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The Case for a U.S. Foreign Legion

Eighteen years of war have severely burdened the U.S. Armed Forces and made the American public wary of long-term military commitments. Between the low percentage of citizens who serve and the sense that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been for naught, it is understandable that many in the United States would like their country to play a less active role in global security. But climate change, refugee flows, and other destabilizing events will continue to heighten the risk of conflicts, some of which will require outside intervention to halt. Despite China’s increased military strength, and the ability of some European countries to deploy troops to far-flung locations, the United States is still the country best equipped to intervene in conflicts around the globe, if it so chooses.

Soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, performed a Cordon and Search operation in Al Adhamiya, Iraq, Feb. 21, 2007
Image courtesy of U.S. Army Sergeant Jeffrey Alexander © 2007

In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Sean McFate, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and an expert in security strategy, suggested the United States create a foreign legion, modeled on the famous French Foreign Legion. Recruiting soldiers from around the world, and granting citizenship to the legion’s veterans, as France does, could make a reluctant superpower less averse to help stabilize volatile regions. McFate also advocates the idea in his 2019 book, The New Rules of War, where he describes the French Foreign Legion as “a quick-response force, and an elite one at that,” that enables France to quickly intervene in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.

McFate argues in his book that, while airstrikes can achieve some military objectives, they cannot substitute for “boots on the ground.” Moreover, some observers have raised concerns that airstrikes carry a high risk of civilian casualties, as has happened in Iraq and Syria in the last five years. A 2017 New York Times survey of airstrikes by the U.S.–led anti-ISIS coalition, for example, found “one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Ground troops that the U.S. government is more willing to deploy can help alleviate these concerns.

The United States might also be more willing to deploy a foreign legion to stop genocide. The spring of 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, when 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. In her book, A Problem From Hell, excerpted in the Atlantic in 2001, diplomat and human rights advocate Samantha Power noted that in the first week of the killing, Belgian, French and Italian soldiers arrived to evacuate their countries’ citizens. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian officer commanding United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda, believed that if those troops had been deployed along with the peacekeepers and U.S. Marines in Burundi to confront the Hutu extremists killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus, they may well have curtailed the slaughter.

What if the United States had had a foreign legion in 1994? President Bill Clinton was understandably reluctant to send troops following events in Somalia six months earlier. Two U.S. Army helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, and eighteen soldiers were killed in a firefight with Somali militiamen. U.S. casualties in another African country would have quickly soured the American public on intervention. But with a legion composed of foreigners at his disposal, Clinton may have been willing to use these forces to halt the Rwandan massacre.

A foreign legion could also be part of the solution to bolstering the ranks of the U.S. military when an alarming percentage of young U.S. citizens are unqualified for military service. According to data gathered by the Pentagon in 2017, 71% of Americans ages 17 through 24 are unfit to serve, largely due to criminal history, low educational attainment, and health problems like obesity. In a 2012 TEDx talk, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling even described obesity as a national security threat. Obviously, the United States should tackle these problems, but that will take time. As long as there is a shortage of young people fit to wear the uniform, recruiting fit foreigners will help fill this gap.

Finally, a foreign legion could strengthen the link between citizenship and service in the public eye. During recent debates about the deportation of undocumented immigrants, Americans have learned about the deportations of veterans despite their service, a factor the government is supposed to consider when deciding whether to deport people. Granting citizenship to a new class of people who have served could draw more attention to immigrants’ contributions to the United States, including in uniform.

There is certainly a risk that politicians and commanders will view U.S. legionnaires as expendable. But in an uncertain world, where there is always a risk of conflict, this is a risk worth taking. The alternative for the U.S. government is to continue to place the burden of combat on a small percentage of its citizenry. Bringing in new soldiers can at least spread that burden around.

For the foreseeable future, the world will still need U.S. military power. While there is a danger in an overly militarized foreign policy, there is also a danger in viewing U.S. intervention in too negative a light. A foreign legion would benefit not only the United States but also the world.


Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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  1. Justin Mahwikizi on October 23, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    This is a very bad idea. But to address the premise; if you give the proposed American Legionaires citizenship; would that not make them American?

    The writer views them and refers them as foreigners in the article. This is where contextual projection takes place. In America; we view you as a citizen once you have citizenship.

    It seems the writer either directly still views these as foreigners even after granting them citizenship or is at least implying the French do. Both views are wrong.

    • Pierre on December 23, 2019 at 9:45 am

      The problem is not whether or not they’re Americans, it’s that americans from the mainland cannot become soldier, so you need to recruit more abroad, and, yes, make them Americans later. The point of the author wouldn’t be lost even if he said the US need a foreign legion of americans, to please you. You also didn’t explain why you thought it was a bad idea.

      The legion is considered expandable somewhat in France, yes, but not because they’re “foreigners” (and frankly who in France consider a soldier in the army a foreigner – he does more for the motherland than any of us): more because they signed up for it, can hide their past and must earn their citizenship by spilling blood. Politicians have less issues deploying them, because that’s what they’re here for: to be deployed in the frontlines and die first. They are free to join the polish, nepali or US army in their home countries if they prefer.

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