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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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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.