Training Ukrainian Troops in the US Part of a Long History of Military Advising as Foreign PolicyRoundup
tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine
Syrus Jin is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Chicago. He specializes in the history of U.S. military advising, U.S.-East Asian relations and the influence of race and culture on foreign policy.
On Jan. 10, the Pentagon announced that it would begin training Ukrainian soldiers on the Patriot missile system at Fort Sill, Okla., representing the latest high-water mark of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. The move complements President Biden’s decision last month to begin the transfer of the missile defense system, which Kyiv has long lobbied for.
But history reveals the move is even more significant than that — it’s a true inflection point in the American relationship with Ukraine, even though the United States has deployed advisers abroad for years to train Ukrainian forces.
Dating to the 1950s, the American government has brought foreign soldiers to train in the United States to achieve practical military objectives. But it has also had far more grandiose objectives for such programs, aiming to shape the next generation of foreign political and military leaders, as well as ensuring U.S. influence abroad. The results have been mixed, in part because this training has also often heightened foreign expectations for U.S. military aid, which don’t always match American political realities. The Ukrainian soldiers headed to Oklahoma, therefore, are merely the latest actors in a decades-long production of U.S. global military assistance, and they signal that the American commitment to Ukraine will only deepen in the years to come.
Non-Americans have attended and graduated from U.S. military schools since the 19th century, but the system of international military training as we know it today is rooted in the American response to the Korean War.
Faced with the need to rapidly rebuild a South Korean military shattered by the opening months of the conflict, the U.S. government paid for thousands of South Korean soldiers to receive advanced training and education in the United States, referred to as Zone of the Interior (ZI) training. U.S. officials hoped that these soldiers and officers would become a nucleus of military professionalism and technical expertise, who could dramatically help improve South Korean military performance.
U.S. officials reasoned that slotting these trainees into preexisting American institutions could produce better soldiers than those educated at either U.S. training grounds overseas or at the relatively underdeveloped academies of their own countries. Additionally, the U.S. government saw an added bonus to ZI training. It presented an opportunity to encourage friendships between ordinary Americans and foreign trainees, and to expose foreign soldiers to positive features of the American way of life.