Blogs > Cliopatria > An American Foreign Legion for Iraq

Jul 15, 2005 2:59 pm


An American Foreign Legion for Iraq



The United States needs to invite Mexicans to enlist in its Armed Forces, in exchange for American citizenship. This is much better than the alternatives of either a draft, or abandoning parts or all of Iraq to become the next Afghanistan.

Around the world, tens of millions of young men and women yearn to migrate to the United States. Surely many thousands of them will make suitable recruits. The most logical nationals to supply distinct units in a new American Foreign Legion are Mexicans.

The U.S. has precedents of inviting foreigners to American service and citizenship. Some of these were already legally resident in the U.S., such as Irishmen in our country’s first century of warfare. Others started their service before setting foot in the United States, such as Filipinos fighting under Douglas MacArthur in the Second World War.

Eight years ago in Brussels, I met an old Belgian who regretted turning down a similar offer. After years of CIA service dating from the Nazi occupation to the early Cold War, he could not bring himself to renounce his loyalty to the Belgian crown. “I should have,” regretted the towering ninety-year-old as he shook his beret-capped head. “I should have.”

Foreign recruiting and deployment will be swiftest and most fruitful if focused on one or two countries. The new citizen-soldiers must form their own Spanish-speaking units, including bilingual English speakers.

The American Foreign Legion will have to be recruited abroad. Current illegal immigrants have already risked their lives once (at least). Most of them will not want to risk deportation by presenting themselves but then failing recruitment criteria.

The concept of a Foreign Legion is an old one. When the British shaped Iraq in the 1920s, they used a host of imperial troops from India and elsewhere. Those troops were not exactly foreign to Britain, but neither were they full British nationals before their service. The French Foreign Legion has operated similarly.

The obvious host to pilot the American Foreign Legion is the U.S. Army, because of the nature of manpower needs in Iraq. The Army will have to go bilingual.

Spanish is the obvious second language to adopt. Among Spanish-speaking countries, Mexico is the obvious first partner. Although the servicemen and -women will join as individuals, their home country will have to tolerate a certain degree of American recruiting on its soil. Many Mexican-Americans already serve in the U.S. forces, and Mexico is eager to facilitate migration to America.

To ensure quality recruits, the U.S. Army must administer basic literacy and math competency exams. For recruits lacking in education, intelligence exams can reveal which are most capable of the requisite quick schooling. In the developing world, many very intelligent individuals simply do not have access to rudimentary education. The American Foreign Legion can provide it.

To ensure committed recruits, the Army must psychologically screen candidates for their backgrounds and motivations. The last thing the U.S. needs is to deploy duty-shy soldiers who later fight for drug lords or other causes opposing our own.

To lure the best possible recruits, the U.S. Congress must pass legislation guaranteeing irrevocable citizenship to those who sign on, with the sole exception of conviction for desertion. Recruitment contracts must be straightforward, with no stop-loss clauses or the like – fixed-term contracts that any recruit’s peasant family can understand.

To guarantee full-length service, the Army must keep the foreign recruits abroad for the duration of their service. Under current federal tolerance of illegal immigrants, it would be too easy for foreign recruits to abuse the American Foreign Legion as a ticket to U.S. entry followed by desertion.

To instill the greatest pride among its new recruits, the United States should administer the oath of citizenship upon completion of basic training.

Legions of would-be migrants are knocking at America’s door. We can help them and ourselves by making a place for them in the U.S. Armed Forces.



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Tomas Kaldor - 7/19/2005

When I served in the US Armed Forces, I met people who, as foreigners, had joined the US military precisely because it put them to the head of the immigration line. And that was at the height of the Vietnam War. So I don't think that what is proposed is entirely unprecedented.

The FFL provides an interesting model, though not always one that should be emulated. It is no secret that the FFL recruits foreign criminals, even providing them with new identities. It was also officered by St. Cyr graduates, not a group with the strongest attachment to democracy.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

I should have googled "American foreign legion" before writing this piece. It turns out there is legislation filed in the Senate for a more restricted version than what I propose. Max Boot at the LA Times on Saturday proposes something more open.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

I can't think of many modern examples of foreign legions to start with, and none where the citizen-soldiers were completely free of the sorts of violations committed by foreign legion forces.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

No, and you lean on a logical fallacy. By staying and preventing (more) chaos, we can prevent (reduce) the conditions under which the ruthless thrive.

Our government is not ruthless in the fashion of would-be Timothy McVeighs, and yet it reigns supreme here.


David Silbey - 7/18/2005

"But the current military leadership does not see the WWII military as a good model, and if judged by the prowess of each soldier as a warfighter, they are right."

There's also an assumption about casualty rates built in to the above--that casualty rates are comparatively low enough that a smaller professional force won't be wiped out quickly. The British Expeditionary Force of World War I were--soldier for soldier--better trained and more professional than the other armies they were fighting in 1914, but the casualty rates were so high that the BEF essentially ceased to exist (as a professional army) by early 1915.


David Timothy Beito - 7/18/2005

Perhpas but can we (should we) be more ruthless than the terrorists in Iraq?


Oscar Chamberlain - 7/18/2005

"OK, but 3-4 years got the job done in World War II"

If judged by whether or not we have maintained the proper balance between a civilian society and military necessity, the WWII model is excellent. But the current military leadership does not see the WWII military as a good model, and if judged by the prowess of each soldier as a warfighter, they are right.

Of course, as someone I read recently pointed out, it is only in the era of the current volunteer army that we have begun celebrating American soldiers primarily or even solely as war fighters.


Alan Allport - 7/18/2005

I don't think you mean to imply that all third-world legionnaires are prone to such atrocities.

I think I do, actually. Can you produce a counterexample, a FFL-type force that has done successful counter-insurgency work while not violating the conventional rules of war? This is a genuine question - perhaps there is such an example. It's just that I can't think of one.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

That wasn't clear. I mean, I think we need more recruits than we're likely to find among those who speak sufficient English.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

In an ideal world, I'd prefer it, too, but for language problems when we're talking about the manpower gaps presently facing us.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

OK, but 3-4 years got the job done in World War II, and that generation was phased out of the military before Cold War re-staffing started around 1948-49.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

I don't think you mean to imply that all third-world legionnaires are prone to such atrocities. I'm optimistic in believing there are ways to screen applicants to have as much concern for human rights as do we in the developed world.


Jeff Vanke - 7/18/2005

Points well taken. We can't let ourselves be the whipping boy. However, we do still enjoy the approval of a substantial portion of Iraqis. I tried to find a Pew poll from months or more along those lines, but couldn't track it down.

Vietnam is not the only analogy. Others are Russia 1917, and Iran 1979. In chaotic times, it is sometimes the most ruthless who win; chaos may even tip the scales in favor of their victory. Our help for the moderates might go a long way.


Oscar Chamberlain - 7/17/2005

I for one am very happy that they are intermingled, for a wide range of reasons.


mark safranski - 7/17/2005

Having a monoethnic foreign legion would seem to be less wise ( and less skillful) than taking the cream of the crop from a large number of nations.

The Marines have something over 7000 foreign nationals currently enlisted and there are 31,000 foreigners enlisted in all the services combined. They just aren't gathered into any kind of a distinctive unit. Most seem motivated to gain American citizenship.

These figures, (from the WSJ apr. 4 2003), actually surpassed my expectations.


Alan Allport - 7/17/2005

On average, I'd agree that armies composed of citizen-soldiers volunteering in the face of danger would tend to be more loyal than mercenaries but when your regulars are citizens who are also soldiers by profession, then the psychological gap between the mindset of regulars and mercenaries narrows.

If you're saying that there would be little difference in political reliability between American citizens who had enlisted in their country's army for professional and/or patriotic reasons, and Mexican immigrants who had enlisted in an overseas legion for the expedience of gaining citizenship papers, I think that's flatly unrealistic.


mark safranski - 7/17/2005

"It's not clear to me that a comparison with another notoriously disloyal unit of soldiers makes the case any better for peregrines. Foreign auxiliaries and the Praetorians were equally unreliable at the end of the Empire - it's just that the latter, based in Rome, were in a better position to execute coups."

No, it is that you are operating on an assumption that regular units are inherently more loyal than mercenaries which I'm quite sure is not the case with the Romans and remains arguable with the French.

On average, I'd agree that armies composed of citizen-soldiers volunteering in the face of danger would tend to be more loyal than mercenaries but when your regulars are citizens who are also soldiers by profession, then the psychological gap between the mindset of regulars and mercenaries narrows.


Oscar Chamberlain - 7/17/2005

2-3 years is woefully insufficient. If one really wants a serious fighting force, on par with the current one, that force needs lifers as a significant percentage of its total. That means the soldiers in it need opportunities for advancement, too.

If kept as a segregated force, it will need constant wars, too.


Alan Allport - 7/17/2005

France had a number of coups and attempted coups since 1789 and only the Algerian debacle, which was closer to civil war than insurrection, involved the legion. Even then the Legion paras had backers in metropolitan France.

Partly true, I suppose, though (a) I'm not sure that taking this argument as far back as 1789 really elucidates matters, and (b) the FFL is comparatively tiny and until 1962 was based in North Africa and other peripheral points of empire - hence its involvement in great metropolitan events was always going to be conditional. But I don't think it's accidental that it was FFL paratroopers playing the key role in April 1961, and the fact that other French units were also disloyal hardly cancels this out (just because peregrines are temperamentally more unreliable than regulars doesn't mean that all regulars are therefore reliable).

As for the Romans, who caused more assassinations and changes of Emperor - the Gothic Auxillaries or the Praetorian Guard ?

It's not clear to me that a comparison with another notoriously disloyal unit of soldiers makes the case any better for peregrines. Foreign auxiliaries and the Praetorians were equally unreliable at the end of the Empire - it's just that the latter, based in Rome, were in a better position to execute coups.

Machiavelli was strongly disposed against mercenary companies but Renaissance Italy suffered uncontrolled companies of freebooters, not units within a disciplined regular standing army.

The FFL was not an uncontrolled company of freebooters, but that didn't make it any less disloyal at a moment of crisis. To say that an American Foreign Legion would be different because it would be part of a 'disciplined' army is simply question-begging.


mark safranski - 7/17/2005

Alan Allport wrote:

"Actually, given the FFL's role in the putsch attempts against the French government in 1960 and 1961, I would say that it's an excellent example of why peregine mercenaries are a bad idea - like their Roman predecessors "

France had a number of coups and attempted coups since 1789 and only the Algerian debacle, which was closer to civil war than insurrection, involved the legion. Even then the Legion paras had backers in metropolitan France.

As for the Romans, who caused more assassinations and changes of Emperor - the Gothic Auxillaries or the Praetorian Guard ?

Machiavelli was strongly disposed against mercenary companies but Renaissance Italy suffered uncontrolled companies of freebooters, not units within a disciplined regular standing army.


Alan Allport - 7/17/2005

These wouldn't be lifelong mercenaries. They'd be citizens on a fixed term of service, say 2-3 years.

Not sure why this would be such a unique characteristic - the term of service in the FFL is 5 years, and the legionnaire can request French naturalization after 3 (see http://www.info-france-usa.org/atoz/legion/index.asp).

It also occurs to me that the FFL's gruesome fighting record in Indochina and Algeria (with torture and summary execution of suspected insurgents a routine exercise in the field) hardly recomends another peregrine auxiliary force for the delicate quasi-policing role of a guerrilla campaign like Iraq.


David Timothy Beito - 7/17/2005

I am dubious that the argument that we should stick it out in Iraq is any more persuasive than the same argument (circa 1968) that we should stay the course in Vietnam.

In fact, I suspect the opposite is true and that sticking around will do more harm than good. While I think that the goal of a unified/democratic Iraq is pretty much a pipe dream, if that goal has any chance of success the prospects may improve if the Iraqis have to sink or swim now rather than later. If we stick around, they are likely to become even more dependent, and resentful, of us.

One possible analogy is Clinton's welfare reform in the 1990s. This "cold turkey" aspect of time limits finally prodded many dependents to stand on their own because they knew that the onus was on them. Similarly. The Iraqis need to know that they have to step to the plate and only a time limit on U.S. troops will do that.


Jeff Vanke - 7/17/2005

These wouldn't be lifelong mercenaries. They'd be citizens on a fixed term of service, say 2-3 years.


Alan Allport - 7/16/2005

The French Foreign Legion has worked rather well.

Actually, given the FFL's role in the putsch attempts against the French government in 1960 and 1961, I would say that it's an excellent example of why peregine mercenaries are a bad idea - like their Roman predecessors, there's an ever-present danger that their ultimate allegiance is to their commanders rather than to the states that they ostensibly serve.


mark safranski - 7/16/2005

The Hessians were highly trained, professional soldiers sent by their soveriegn much the way governments send expeditionary forces. They were not goofballs answering ads out of a colonial version of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

The French Foreign Legion has worked rather well. There's no reason to think that an American Foreign Legion would not though my preference would be to recruit experienced veterans of elite units from NATO countries over untrained campesinos from the Yucatan.

http://zenpundit.blogspot.com/


Louis N Proyect - 7/16/2005

I think a much better idea would be to require all Senators and Congressmen to send military-age sons and daughters to fight in these imperialist adventures if they vote for them. If this were the case, Washington's admonition would be heeded for sure.


Alan Allport - 7/16/2005

In response to Allport: Soldiers' effectiveness depends very much on how committed they are to the cause.

I'm not sure that it's nearly as clear-cut as that. There are several theories of combat motivation (discussed recently in, for example, John Lynn's fascinating book Battle: A History of Combat and Culture), and ideological adherence to "the cause" is only one of them, and not necessarily the most important.

You perhaps underestimate the pride and sense of belonging that immigrants feel when they acquire American citizenship.

Perhaps I do. But even if that's the case, I'm not convinced that it necessarily has anything to do with their effectiveness as contracted mercenaries (which is more or less what these folks would be until mustering out).


Jeff Vanke - 7/16/2005

In response to Allport: Soldiers' effectiveness depends very much on how committed they are to the cause. You perhaps underestimate the pride and sense of belonging that immigrants feel when they acquire American citizenship.


Jeff Vanke - 7/16/2005

If no Mexicans are interested, that's fine. Many of them seem willing to risk death coming here through other means.

Your satirization is as offensive as it would be if you suggested sending dead American soldiers to starving Mexicans.

I'd be willing to guess that you and others very opposed to my idea also want a quick timetable out of Iraq; now that the mess has been made in our name (be sure most Iraqis make little distinction between Bush and Nader), I think we have a moral obligation to tend to it. It's a little too facile to retreat to some version of Washington's admonition to avoid foreign entanglements.


Jeff Vanke - 7/16/2005

Some of Richardson's visceral objections I share, at least viscerally.

However, they seem fundamentally nationalistic, insofar as they deny choice to individuals who may want to transcend nation-state lines, for whatever reason. They also seem paternalistic, in fearing that others might -- with full information available -- choose what you or someone else thinks might not be best for them.


Jeff Vanke - 7/16/2005

I opposed the initial invasion of Iraq. But we have put ourselves and Iraq (if its parliament chooses) in a position where our continued presence is best for the security of both.

If there is an alternative for keeping Iraq from becoming another pre-9/11 Afghanistan, I'd be glad to give it some thought.


David Timothy Beito - 7/15/2005

On this point, the parallels to the Roman Empire of "foreign legion" are to say the least troubling. A better alternative is to bring the troops home and emphasize national defense rather than world policing.


Louis N Proyect - 7/15/2005

In the spirit of Jeff Vanke's proposal, why not cook and feed dead Mexican soldiers to the hungry in Mexico, thereby killing two birds with one stone?


Alan Allport - 7/15/2005

Leaving aside other problems with this idea ... if you're going to recruit peregrine auxiliaries on the Roman model, then surely the reward of citizenship after successful completion of the term of service makes more sense. After all, if this American Foreign Legion is going to be quarantined offshore, what practical difference does it make whether or not its members are citizens during rather than after their demobilisation?


Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2005

On David's last point, I continue to be astonished that we can pretend to be serious about a "war on terror" that has no obligation to sustain it with increased taxes nor a draft to people it. There's plenty of evidence that we are nearing a point of having exhausted voluntary reserves of military capacity without having put enough troops on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq to win a sustainable victory.


David J Merkowitz - 7/15/2005

The U.S. did a fair bit of recruiting during World War I to get Italians to join the AEF. In fact, my fiance's family can trace their American lineage to just such an event. On the value of Jeff's idea, it couldn't hurt, but I'd rather see us work on the culture here in the U.S. to make service in the Armed Forces more desirable.


Christopher Richardson - 7/15/2005

Having poor immigrants earn their citizenship by fighting our wars troubles me. First and foremost, it sends a message of sheer desperation on our part. Second, its like we are basically paying mercenaries (a la German Hessians) to do our dirty work. Ultimately, if this war or any war is worth fighting, then everyday citizens should be willing to take up arms and fight it.

One of the restraints of America's war making is that it is our sons and daughters who must bear the cost and sacrifice. By hiring poor immigrants to do our dirty work, you take away America's restraints in waging war. We could hire tons of poor immigrants to fight our wars while not having to sacrifice much in our own lives.

While it is true that illegal immigrants have put their lives on the line in Iraq and throughout our history, to dangle the promise of citizenship for a willingness to fight and die seems to separate us from those values we are fighting to uphold.

Lastly, it demeans the lives of these poor immigrants. Imagine, we will not draft our own because their lives are too "precious" or its politically "unwise" but we will take the poor sons and daughters of Mexico, China, Africa, and various other nations. Also, the language barriers would be incredible.

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