Does America need a Foreign Legion?
Friday, December 29, 2006
In 1787, shortly after the Constitutional Convention that gave final form to the government of the rebellious American colonies, a woman approached 81-year-old Ben Franklin and asked what sort of arrangement the delegates had come up with. "A republic -- if you can keep it," quipped Franklin. Even then, he and his colleagues understood that creating a Roman-style republic meant setting out on the Roman road to empire -- and, inevitably, to imperial decline.
Men like Washington, who advised his successors against "foreign entanglements," tried to install the political version of anti-virus software. But today little energy remains behind U.S. resistance to the imperial temptation. President Bush's 2000 electoral promise to pursue a "humble" foreign policy has become a joke. Sept. 11 proved it is no longer in his power, or anyone else's.
Americans are thus beginning to consider adopting one of the defining policies of late empire: the mass military recruitment of foreigners.
The possibility of an American Foreign Legion was already being discussed by military wonks and historians before 9/11, but today it's being talked about inside the Pentagon as well as outside. On Tuesday the Boston Globe reported that the Defence Department considers itself "under pressure" to dramatically expand the modest number of foreigners it enlists and naturalizes. Several plans are said to be under scrutiny, but there is no mystery about the root logic. America finds itself in need of more soldiers at a time when there is strong impetus, for political and security reasons, behind putting the teeth back into a slackly enforced American immigration policy.
Iraq has reminded Americans at great cost that wars cannot be won when no definition of victory exists. Overwhelming military might is useful in all-out struggles for existence like the Second World War in the Pacific, but it is not much use against spontaneous, local rebellions on the periphery of imperial authority. There is no substitute for manpower in overseas garrisons -- but where can the U.S. get it? In Iraq it is already squeezing recruits for every hour of obligatory service. And few want to reintroduce conscription and hazard the social strife that would follow.
Similar factors obliged the late Romans to fill their legions with intermittently hostile Goths; the British to fight their territorial wars with Irishmen, Highlanders and Gurkhas and the French to found their renowned Foreign Legion as a bolt-hole for nihilists and fugitives of all nations. The essential problem is that successful empires are always prosperous at the centre, and the benefits of citizenship tend to expand as government grows. When Augustus Caesar built an Italian welfare state on Egyptian grain, his successors found their subjects, raised on free bread at the crossroads of world trade, increasingly unwilling to risk death in the ranks. Within decades, Roman emperors found themselves pledging exorbitant "donatives" to the troops in order to attract and control them.
America was once able to promise young men pensions, access to higher education and lifelong health care in exchange for military service. But today, every American enjoys Social Security and Medicare as a matter of right, and college is no longer an upper-class game preserve. Military service has become an evaporating social duty unsupported by economic incentives. And with family sizes decreasing, parents are becoming more sentimental toward children and less likely to urge them toward the profession of arms. To put it bluntly, military recruitment is easiest where human life is held less dear.
The prestige of soldiering in the United States is being annihilated by American virtues: high social mobility, low unemployment and infinite possibilities for the young. Because of the same virtues, hundreds risk their lives every day just to physically enter the bounds of the U.S. If they were asked to face similar hazards on behalf of the American cause, in exchange for English-language instruction and access to genuine American citizenship, the queue would girdle the globe.
Some find the idea of recruiting "American" soldiers in Mexico or India distasteful. The concept has already inspired talk of "blood money" and "coercion" of the world's poor. And foreign military recruitment is dangerous to national security in the long run, as the Romans (and the French) discovered. But for the U.S., there is no other way out of the immediate dilemma. Sooner or later, under one name or another, there will be an American Foreign Legion.