Rome Redux: US to consider recruiting foreign troops

According to an article in the Boston Globe the US military is considering opening recruiting stations abroad as a way to expand the army strength. New recruits would be offered expedited citizenship as an incentive. This is significantly different than what we currently do in offering resident aliens the ability to gain fast-track citizenship — this involves actually establishing recruiting centers in foreign countries.

This was once an effective strategy of Imperial Rome, though it ultimately paved the way for the collapse of the Western Empire.

From the Globe:” Foreign citizens serving in the US military is a highly charged issue, which could expose the Pentagon to criticism that it is essentially using mercenaries to defend the country. Other analysts voice concern that a large contingent of non-citizens under arms could jeopardize national security or reflect badly on Americans’ willingness to serve in uniform.”

The benefit foreseen by the US military is the same as what impelled Rome to this strategy: to increase the size of an army that had become globally overstretched at the same time that Roman citizens were no longer interested in a military career.

The first step toward this was taken near the end of the Roman Republic, when Marius (107 BC) developed a professional army that recruited from the poor and landless of Rome. Before that, the Republic drafted citizens (who possessed a minimum amount of property) as was needed for what were seen as defensive wars. Marius’ reforms created an army that was more beholden to the commander than to the Republic, and it set in motion a series of civil wars that culminated in Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic. The Republic by that time had become an oligarchic state dominated by the wealthiest families, who had prospered from the Roman global conquests that began with the Punic Wars.

This concentration of wealth had created a large underclass of poor Romans who had lost their land as the wealthy had assembled huge plantations worked by slave labor. These were the people who formed backbone of the professional armies. This process also created a huge disconnect between the ordinary citizen and the oligarchic government that no longer needed them in the army, leaving the Senate free to conduct wars for wealth, rather than for defence. This led directly to the fall of the Senatorial Republic.

With the Imperium (actually beginning with the conquest of Celtic Gaul by Caesar and of the Greek East by Pompey), increased conquest led to the need for a larger army. This led to the recruitment of “barbarian” — primarily Celtic (Gaul and Britain) and German — soldiers. One could say that the army was changing from “professional” to “mercenary”. Enlistment in the legions led to citizenship, which was a great benefit. The soldiers were given land after their retirement, and their families were considered full Roman citizens.

By the time of the late Empire of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), the bulk of the legions consisted of what had formerly been considered barbarians, foreigners. The Romans per se were no longer defending themselves, and some of the German chieftains-turned-generals began to realize that they had the ability to take control of the State without the intermediary of the Roman Emperor. This happened in the Western Empire in the fifth century.

The history of the Roman Republic and Empire presents an object lesson of how the character of the army both reflects and creates the character of the State. When people feel they have little stake in the government and nation, they are less willing to serve in the military. As the military becomes “professionalized” and more distant from the citizenry, the government needs to be even less responsive to the citizens, and a vicious cycle is formed, leading in time to the army becoming itself the government.

For Americans the point becomes: when does the army and its commanders no longer need the citizenry? The beauty of history is it lends perspective to a present that we may not be able to view objectively.

The Roman Republic essentially died with the assassinations of Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, who had tried to redistribute land to the poor citizens. Soon after their murders came a six decade period of Civil War culminating in Caesar. The murder of these tribunes set a precedent where assassination could be used to change the government — or to prevent reform.

Even during the Civil Wars, the form of the Republic was still in place. In fact Augustus was very careful to maintain the forms even after establishing the Imperium. To what degree are we now only maintaining the form of Democracy and Republic in our own time? How will we be able to know that if we have no historical perspective?

The question now is: will the Congressional Democrats oppose this foreign recruitment? I can hear the spin over the next couple of years about how this is a good idea (envision Tom Friedman writing….): this will broaden our franchise, bring in the best people from overseas, the people who are willing to fight for freedom and opportunity…….can’t you hear all the crap? Frankly, I would trust a Libertarian more in opposing this than I would trust about half of the Democrats.

Just like the feel-good spin when they ended the draft to create a “volunteer” army….everyone was for that even though it was obvious why Nixon and the army wanted the draft ended — so there would be no more war protests. Nixon ended the draft precisely in order to allow the government to engage in “wars of choice” without there being the kind of protest that took place over Viet Nam. His logic was correct, and there has been no effective protest against any military action since the draft ended. Imagine what would be happening on college campuses now if draftees were going to Iraq.

First the draft was ended and a professional army created, then in Iraq the gov’t initiated the use of contracted mercenaries (Halliburton, DynCorp, Aegis et al), and now they are looking for foreign recruits. It all makes perfect sense, if one wants to wage unaccountable war. Recruiting troops abroad is one more perilous step in ending the American tradition of a citizen army.

Where the US is in this process is interesting to contemplate, and Rome offers an example of a road we do hope not to follow. This issue of foreign recruitment will be one more milestone by which we will know we are losing our Republic, if it comes to pass.