Saturday, August 21, 2010

I have good news. And bad news.

[Effect of don't-ask-don't-tell policy on military uniforms]

I saw Vice-President Joe Biden on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno a few weeks ago. Biden had just returned from Iraq. He said the troops are fine people, excellent soldiers, that they are doing a good job, are being successful, and that morale is high. So that was good news.

Of a sort. It is hard to imagine him having said otherwise on national television, no matter what the actual situation is. So his remarks were not exactly chock full of new and valuable information.

Until he got to the patriotic moment. The Vice-President described attending a ceremony in Baghdad in which an auditorium full of soldiers were sworn in as citizens. Our soldiers. The Vice-President was very proud of these new Americans whom he claimed had enlisted out of patriotic feelings for a country not theirs. Nobody even laughed when he said it, which was very polite.

Which means that they had joined the army, gone through basic training and certainly other trainings as well, and been shipped to Iraq to engage in combat operations on behalf of the United States. Which, until after the ceremony, was not their country.

Why would someone fight for a country not his own? We have the answer in our history. The Hessians were German mercenaries who fought in the British army during the American Revolutionary War. Nothing about them suggests they fought for any reason but pay. Even the possibility that they fought out of obedience to their sovereign, the Prince of Hesse, who had sold them is belied by the end of the war. Many Hessians stayed on in the "enemy" country when they saw how good life was in the new United States and how easy it was to get good land on the frontier. Many had fought to get money for a small farm in Hesse and found that for the same money they could get an enormous farm in Pennsylvania.

We have an even better example in the later history of Rome. The empire gave land and Roman citizenship to non-Romans, often to the very barbarians they were fighting, to get them to defend the shrinking imperial frontiers against the next wave of barbarians coming behind them. Citizenship was part of the pay packet.

Joining the American army has several benefits to immigrants. It provides a job and a salary to send as immigrant remittances to one's family back home. It prevents immediate deportation if one is already in the country. And once a citizen it prevent eventual deportation. If one has dependents, a spouse and minor children, it gets them into the US if they want to come. And there are veterans' benefits when one's hitch is over - college tuition, medical care, veterans' preferences in government hiring.

There are benefits to the army as well. There is a larger, much larger, pool of young people to put in the field. Though Mexico and its burgeoning population comes first to mind, there is no reason for immigrant soldiers to come only from there. So long as America remains among the wealthiest countries in the world its citizenship will be a prized commodity in poor countries, one worth taking even serious risks to get.

The nifty thing about non-citizen soldiers is that neither they nor their parents vote for, and certainly not against, the government that sends them to war. They are politically expendable. If a general could achieve a military objective only at cost of horrendous casualties, if the kids she sends to their deaths have no congresswoman to write to, then why shouldn't she do it? So the military command finds greater freedom and flexibility in its operations.

And for sure, the folks on the home front who can vote and yell at their congresswomen, will feel the same. If our mercenaries are killed, our reaction will be sympathy, but not horror. "Well, they knew the risks." we will say, shaking our heads but not the least moved to do anything about it. Or even to want to.

The problem is the inevitable reciprocity. If we feel no loyalty to them, what loyalty will they feel to us? Not having grown up immersed in our culture and symbols, why would they be loyal to a President and Congress whom they did not elect and who does not represent even their actual country. Why wouldn't they be loyal instead to their own officers? How long would it be before some charismatic general led his immigrant troops not to Baghdad but to Washington?

One thinks not only of the Praetorian Guards but also, of Napoleon, of Cromwell, of Franco, of Mussolini, the Greek junta, Pinochet, Nasser. Military coups are caused by civilian political weakness. Popular governments are not overthrown, unpopular ones are. But if the government means nothing to the foreign mercenaries, any government is unpopular with them by the very fact of the relationship.

The necessary flip side of them not being our soldiers, is that Washington is not their government and we are not their countrymen.

But even with that warning, it is not entirely a bad thing. The United States, like most rich countries, has an aging population. The cause of it is falling birthrates. The American solution is to permit extensive immigration of generally younger people both for absolute numbers and to bolster birth rate. We need young immigrants to keep our economy producing goods and services for old native-borns to consume, and to pay taxes for our pensions. Now it seems we need them also to defend our borders at home and our interests abroad (as one euphemizes neo-imperialist power).

Moreover immigrants for whom military service is part of their assimilation into American society are well served by it and so are we. They learn English and American mores. They learn to feel part of something American.

So the question is finally, where are non-citizen soldiers recruited and where do they wind up after they serve? If they are recruited here and end up here then we benefit and they benefit. They enter the forces intending to become Americans. They have the same interests in prospect that we have. One does not f**k up a house one intends to live in.

But if they are recruited in Hesse and expect to go back to Hesse then they are not part of our body politic. They would then be people we exploit at will and who would be equally indifferent to us.

Given that, paying with citizenship is not such a bad idea at all. It makes for loyal troops who look forward to being Americans. It still gives commanding officers the opportunity to throw away their lives with impunity because their parents still aren't citizens. And it gives illegals the fabled but seldom seen "alternate path" to citizenship.

What a mess.



  1. David Pelfrey10:39 PM

    Hello Jack,

    You are probably correct regarding the Hessians; however, the situation with what passed for the German states during our revolution was complicated by George III, a Hanoverian King from the House of Brunswick, also being the Sovereign Head of State of Hanover (he was the Elector of Hanover at the time). The Hessian Head of State was also an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire.

    As it not surprisingly turns out, the wife of the Elector of Hesse-Kassel during the American Revolution was Wilhelmina Caroline of Denmark (1747-1820). She herself was the daughter of Louise of Great Britain (1724-1751), who herself was a daughter of King George II (also Elector of Hanover). That the Kings of England were also German princes at the time is often half-remembered.

    Nevertheless, the good subjects of Hanover certainly sought to subsidize Hessian regiments rather than raise their own.

  2. Anonymous5:23 AM

    Only a complete ignoramus would not know that the Georgian Kings were German. What a stupid and unnecessary post.

  3. Hi Anonymous,
    And only an incomplete ignoramus would not know that they were Hanoverian and had only loose dynastic relations with Hesse.

    But then that is Anonymous/Christy/Abood all over isn't it? To be insulting while stupid, ignorant, and wrong?

  4. Anonymous4:46 AM

    Free Guiseppe..he`s an innocent man!!