Dynasty" has a Jerk Ass named Kamajirou who shows up early on. He turns up later as part of the trainees for the newly formed Anything Goes Task Force. When asked what he's doing here, he explains he committed crimes, but the judge offered him a commuted sentence if he agreed to join up with the Japanese military.

Literature
  • Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium novel West of Honor. After Harlan Slater's father dies he tries to run the family ranch but doesn't know all of the legal procedures he has to follow. When the government tries to take possession of the ranch he resists and is arrested. The judge on the case is an old friend of his father and arranges to get him into the CoDominium Military Academy. Harlan ends up as an officer in the CoDominium Marines.
  • Atonement: Robbie Turner gets falsely accused of having raped a 15-year old girl and is sent to prison. He's given the choice to join the army and invade WWII Europe. His lover Cecilia promises to wait for him. Both of them die before ever seeing each other again.
  • In the 1632 series there are two characters who talk to each other about how they ended up in the armed services (during the Vietnam era). The first says: "The judge gave me two choices, Army or Marines. I wasn't stupid so I choose the Army." The other (a Marine) responds that the judge didn't give him a choice, "It's the Marines for you!"

Live-Action TV
  • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager Tom Paris was recruited by Captain Janeway from a prison for a dangerous mission into a hazardous nebula.

Real Life
  • This trope did occur in the USA prior to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Judges offered those of draft age a choice of going to prison or joining the army. Nowadays, this is not allowed. Those with a criminal record can't join the US military, unless they obtain a hard-to-get waiver.
    • This page on About.com even cites various official military regulations that bar any such enlistments.
  • In World War II, other countries would allow criminals to join in lieu of going to prison such as England, France, Germany, China, and Japan.
  • The Ottoman Empire had bashi-bazouk, a type of irregular soldier dating back to the 1300s. They were recruited from criminals as well as homeless and vagrants. These irregulars did not receive a regular salary; their pay was solely whatever loot they could find or steal.
  • The UK Mutiny Act of 1701/1702 stated that criminals as well as debtors, referred to as "persons of blemished character or unsettled mode of life", could be released from punishment upon agreeing to enlist.
  • In the USSR during the Great Patriotic War something similar happened: some inmates of The Gulag, mostly real small time criminals, were offered pardon in exchange for military service. Some of the vor v zakone also joined; since this sort of thing violated their code, they weren't accepted back if they survived and returned, resulting in a post-WWII period of "Bitch Wars" in the gulags.
  • the Dirlewanger SS Division. Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger was a Nazi mad political scientist and Boxed Crook who proposed to form an SS unit from arrested poachers (later expanded to include all kinds of arrested criminals). Eventually, Dirlewanger became the commander of his own division, an Army of Thieves and Whores recruited from prisons and jails and infamous for cruelty.
  • In Colin Powell's autobiography he discusses this trope and how difficult it was to deal with, and how things have changed since the Vietnam era.
  • The spirit of this trope is still used in certain prisons around the United States. Instead of doing time, you are given ONE chance (and only one chance) to go through an extremely intense boot camp-like training from the moment you step off the prison transport from the courtroom. They put you through the ringer. You will sleep when told to sleep, eat when told to eat, eat how they tell you to eat, go to the bathroom when they tell you too and for how long, put you through intense physical training that the regular army at one point considered to be normal, but now considers to be inhumane. Basically turn you into a mindless grunt. If you can survive about 3 months of this, the state will deem you worthy of returning to normal society, and your crimes will be absolved. If you slip up even once, you will have to serve your sentence. You can generally only do this if you were sent to prison for a non-violent crime in the first place though.
    • To put it simply: it would be easier to deal with life in prison than it is to survive this training, but if you do, you're a free man.

Tabletop Games
  • Warhammer 40,000: Since there's no shortage of capital crimes in the Imperium of Man, criminals sentenced to death are often given the choice to join a penal legion rather than being executed. Usually they're used as Cannon Fodder, but The Last Chancers novel series concerns a legion composed of convicts with skills that make them more useful (for instance, the viewpoint character is ex-Imperial Guard).

Video Games
  • This is how Elliot Salem of Army of Two joined the Army. He was in a gang as teenager and decided to enlist rather than serve time in jail.
  • StarCraft: Terran soldiers tend to be "neurally resocialized" convicts. Tychus Findley is a specific example who used to be a thief and an old friend of Raynor's, who was on ice for years before Emperor Mengsk thawed him out and fitted him with armor that would kill him if removed so he could infiltrate the rebellion and assassinate Kerrigan.
  • In Neverwinter Nights 2, your character is given control of a militia unit. If you want you can set the recruitment policy to 'give criminals amnesty if they'll join up', which results in more troops but worse discipline.

Web Comics
  • The S.S.D.D has the faction called the CORE using convicted conscripts. The main character of the time travel arcs Tessa was conscripted for punching a police officer.

Western Animation
  • In one episode of The Simpsons, it turns out that Principal Skinner, whose backstory had long had him as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, actually stole the real, MIA-and-presumed-dead Sgt. Skinner's identity on returning home. He was really a juvenile delinquent who had snatched a purse and was caught after colliding with a judge, and was offered a choice between the Army, jail, or apologizing to the judge and old lady.
    Skinner: 'Course if I'd known there was a war going on, I probably would've apologized.
  • The Smart Guy Alec in Exosquad was a petty thief before joining Exofleet to clear his record.
  • The Terrible Thunder Lizards (a segment of Eek! The Cat) were former military special forces, who were allowed their freedom on the condition that they hunted down the humans, Bill and Scooter. Their origins though play with this trope in that they were imprisoned after being falsely accused of treason. (Their backstory had the Thunder Lizards working with an enemy Thugasaur to survive behind enemy lines. They were accused of treason, which they didn't do, and were incarcerated until the start of the series.)
Community Feedback Replies: 36
  • February 16, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    Would the French Foreign Legion count somehow? There's a great many fictional stories of criminals entering it to escape imprisonment (either before being arrested or having escaped arrest). I think there's some fictional Expy organisations based on the Legion which provide such an option (can't recall off the top of my head, but there's a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stories that have them).

    That was, of course, on the olden days. I guess nowadays the Foreign Legion is stricter about who enters it.
  • February 16, 2013
    StarSword
    May result in an Army Of Thieves And Whores.

    Western Animation:
    • In one episode of The Simpsons, it turns out that Principal Skinner, whose backstory had long had him as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, actually stole the real, MIA-and-presumed-dead Sgt. Skinner's identity on returning home. He was really a juvenile delinquent who had snatched a purse and was caught after colliding with a judge, and was offered a choice between the Army, jail, or apologizing to the judge and old lady.
      Skinner: 'Course if I'd known there was a war going on, I probably would've apologized.
  • February 16, 2013
    MaxWest
    @marcosasalazarm I was intending for this trope to be more about already being arrested or incarcerated and being offered the option of joining the military - as opposed to joining up with a military organization to avoid arrest.
  • February 16, 2013
    Earnest
    How about Prisoner Or Private for a name?

    Or the much punier Trading Bars For Stripes or Trading Bars For Stars.
  • February 16, 2013
    Chabal2
    An extreme example in Asterix: A soldier recalls how he was given the choice of crucifixion or being assigned to Corsica.
    "And?"
    "You know the army. You ask for one thing and they do the opposite."
  • February 16, 2013
    StarSword
    Tabletop Games:
    • Warhammer 40000: Since there's no shortage of capital crimes in the Imperium of Man, criminals sentenced to death are often given the choice to join a penal legion rather than being executed. Usually they're used as Cannon Fodder, but The Last Chancers novel series concerns a legion composed of convicts with skills that make them more useful (for instance, the viewpoint character is ex-Imperial Guard).
  • February 16, 2013
    StarSword
    Namespace fixes.
  • February 16, 2013
    aurora369
    In the USSR during the Great Patriotic War something similar happened: some inmates of The Gulag, mostly real small time criminals, were offered pardon in exchange for military service. Some of the vor v zakone also joined; since this sort of thing violated their code, they weren't accepted back if they survived and returned, resulting in a post-WWII period of "Bitch Wars" in the gulags.
  • February 16, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In the first Police Academy film Mahoney only joins the police academy because it was that or jail time.
  • February 17, 2013
    Koveras
    A subtrope of Consequence Combo, I think: you either fight for The Government and clear your record, or do time.

  • February 17, 2013
    Arivne
    Literature
    • Jerry Pournelle's Co Dominium novel West of Honor. After Harlan Slater's father dies he tries to run the family ranch but doesn't know all of the legal procedures he has to follow. When the government tries to take possession of the ranch he resists and is arrested. The judge on the case is an old friend of his father and arranges to get him into the CoDominium Military Academy. Harlan ends up as an officer in the CoDominium Marines.
  • February 17, 2013
    Chernoskill
    Film

    • In Blood In Blood Out, Paco joins the Marines instead of going to prison when the police arrests him after taking part in the assault on the rival gang that sees their leader getting murdered by his brother Miklo.
  • February 17, 2013
    KTera
    • This is how Elliot Salem of Army Of Two joined the Army. He was in a gang as teenager and decided to enlist rather than serve time in jail.
  • February 17, 2013
    zarpaulus
    • Starcraft: Terran soldiers tend to be "neurally resocialized" convicts. Tychus Findley is a specific example who used to be a thief and an old friend of Raynor's, who was on ice for years before Emperor Mengsk thawed him out and fitted him with armor that would kill him if removed so he could infiltrate the rebellion and assassinate Kerrigan.

    Also on the SSDD example, the specific faction who uses convicted conscripts is the CORE. Main character of the time travel arcs Tessa was conscripted for punching a police officer.
  • February 17, 2013
    SquirrelGuy
    In Private Benjamin, one of the other trainees in boot camp was apparently this trope. After she flipped off the drill sergeant behind her back (during the typical "first day at training" scene), sarge says that she'll soon wish she'd chosen Attica.
  • February 17, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Excuse me, but why did you call the Police Academy example "Subverted"?
  • February 18, 2013
    Arivne
    The Dirty Dozen example in the OP involves soldiers being released from prison to take part in a dangerous mission.

    The Laconic and the description both say "join the military". They can't "join the military" because they're already part of it, so they don't fit the trope as written.
  • February 18, 2013
    aurora369
    Another Real Life example was the Dirlewanger SS Division. Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger was a Nazi mad political scientist and Boxed Crook who proposed to form an SS unit from arrested poachers (later expanded to include all kinds of arrested criminals). Eventually, Dirlewanger became the commander of his own division, an Army Of Thieves And Whores recruited from prisons and jails and infamous for cruelty.
  • February 18, 2013
    MaxWest
    @randomsurfer I put the Police Academy example as a subversion because it involved joining the civilian police rather than the military.

    @Arivne You have a point about the Dirty Dozen. I'll remove that example shortly.
  • February 18, 2013
    Astaroth
    • In Neverwinter Nights 2, your character is given control of a militia unit. If you want you can set the recruitment policy to 'give criminals amnesty if they'll join up', which results in more troops but worse discipline.
  • February 18, 2013
    Sackett
    In the 1632 series there are two characters who talk to each other about how they ended up in the armed services (during the Vietnam era). The first says: "The judge gave me two choices, Army or Marines. I wasn't stupid so I choose the Army." The other (a Marine) responds that the judge didn't give him a choice, "It's the Marines for you!"

    In Colin Powell's autobiography he discusses this and how difficult it was to deal with, and how things have changed since the Vietnam era.
  • February 18, 2013
    randomsurfer
    For both The Dirty Dozen and Police Academy I call Tropes Are Flexible. Academy, whatever it may be, is Not A Subversion. Possibly Downplayed. I've never seen all of Dozen but unless they Got Volunteered, IMO "finish prison time or go on dangerous mission" looks like it counts.
  • February 18, 2013
    StarSword
    Not sure the Starcraft example counts. Resocialized criminals don't generally get a choice in the matter (reference Starcraft: Frontline, where the criminal in question is a political dissident).
  • February 18, 2013
    MaxWest
    @randomsurfer Maybe then the Police Academy example is more of "Played With" than a subversion.
  • February 18, 2013
    Earnest
    In the pilot episode of Star Trek Voyager Tom Paris was recruited by Captain Janeway from a prison for a dangerous mission into a hazardous nebula.
  • February 18, 2013
    Tuckerscreator
    Literature
  • February 19, 2013
    jatay3
    Why do you think they call the foreign legion the Legion Of Lost Souls?
  • February 19, 2013
    KZN02
    What about mercenaries?
  • February 20, 2013
    DRCEQ
    • The spirit of this trope is still used in certain prisons around the United States. Instead of doing time, you are given ONE chance (and only one chance) to go through an extremely intense bootcamp-like training from the moment you step off the prison transport from the courtroom. They put you through the ringer. You will sleep when told to sleep, eat when told to eat, eat how they tell you to eat, go to the bathroom when they tell you too and for how long, put you through intense physical training that the regular army at one point considered to be normal, but now considers to be inhumane. Basically turn you into a mindless grunt. If you can survive about 3 months of this, the state will deem you worthy of returning to normal society, and your crimes will be absolved. If you slip up even once, you will have to serve your sentence. You can generally only do this if you were sent to prison for a non-violent crime in the first place though.

    To put it simply: it would be easier to deal with life in prison than it is to survive this training, but if you do, you're a free man.
  • March 6, 2013
    MaxWest
    I think we have enough examples here and this YKTTW has five hats. Can we get a launch?
  • March 6, 2013
    StarSword
    Cleanup: namespaces and formatting.
  • March 13, 2013
    Earnest
    ^^ Do you want to launch it, or are you saying this is Up For Grabs?
  • March 13, 2013
    MaxWest
    Yes, please. I think it's ready to go.
  • March 13, 2013
    Earnest
    Okay, I'll see about launching it later tonight.
  • March 13, 2013
    Chernoskill
    Another Film example:

    • In Aliens, Smartgun partners Pvt. Drake and Pvt. Vasquez both were given the chance to join the Colonial Marine Corps out of juvenile prison instead of serving a long sentence for unmentioned crimes.
  • April 12, 2014
    aurora369
    YKTTW Bumpo
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=eafagsjdtuxcprhauqdbwcoz