Global Policy Forum

It's Time for an American Foreign Legion


By Wayne Long

International Herald Tribune
March 1, 2006

America's principal ground fighting force is stretched to breaking point. Both the active and reserve components of the U.S. Army have nearly reached their recruiting limits in strength, given attitudes in America. Fighting international terrorism simply does not have the same appeal for the post-Baby Boom generation as fighting fascism did for the generation of World War II. Understanding that the draft was no longer viable in the post-Vietnam era, the army leadership developed the All Volunteer Army in the 1970s in order to meet the defense challenges of the late 20th century, which were mostly short- term conflicts.

This approach served well in Grenada, Panama and the first Gulf War. That same leadership also foresaw future situations involving protracted conflict, and determined that the army would only go into prolonged combat with the National Guard and army reserves fighting alongside the active component. The army felt that this would not only assure that manpower would be available for land warfare contingencies, but also that civilian soldiers would share the sacrifices required, thus giving some pause to the White House prior to making the decision to commit forces to combat.

This arrangement has managed to delay the onset of manpower shortages in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has not resolved the issue, and potential for conflict in Iran or Syria or elsewhere only exacerbates the problem. The United States does not have enough ground troops now, and the pace being set poses a grave risk to the army in terms of both morale and readiness.

Some propose that the United States resolve this problem by simply getting out of both Iraq and Afghanistan unconditionally. But most Americans with any logical strategic perspective of U.S. defense interests know that such a decision would be seen as a victory for international terrorism, bolstering our enemy's image and morale in a major way, enabling them to recruit more volunteers, and encouraging them to strike us again elsewhere. So we must remain committed until Iraq and Afghanistan can shoulder their own internal defense burdens. There can be no repeat of a Vietnam-type face-saving withdrawal in this conflict. The stakes are simply too high.

The good news is that there is a large untapped resource of potential manpower that has not ever been considered by the army: huge numbers of young foreign military age males who have green cards and are eagerly seeking U.S. citizenship, or are awaiting visas in their homelands.

In exchange for U.S. citizenship at end of enlistment, these young men could be vetted and recruited by the army on five-year terms at recruiting stations in the United States and around the world. Placed in their own infantry units, and led by seasoned U.S. citizen officers and noncommissioned officers, they could be trained in the latest techniques of light infantry tactics and counterinsurgent warfare, and appropriately equipped for that mission - forming, in essence, an American Foreign Legion.

Once ready, these Legion units could be folded into the deployment cycle of the all-U.S. units to Southwest Asia, thus easing the strain there. Eventually, this would permit a number of U.S. regular forces to be withdrawn from the deployment cycle and earmarked for other missions. Equal pay and modified benefit issues would have to be worked out, and the overall expense might require some army hi-tech developments to be placed on hold, but that would be a small price to pay for relief of the current problem.

Most Americans would view such a project positively. It is certainly a more attractive and productive measure than the announced waiver policy on criminal records for army recruits. All superpowers, from ancient times to the modern era, have seen their civilian populations grow more and more disinclined to serve in their national defense forces. Inevitably they have all turned to mercenaries to defend their interests, thereby extending their national integrity, their ways of life and their unchallenged supremacy. It is America's turn, and we need to get on with putting such a program in place - now.

Wayne E. Long, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, lives in Nairobi.

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