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.
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” (or, “AVF”). 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 even successful military actions in a poor light. One result of this, has been an increasingly smaller number of American citizens willing to volunteer to serve, because competition from the private sector is intense.
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 often end in failure. This situation has grown to the point where the US Army has actually dropped its requirement to – of all things – demonstrate proficiency in throwing hand grenades to 25 meters, one of the most basic duties of the infantry.
Second, reductions in military budgets, mated to extreme costs for high-dollar, high-tech weapons programs have forced reductions in overall troops numbers, to a point not seen since the early 1940’s. This has led to arbitrary, petty, toxic and damaging practices that directly impact both troop morale and reenlistment figures; critically, this is also hemorrhaging combat-seasoned talent from the various services.
Third, is the widening percentage of US youths who cannot pass even highly “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.
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 in earnest 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.
Yet, “spear carrying” troops are still needed. As military professionals are all too 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 them off. The recent casualty rates, coupled to the abject failure of Russia’s “BTG” (Battalion Tactical Group) in the Russo-Ukrainian War have highlighted the fact that mass mobilization and mass armies are definitely not relics of a bygone era – when you need them, and do not possess the structure to generate the numbers, you are in serious trouble.
Despite all its political, societal and economic 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 and charge” is not usually on that list.
So — should the United States begin an active program to recruit a “Foreign Legion”? Not as individual recruits, as is done today, 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 to exist?
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 “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, however, and that break-point of decision is rapidly approaching.