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America's New Foreign Legions

The U.S. should grant citizenship to foreigners who serve in the military.

11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Max Boot was very happy to report that the Department of Defense is at long last going to allow the military to recruit foreigners to fill "critical need" positions such as translators and cultural affairs specialists. He notes that

Under a pilot program the armed forces will be authorized over the next 12 months to recruit 1,000 individuals who do not currently have American citizenship or permanent resident status.

Boot is gung-ho for the proposal, because

I believe that there are
lots of high-quality recruits around the world who would gladly serve in
return for expedited citizenship. They would bring with them the kind of
linguistic and cultural know-how which is lacking in our forces today but
is a vital prerequisite for success on battlefields such as Afghanistan and
Iraq. Even those who do not necessarily speak a "strategic" language could
be a valuable asset, as so many immigrant soldiers were in our past wars.

If anything, Boot believes that the program is too small, too limited--too timid:

It is limited to a tiny number of foreigners who speak one of
three dozen "critical" languages (ranging from Albanian to Yoruba) and have lived in the U.S. legally for two years or more on certain types of visas.
One third of the total must be medical professionals because of a current
shortfall of doctors and nurses. That's all fine and good, but it slights
the needs of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which is eager to recruit more foreigners as was previously done under the Lodge Act in the 1950's. And it slights needs of the regular army which could use more high-quality recruits, even if enlistments are increasing in these trying economic times.

He observes that

The program was kept deliberately small so as to avoid a nativist backlash.
Assuming that there is no groundswell of opposition--and who would be
churlish enough to protest people volunteering to put their lives on the
line to defend America?--let us hope that this initiative will expand in the

I entirely agree. We should go well beyond this very limited program, and offer full citizenship to any foreigner willing to enlist in our armed forces for a period of no less than six years, who successfully completes such service, and earns an honorable discharge. We could begin by extending that invitation to the foreigners who already reside within our borders illegally.

Boot may, however, have underestimated the extent of opposition to such an idea. Already several distinct arguments have been put forward against it in response to Boot's original article. The most common is a variation on this theme:

If memory serves me right, the Romans tried this when native Italians no longer wanted to fight Rome's wars, and they recruited troops from among the Teutonic barbarians, and we all know how well that turned out. A bad idea.

Well, if there is one thing everybody "knows" about the fall of the Roman Empire, it's that the use of barbarian mercenaries undermined the army and left Rome ripe for conquest. But, as is frequently the case with such matters, "everybody" is wrong.

Going back to the days of the Republic, the Roman army consisted of the Legions and "Auxiliary" cohorts". The Legions were heavy infantry formations composed entirely of Roman citizens. But the Auxiliaries were non-citizens, either provincials or specialists recruited from places outside the Empire. Mostly they were light infantry and cavalry, often recruited by tribal chieftains or client kings in lieu of taxes. They had a twenty-five year term of service, at the end of which the Auxiliaries would receive Roman citizenship, which also extended to their children. Because the social, legal and economic benefits of citizenship were so substantial (not unlike the benefits of American citizenship today), the Auxiliaries had every incentive to serve honorably and complete their service. And the vast majority did so.