With global economic growth having come to a shuddering halt, credit markets on life support, currencies faltering, and unemployment rates forging upwards, the United States Army is finally enjoying some relief. Overworked and stressed out, its recruiters have started to meet their annual goals with appreciably less effort, as unemployed young men, defeated by the recession, walk into their offices to sign up for what they hope will be one or two tours. “I’m doing this for eight years,” 22-year-old Sean O’Neil told the New York Times. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.” After an apprenticeship in St. Louis that didn’t pan out, O’Neil had found himself $30,000 in debt; a stint in the military looked like the next best option.
When one reflects on it, there is a remarkable disconnect between the public image of well-scrubbed, idealistic young men from middle-class families (you can visualize either a Normal Rockwell painting or a Soviet propaganda poster, as is your wont) volunteering to serve their country, and the reality of lower-class kids with no job prospects being cajoled by aggressive recruiters into signing up. “What else are you gonna do, kid? Work at McDonald’s? Collect welfare? You think your momma’s going to be proud of you?” Demoralized and insecure eighteen-year-old boys don’t normally have good answers to questions like those.
Yet as a democracy and a republic, America is the home of a deep-seated belief in the essential nobility of the citizen-soldier, a belief that carries with it the unspoken assumption that the U.S. military is representative of the society it protects. This idea is traceable to the Civil War era, when whole towns of young men would sign up at once — and, sometimes, would die at once — a collective act that made “our boys” an expression of the literal truth. With the creation of federally-administered war cemeteries, which turned individual bodies into “the nation’s dead” (see Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering for an excellent discussion of this evolution), a national myth was born, a myth reinforced over time by images of American “doughboys” going off to World War I, of average guy G.I.s slogging through World War II, and of college graduates joining the Army after 9/11.
In the days of their own republic, the Romans too shared a similar kind of belief. To them, military service was an essential part of a citizen’s life, and public office could not conceivably be attained without at least ten years duty in the army. So honourable was it, in fact, that criteria for eligibility was comparatively high: a wealth standard kept out the poorest citizens, while richer ones could join (in order of ascending personal wealth) the light infantry, the heavy infantry, or the cavalry. Since most soldiers were farmers, each year’s military service primarily consisted of a short campaigning season, followed by a mustering out and a return to one’s farm. Service was a duty to the state, not a professional career.
This began to change for the Romans with the increasing distance and duration of campaigns, something brought about both by the expansion of Roman territory — putting the frontier further and further away — and by the increasing scale of warfare. The Punic Wars against Carthage were Rome’s most extensive to date, and the military soon found itself coping with rising discontent in the ranks as farmer-soldiers fighting in Africa realized that they would not be getting back to their crops in time to avoid serious reductions in their family incomes. Garrison duty on the borders of the expanding Roman state became unpopular for the same reasons.
To escape this constraint on manpower and morale, the late Republic and later the Empire began hiring soldiers from the ranks of the poor, which changed the Roman army from a citizens’ militia into a professional, full-time force. Unfortunately, the myth of the citizen-soldier continued to maintain its grip on the Roman mind, and because the Senate therefore refused to pay the professionals very well, generals who could obtain the most benefits and plunder for their troops soon commanded more loyalty than did the Roman state itself.
“By the time of the late Empire,” wrote Jane Penrose in Rome and Her Enemies, soldiering was no longer considered to be a honourable or desirable profession.” Although by tradition the sons of soldiers were expected to serve, additional volunteers had to be tempted with bounties, and village by village conscription was instituted annually in order to fill the remaining gaps. Desertion became a serious problem, and recruits en route to their units would be kept overnight in jails to prevent them running away, or branded on the arm to facilitate capture and dissuade escape. The army also responded to the declining quality of conscripts by recruiting foreigners, usually Germans. Eventually, perhaps only partly deliberately, the military achieved an almost total separation from Roman society, and became a powerful contributor to the collapse of the state it was sworn to defend.
The lessons for today’s United States are obvious – or rather, they would be, if it wasn’t for the British experience. As Britain became a major military power in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, its need for troops rose quickly. Yet Britain was at the same time in possession of an essentially feudal form of social organization, which meant that concepts like “citizen”, and therefore citizen-soldier, were as foreign to the British as they were natural to the republican Romans. The British, furthermore, were nervously aware of the importance to their national survival of the continued efforts of manual labourers and farmers to keep the economy rolling. Thus, the policy was to recruit only the unemployed if possible. “The proper men to recruit and supply your troops are the scum and outcast of cities and manufacture,” said MP Charles Turner in 1775 during a parliamentary debate on the establishment of a militia. “To take the honest, sober, industrious fellow from the plough, is doing an essential mischief to the community and laying a double tax.” The successful execution of this policy was famously confirmed by the Duke of Wellington thirty-eight years later when he observed in a dispatch to Lord Bathurst, the War Minister, that “we have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.”
British army recruiting, therefore, remained formally voluntary and aggressively focused on the poor. Enlistment was for life, and motivations for making such an iron commitment ranged from the temptation of money bounties, to the thirst for adventure, and even (perhaps often) simple hunger. Press gangs were illegal but frequently used nonetheless, and in the 1690s some regiments even stooped to using “crimps”, thugs who would kidnap potential recruits and sell them to the army. Direct legislative action helped too: the 1704 Recruiting Act, for example, allowed justices of the peace to conscript the unemployed. Despite all this, the British army in Flanders during the Nine Years’ War was thirty percent below strength, and foreign mercenaries comprised up to two-fifths of the army’s active troops in this era — not only were mercenaries easier to find than British recruits, but they were significantly cheaper too.
In fact, what many British politicians were trying to avoid in holding the army apart from society was the feared militarization of the populace. Even a part-time militia, argued the Duke of Newcastle in the mid-eighteenth century, “would breed up our people to a love of arms, & military government; & divert them from their true business, husbandry, manufacture, etc…” This philosophy turned republican Roman belief — which welcomed a military-oriented society, and which thought little of merchants and traders — on its head. And yet, perhaps because of its ability and willingness to pay its professional soldiers properly, Britain never ran the risk of a military coup.
Today, both Britain and the United States, along with Canada and many other modern nations, have attained a comfortable status as prosperous commercial democracies, whose societies are as non-militarized as can be imagined, and who maintain relatively small militaries staffed entirely by volunteers. For the majority of citizens who need not fear the discomfort and inconvenience of a two-year spell of conscripted military service, this is a wonderful situation.
But the Roman, British, and American experiences do warn us of one thing. An army must give its loyalty to someone, and if by paying it well we ensure that this someone is not the generals, then we should be glad of that; but we should also consider that by exempting ourselves from service, the army has been left free to give its loyalty to the state rather than to us. We shouldn’t be surprised to find it engaged in war after war, defending “interests” we don’t quite understand, and fighting ever longer and ever farther away from home. What is there, after all, to hold it back?