America needs a Foreign Legion

Michael O’Hanlon advocates recruiting foreigners into the US military in this Bookings Institute video:  “The Future of the Military“.  He wrote two articles with Max Boot advocating this. 

These articles have attracted much consideration, even mockery, but the idea is sound.  Recruiting a Foreign Legion as a secondary force is neither a crazy nor unproven idea. France and Britain have used them for centuries, without apparent ill effects. Like everything else in life, recruiting foreigners for one’s armed forces has dangers and can be used to excess.

I presented such a proposal in “Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq” (29 December 2005).

Excerpt:  A Foreign legion for America

One high probability result of defeat in Iraq: great reluctance to send US expeditionary forces to foreign lands. Like the long hiatus following the fall of South Vietnam.  This is an inevitable result of the internal contradictions of the “Bush Doctrine.” For a detailed analysis see “Why the Bush Doctrine Cannot be Sustained” by Robert Jervis, Political Science Quarterly, Fall 2005

A turn toward isolationism may be on the whole a good thing, but there will be occasions where intervention looks appropriate – hopefully, with many allies at our side, or at least with wide international support.  For example, early intervention to stop the next set of ethnic slaughter, like that in Rwanda.

There is another solution: build a “Legion,” drawing on the best of French Foreign Legion and 19th century UK army, a force designed expressly for combat in foreign lands. 

  1. Use our excellent equipment, logistics, and officer corps. 
  2. Recruit from defeated ethnic armies, losers in drug wars, urban street armies, and prisoners.
  3. Accept not only US citizens but also those wanting to become citizens. This will provide a sufficiently large pool from which to draw fighters. 
  4. Hard training, “break the man to build the soldier.” This is essential if we are to recruit from groups we now – for good reason — exclude and/or reject.
  5. Offer citizenship after 10 years of service, and pensions after 20 years. This would be more effective if we close the border to illegals, showing that we value US citizenship.

The new “legion” could be the tip of the spear for our legions.  We would have daring legions for whom only their mothers will weep when they die, the ideal tools for cold-blooded Machiavellian strategists like Thomas Barnett. They could be forbidden for use at home and exempt from the legalistic restrictions binding the current US military.

Another advantage: we’ll have a force enrolled expressly to fight. That would be an improvement, for recruiting is a form of deceit in our present scheme. Very much so for the Army. Extremely so for the Guard and Reserve. Not at all for the Marines.  For many young men and women it is Russian Roulette, albeit with good odds that they will earn the money for an education without facing actual combat. Not all win.  Jessica Lynch hoped to become a teacher. Her compatriot, Shoshana Johnson, joined the Army to be a cook. Prisoner of war for 22 days, she still suffers from her injuries (beaten and shot in both ankles).

Consider how their employment contracts would have read if the Army were a private firm. Bold lettered warnings about the danger of death, dismemberment, or other permanent disability. Perhaps some pictures to make the dangers clear.  How nice for the Army that the ludicrously expensive cost of higher education in America pressures desperate young people to take risks that they do not understand – or do understand and desperately wish to avoid.  What a pitiful basis on which to build the military forces of the world’s richest nation.

In this proposed configuration the Reserves and Guard become a purely national defense force – sent abroad only in case of declared war, not for foreign adventures dreamed up by geo-political wizards at the Versailles-on-the-Potomac.

Why do we need a foreign legion?

So long as our grand strategy requires fighting foreign wars with unclear motives (unclear to the public, that is), recruitment and retention of a citizen army will be difficult and very expensive.  In this, as in so many other things, outsourcing to lower-cost foreign labor has its advantages.  In small numbers, foreign recruits can serve well and eventually become valuable citizens.

Or … we might develop a grand strategy that does not require so many foreign bases, so many foreign wars. Defensive strategies are, after all, often stronger than offensive ones.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

For studies and reports explaining the current problem, see An Army near the Breaking Point – an archive of links.

Click here for other articles about developing a grand strategy for America.

10 thoughts on “America needs a Foreign Legion

  1. One thing that drives me crazy is that Americans sometimes say, “Hey, those troops are risking death for me and my family,” and I have to tell them, “No, those troops are risking death for Israel and oil companies.”

    At least with a foreign legion, the American citizen might stand a chance of saying, “Hey, those soldiers are risking death for the ambition of my power-mad overlords, and I stand to lose nothing if the entire Foreign Legion dies.”

  2. I can’t help but wonder if a large, cheap Legion would tempt American political leaders to involve the US in various small wars or coup d’etats which they have abstained from hitherto. Could they end up scaring other nations into alliances against the US?
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    Fabius Maximus: I doubt we can build a Legion that is both “large” and “cheap.” Also, as Martin van Creveld notes here, modern wars are expensive. As we have learned in Iraq. Although, like Phillip II, we have borrowed the money for our foreign wars. Let us hope we avoid his fate, bankruptcy.

  3. While having a Foreign Legion would be a less politically sensitive tool for enforcing US interests, I think the problems it would entail would outweigh any benefits. The reasons for publicly supported US military involvement abroad are very limited, and the abuse of the publics trust in Iraq cannot be overstated. While humanitarian interventions always sound nice, the politics and logistics involved are never considered. If we go into Darfur, what is victory? Who pays for the costs? Who benefits? Until there is a demonstrated political need for these sorts of missions, the spectre of Iraq and Somalia will loom (justifiably) large. Especially if we had to fund a political force with no domestic concern.

    Finally, I cannot being myself to trust that granting more power and influence to our elected representatives is in any sense a good idea. In the words of Madison, our government is not built for the rule of angels, but of men. And having seen the last 8 years, I see any further expansion of the ability to get into entanglements abroad with little domestic involvement as far more likely to engender problems than whatever interests we might have that could not be served by the existing military.

  4. Interesting. The early Mongol Empire utilized a similar tactic. They garrisoned conquered territory with foreign soldiers and thereby maintained a very effective Leviathan (in respect to the T. Barnett reference) of both the mobility and number of their native (and quite superior) forces.

    Was Machiavelli (or is Barnett) cold blooded? Or were/are both unapologetic realists? Would an isolationist agenda really benefit America? The general assumption seems to be that in light of an erasure of American Hegemony the world will simply dwindle on in a comfortable, early post-Westphalian existence where no other nation state would rise to take advantage of the recent hegemonic vacuum left behind should America decide to simply pack it’s f-22’s and wandering Special Forces into a knapsack, click it’s collective Nikes together and head home.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand most of your comment. I thought “unapologetic realists” were typically pretty cold-blooded, the opposite of idealists and romantics. If I understand you to be posing a duality of “realists” and “isolationists”, that is imo bizarre — childishly simplistic. Any college sophmore could devise at least a two-dimensional strategy matrix (i.e., four boxes).

  5. ” click it’s collective Nikes together…”
    A)Nike : (noun)
    1) an athletic shoe
    2) a missile

    Very droll Wizard-of-Oz reference. Considering the price of Nike missiles, they might as well be made out of solid rubies…

    B) If the USA could withdraw some of its global aspirations — e.g. if it decided it would not interfere with Iran, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan — it could retain its support of Japan (and Taiwan) and engage in humanitarian support of Africa and South America.

    If the USA could trust Europe to defend itself militarily, and withdraw from Europe, it could focus on defending just 75% of the planet, not 99% of it.

    C) I think it’s misleading to call Barnett “cold-blooded” if he believes he’s telling the truth. He is a warmly enthusiastic salesman, selling a doctrine that benefits some very cold-blooded folks (e.g. David H. Brooks, who profiteers from shoddy body armor). If Barnett is accepting kickbacks from defense contractors to preach something he secretly thinks to be false, *then* he’s cold-blooded.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It says much about 21st century America that so many people see “cold blooded” as a derogatory reference in geopolitics. Propably for most of western history — or perhaps most of human history — I suspect it would be considered just good sense.

  6. sir i am a cameroonian , with born desire to serve as army in the united nation.sir but i have no means to join , so for this reason i am willing to join the Israel foreign legion.
    thanks
    bate

  7. Both France and Britain were unapologetic Empires. Recruiting a foreign legion is a fine idea if we wish to run an Empire. We will also need a colonial service, which we do not currently have. The members of this service must be enthusiastic about leaving the US and never coming back. Given Americans’ disinterest in foreign affairs and lack of desire to even visit overseas, let alone live there, I doubt there is much danger of this actually happening.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: If we wanted those things, I doubt we’d have any difficulty building a Legion and Colonial Service. There are many ambitious middle class young people willing to seek their fortune abroad. The problem is that we have a unprofitable empire, hence offering no equivalent of the East India Company for colonial administrators and soldiers.

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