March 1, 2007  

We should defend ourselves

Between an already shrunken military, the requirements of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public’s perception that the war in Iraq is not going well and a healthy domestic economy, the question of how to fill the uniformed ranks is unlikely to go away soon. An additional contingency would dangerously stretch U.S. ground forces, exposing serious personnel shortfalls, readiness problems and worse. The Bush administration’s modest proposals to increase the size of the Army and Marines will spur the search for ideas about how best to build and keep an appropriate-sized force.

A spate of articles in the media in late 2006 reported that the Defense Department is considering plans to offer foreign nationals citizenship in exchange for service in the U.S. military. Although such an inducement would likely bring in recruits and thus relieve the immediate problem, the long-term consequences of shifting the burden of combat to foreigners — even ones who had been promised U.S. citizenship in return for their sacrifice — are profound.

War routinely changes society. Big wars produce the biggest changes. The dramatically increased size and scope of the federal government along with citizens’ equally exalted expectations of it followed the two great world wars of the 20th century’s first half.

Smaller conflicts can also generate important changes in society. Popular opposition to the Vietnam War killed the draft. Its replacement, the all-volunteer force, produced a better-educated and more skilled, capable military. But the volunteer force also helped weaken the idea of the personal obligation of U.S. citizenship. It helped separate the military from society as demonstrated by the dearth of current political leadership with military experience. It resulted in educational stratification among the officer ranks: 200 Harvard students were commissioned at graduation in 1955, seven began their military service at graduation ceremonies half a century later.

Now another small war is linked to recruiting problems. Unlike the end of the draft, the possible exchange of U.S. citizenship for military service would have small effect on Americans’ sense of their personal duty to the nation. But instituting such a trade as national policy would have a powerful and pervasive effect on the nation’s sense of responsibility for defending itself. With youngsters lining up in foreign capitals to exchange service in the U.S. military for the promise of citizenship, it will become harder and harder to resist peopling America’s armed forces with what would correctly be called foreign mercenaries. As the burden of serving and fighting shifts to those who have no or few ties to American communities — and no voice in the policies that determine their service — the U.S. military would drift further from the people it defends. And the people America’s armed force defends would drift further from the idea that they are responsible for defending themselves.

The companion article to this one — in which Max Boot and Michael O’Hanlon advocate granting citizenship to foreign enlistees following military service — argues that recruiting foreign youth would provide infusions of language and cultural skills that are needed in the war against jihadists. Such infusions are desirable and necessary. But there are other less drastic, more practical, lower-cost ways to achieve the same result. In the U.S. today live just under a million Arabic and Persian-language speakers. There are about 3.5 million Americans of Arab descent — of whom the Lebanese make up the largest single group — and significant Arab-speaking communities in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York. Persian speakers abound in the Los Angeles area. Concentrated recruiting efforts in these areas would not only expand the pool of languages required for more successful prosecution of the war against jihadists, it would strengthen ties between local community and the nation — the opposite effect of what the proposal to ask non-Americans to defend the U.S. would likely produce.

The authors of the opposing piece are right to worry about the morality of asking others to fight for us. Boot and O’Hanlon try to dismiss the problem by blurring the distinction between foreign nationals who work for the U.S. and uniformed members of the U.S. armed forces.

This misses the mark widely, as the authors implicitly acknowledge in noting that foreign contractors are not under military discipline. The same confusion occurs in their effort to equate military service with the risks run by previous generations of immigrants who built railroads and skyscrapers. Foreign nationals who work for the U.S. abroad and those who found jobs building America’s infrastructure did not serve under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Their employment and citizenship were not based on the understanding that they would go in harm’s way. Their contractual agreement can and could be terminated at will.

Focusing on apparent similarities between the risks of civilian workers and military personnel sidesteps the important difference: obligation. Boot and O’Hanlon are diffident about obligation. They praise the military path to citizenship as a “new option” rather than an obligation.

This skeptical view of obligation is the essence of their proposal. It helps relieve Americans of the obligation to defend themselves, and, in doing so, would expose our armed forces to deserved contempt from both allies and potential enemies. Since neither recruits nor their parents would be citizens, the policy would help detach political leadership from the political consequences of using armed force. This in turn would discourage serious deliberation before using force as an instrument of policy. Filling the junior ranks with young foreign nationals would also create the unhelpful appearance of division between officers and enlisted. In the immediate future the exchange of citizenship for military service probably would help fill the ranks, but the long-term harm is surely greater than the short-term benefit.

Boot and O’Hanlon are on unshakeable ground that this is a land of immigrants. We all came here for freedom and opportunity. These benefits depend on America’s founding ideas and the political institutions that support them. They also depend, importantly, on the spirit of the American people — self-reliant, independent, courageous and willing to accept risk, exactly the qualities that are reinforced in Americans by having to accept responsibility for their own defense. Remove this responsibility and our good qualities will have lost a powerful incentive. America will become less attractive not only to live in, but to move to. It’s a bad idea.