The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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
future.

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.

Caesar Augustus maintained a standing army of twenty-eight legions (before the disaster of the Teutoburgerwald in AD 9 in which three were wiped out). At a nominal 6000 men per legion, this amounted to 168,000 men. But at the same time, Rome had at least that number of Auxiliaries on its rolls. Without the Auxiliaries, the Roman army would have been seriously unbalanced. Where would it have been without its Balaeric slingers, or Germanic and Mauritanean cavalry or Celitberian light infantry?
Those who say that the Roman Empire fell because its army recruited "barbarians" are not thinking of the classic auxiliary system, but rather the late Empire of the fifth and sixth centuries, when, strapped for manpower, the Roman army abandoned its longstanding force structure of Legions and Auxiliaries, and began recruiting foreigners under contract as "foederati". These men were mercenaries, pure and simple, serving under their native officers, to whom they owed their allegiance, while Rome merely provided the gold that kept them under the colors. When Rome could not pay--or when someone else could pay more--then of course their loyalty proved dubious.

Yet even then, there were foederati who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Palatini and other Roman regulars in battles against the barbarians. And let us not forget that such foederati were very much a part of the army of the Eastern Roman Empire, which, morphing into the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century, endured for 1000 years after the last Emperor in Rome was deposed. If, through the recruitment of foreigners to fight in the ranks of our military, the United States lasts half as long, it would be a very good deal indeed.

Those opposed to enlisting foreigners in the U.S. military are also rather ignorant of their own history. During the Civil War, the Union sent recruiting agents to Ireland, offering (sometimes under fraudulent terms) passage to the United States and citizenship in return for service in the Union Army. There were literally tens of thousands of such Irish immigrants in the Northern ranks, and their role became ever more important in the last year of the war, when casualties made recruiting native-born soldiers very difficult indeed.

The second largest group of immigrants in the Union Army were the Germans, who formed the backbone of many regiments from "Germania"--that swath of territory that included New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. So important were the German immigrants--especially in the first two years of the war--that Lincoln had to extend general officer commissions to the political leaders of the German community, such as Carl Schurz and Franz Sigel. They fought pretty well, considering that many could barely speak English and that they were cordially loathed and despised by the "real" Americans. Between the Irish and the Germans, it's not a stretch to say that immigrants won the Civil War for the Union.

Let us also not forget that the despised Regular Army that policed the frontiers after the Civil War was manned very largely by immigrants. Since the general attitude of the time was that soldiering was an occupation suitable only for criminals and misfits, where else was the Army going to get its recruits but from those men just off the boat with few if any prospects?

Finally, if we look back to the American Revolution, it is rather hard to see how we could
have gained our independence without the assistance of foreign born volunteers such as Frederich Steuben, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Johan Kalb and Kasimir Pulaski, as well as the much better known Marquis de Lafayette.

Rather than looking down on foreigners who would freely serve in our military, we should welcome and honor such men and women. Unlike many native-born Americans, they will have demonstrated their dedication to and love for this country by putting their lives on the line to defend it. We should have no doubts as to where their loyalty lies, and reward such devotion with the inestimable honor of United States citizenship. This is an idea whose time is long past due. This pilot program can be the foundation of something much greater. Let us hope it is not too little and too late.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.