An honor guard from the French army's 6th Foreign Legion Battalion - By TECH. SGT. H. H. DEFFNER, US Army

 

Foreign Legions have existed for centuries, but in their generally-accepted form, have only really existed since roughly the end of the 1700's. Unlike condottieri of Renaissance Italy, "foreign legions" are not, strictly speaking, "mercenaries", in that they are not usually specialists hired for one-time contract work, who remain separate from a nation's actual armed fores, but are organized, uniformed and disciplined units of non-citizen foreigners, organized into separate units by the recruiting nation.

 

Most famously used by France, one of the harsh truths of foreign legions is that a nation usually finds them necessary only when their own populations are unwilling or unable to serve their nation effectively in the military. There is growing evidence that the United States of America may have reached a point where a foreign legion is a necessity.

 

A montage of paintings of the American Civil War - Via Wikimedia Commons

The United States has always had foreign volunteers in the ranks of its military forces: whether as mercenaries or starry-eyed volunteers in the American War of Independence, through the German immigrants who fought for the Union in the American Civil War, to individuals from nations suffering under the rule of hostile foreign powers (this author served with several such volunteers in the 1980's), non-citizen foreigners are no oddity in US military service. However, times are changing, and it may become necessary to rethink how the US military operates.

Since the end of the Draft in 1973, the United States has had an "all-volunteer force". Better-educated, on average, than the mass of draftees that it replaced, the AVF is also smaller in total numbers, even as the relative budget for the military in general has grown exponentially. The reasons for this are many, but boil down primarily to a desire for more remotely-operated weapons to keep US troops out of harms way as far as possible -- as the military learned the hard way in Vietnam, dead American troops coming back in flag-draped coffins tend to cause a media frenzy, that paints any military action in a poor light. One result of this, has been an increasingly smaller number of American citizens willing to volunteer to serve.

United States Air Force photo, c.2003

Quietly, in the background, a slowly worsening situation is developing, a situation that severely threatens US national security.

As recent articles have pointed out, American youth - now, as many as 70% - are unfit for military service. The situation is bad enough, that the military is seriously considering bringing in civilian specialists for direct commissioning (now termed "lateral entry"), because they cannot find enough suitable recruits. The reasons are many, but boil down to five core problems, either singly or in combination.

First, there is a noticeable epidemic of obesity in the United States. The US is not alone in this, as the problem does exist is several other developed countries, but the cold facts are that too many young people who would otherwise be excellent prospects for recruiters are simply too physically unfit to pass even the most basic physical fitness course. Recruiters try very hard to get these prospects into shape, but the results are often failure.

US Army troops training in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada, 1942 - US Army photo

Second, reductions in military budgets, mated to extreme costs for high-dollar, high-tech weapons programs have forced reductions in troops levels, to a point not seen since the early 1940's. This has led to toxic and damaging practices that directly impact both troop morale and reenlistment figures [http://usmclife.com/2017/08/combat-marines-considering-reenlistment-see-tattoo-policy-barrier/]; critically, this is also hemorrhaging combat-seasoned talent from the various services.

Third, is the widening percentage of US youths who cannot pass even "flexible" criminal background checks. Debates about various civil criminal policies aside, a critical factor in not finding suitable recruits is the fact that many youths get into real trouble before they can be enlisted.

A trainer with Company A, 1st Battalion 502nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Strike, 101st Airborne Division assists Iraqi army ranger students - 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson, US Army

Fourth, is a problem that has existed since the end of the Draft: civilian sector competition. Bluntly, without a Draft providing a steady stream of troops, the various armed services have to compete with civilian companies for talent...and with the aforementioned budget reductions, the military services find it extremely difficult to compete with civilian companies, given the requirements of military service: most introductory-level civilian jobs do not involve you getting shot at. Additionally, since 2002, the military has had to compete with the rise of "private military contractor" (PMC) companies -- where this was rarely a factor affecting both enlistment and reenlistment in previous decades, the surge in use of PMC's - including in high-threat combat areas - has sparked investment in those companies that aggressively recruit talent from the military, talent (usually either special operations  troops, or aircraft technicians) that has been expensively trained, and that the military desperately wants to keep, but cannot, for parsimony.

Last, is a crushing sense of ennui - bordering on existential nihilism - in a disturbingly high percentage of US youth. This serious emotional crisis breeds a distrust, if not outright disgust, with anything concerning governments, militaries and higher ideals in general. And again, there are numerous reasons for this, none of which can be resolved by military establishments.

You can only work with what you are given.

United States Army recruit rams a fixed bayonet into a tire during bayonet training, 2007 - Unites States Department of Defense photo

Yet, troops are still needed. As military professionals are all painfully aware, no matter how high-tech your military machine, you still need some kid with a rifle and a bayonet to stand on a patch of dirt, and dare anyone to come and kick him off.

Naturalization ceremony at the Mather Amphitheater on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, 2010 - Photo by Grand Canyon National Park

Despite all its woes, the United States still has immigrants flocking to its colors every year, so many, that artificial limits to legal immigration remain in force. These immigrants leave their homes, precisely because they still believe in what used to be called the "American Dream"...and many are more than willing to fight for that dream. Those artificial limits, however, only encourage emigres with "desirable" skills, and a desire to fix bayonets is not usually on that list.

So -- should the United States begin an active program to recruit a Foreign Legion? Not individual recruits, but as separately organized units, officered by Americans, but whose 'other ranks' are universally non-citizen, in the same manner as the French Foreign Legion?

On the plus side, such units are not staffed with too many "American Boys and Girls", and consequently will not produce as visceral a negative reaction in either the press or the electorate when they soak casualties on the battlefield.

On the down side, forming a Foreign Legion is essentially an admission of defeat. To paraphrase the words of author Robert A. Heinlein, if a citizenry will not volunteer to fight for its country, does that country deserve to continue?

More darkly, on the third hand, if the country does deserve to continue, is it time to rethink exactly what "citizenship" means for the United States in the 21st Century?

The United States of America is an ongoing - if stumbling - "noble experiment", an experiment that many still believe in, that many believe is still worth fighting and dying for. There is a decisive break-point in this argument, and that break-point of decision is rapidly approaching.

 




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