Trading Bars For Stripes YKTTW Discussion

Trading Bars For Stripes
Character incarcerated or facing incarceration gets a choice: join the military or go to jail
(permanent link) added: 2013-02-16 08:23:13 sponsor: MaxWest edited by: StarSword (last reply: 2014-04-12 12:56:41)

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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.


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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.)
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