Hollywood does the French Foreign Legion, 1939.
Mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military is suffering from recruiting problems as fewer and fewer citizens are willing to put their lives on the line. A host of stopgap measures have been tried, including accepting recruits with lower education standards and giving waivers to convicted felons who sign up. According to a new poll of American officers (highlighted by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly), many in the American military are willing to accept a radical solution to this problem. 78% of those polled thought the military should recruit from outside the United States, offering citizenship to foreigners in exchange for service. This idea is twice as popular as restoring the draft, with only 38% of officers supporting a return to conscription.
The idea of an army made up of wannabe-citizens is not new. When Rome was a Republic, only citizens could serve but during its decadence the Roman Empire was defended largely by soldiers from the hinterland, erstwhile barbarians who sometimes rose to the rank of Emperor. The French Foreign Legion operated on a similar model. And in Iraq, the United States is already using a species of alien mercenaries: many of the military contractors in Iraq are from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And it is worth noting that one of the first soldiers in the American army who died in Iraq was Jose Gutierrez, an orphan from Guatemala came to the United States as an illegal alien at age 14. Gutierrez became a resident alien when he was 18 but was only won citizenship as a posthumous reward. No exact numbers are available but there does seem to be a sizeable number of resident aliens in the American army, immigrants halfway on the road to citizenship with the army as a waystation.
Robert Heinlein’s dingbat classic Starship Troopers (1959) offered a science fiction extrapolation on this idea: a future world state where only military vets possess the franchise. The right-wing intellectual Peter Brimelow anticipated the current situation in a letter that ran in the June 1986 issue of Commentary:
Perhaps I might add my own favorite answer to this American dilemma: a Foreign Legion on the French model. (Of course, in deference to progressive sensibilities, it might have been called an International Brigade.) Particularly if couples with an eventual right to citizenship, an American Foreign Legion would have no difficult attracting a few divisions of volunteers. And the spectacle of neutralist European politicians explaining their citizens’ voting with their bodies in this way could be good for a laugh. I can even suggest an equivalent to the French foreign Legion’s historical North African home base of Sidi be Abbes — Managua.
Heinlein’s novel was meant as a provocation, a direct challenge to liberal anti-militarism. Brimelow’s letter was similarly a bit of jape. (It would be worth knowing if Brimelow still adheres to his idea: in recent years he’s revealed himself to be a white nationalist worried about the America being inundated by dark-skinned immigrants. Even in the 1986 letter he seemed to think that an American Foreign Legion would largely draw its troops from Europe, a very unrealistic notion). Yet reality is quickly catching up to these wish fulfillment fantasies and an American Foreign Legion might be in the offing.
What’s wrong with this idea? Both the Roman and French examples point out potential problems. An army made up of non-citizens lacks loyalty to a nation’s traditions and is dangerously free of democratic accountability. Consider the way the Roman Legions crowned Emperors from their rank or the willingness of some French officers to assassinate Charles De Gaulle when they disagreed with his decision to decolonize Algeria. Right now, Americans are concerned by what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan largely because fellow-citizens are being hurt or dying. An army of foreigners, paid for not by taxes but by money borrowed from abroad, would sever all ties between the American electorate and the military. The volunteer army already has some of these problems: Americans are far else excised over Iraq and Afghanistan than they were with Vietnam, largely because the troops are a socially distinct caste (and taxes haven’t been raised to pay for the current wars). With an American Foreign Legion, foreign wars would become even more distant and therefore politically palatable.