The Army is getting desperate. Having fallen 25 percent short of already reduced recruiting goals last month, it is raising enlistment bonuses to $40,000 in some cases and lowering standards to accept and retain soldiers who would have been turned away in years past. A minor criminal record? No high school diploma? Uncle Sam still wants you.
This way disaster lies -- the undoing of the finest armed forces in U.S. history. But what choice is there? With combat dragging on in Iraq and plenty of jobs available at home, there aren't enough volunteers. So far, a real crisis has been averted only because the Army has exceeded its retention goals and kept some troops in uniform past their discharge dates, but it will only get tougher to keep volunteers in uniform if troops are constantly deployed overseas.
There are two obvious, and obviously wrongheaded, solutions to this problem: Pull out of Iraq now or institute a draft. The former would hand a victory to terrorists and undo everything more than 1,700 Americans have given their lives to achieve. The latter option, aside from being a political nonstarter, would also dilute the high quality of the all-volunteer force.
Having reviewed all the other possibilities and found them wanting, I return to the solution I proposed on this page in February: Broaden the recruiting base beyond U.S. citizens and permanent, legal residents. Legislation has been drafted to make a modest start in that direction.
The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act is targeted at children of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. for more than five years but not born here. They would get legal status and become eligible for citizenship if they graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and either attend college for two years or serve two years in the armed forces. This bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, drew 48 cosponsors in the Senate last year but failed to get a floor vote. It is likely to be reintroduced soon.
The DREAM Act is a great idea, but I would go further and offer citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in the U.S. military. We could model a Freedom Legion after the French Foreign Legion. Or we could allow foreigners to join regular units after a period of English-language instruction, if necessary.
When I first made this suggestion, I got a lot of positive responses but also some scathing critiques. A retired Army sergeant in Houston wrote (expletives deleted): "Are you out of your mind? The last thing we need in our military is a bunch of illegal immigrants serving in combat operations for a country to which they are not culturally bonded." But there is no better way to build that bond than through military training and discipline. Drill sergeants have been forging cohesive units out of disparate elements since the days of the Roman legions.
In the past, the U.S. military had many more foreigners than we do today. (During the Civil War, at least 20 percent were immigrants. Now it's 7 percent.) The British army, among many others, has also made good use of noncitizens. Nepalese Gurkhas still fight and die for the Union Jack despite not being "culturally bonded" to it. No doubt they would do the same for the Stars and Stripes.
Some letter writers invoke the specter of mercenaries leading to the fall of the U.S. as they supposedly led to the fall of Rome. That's a misreading of Roman history. As classicist Victor Davis Hanson points out, by the 1st century AD, the legions "were mostly non-Italian and mercenary, and the empire still endured for nearly another 500 years." If only the Pax Americana were to last half as long.
Other critics think it's repugnant to ask foreigners to face dangers that citizens won't. But there is always some unfairness in war. Unless there is a truly universal draft (we've never had one), some will always be more at risk than others.
Besides, the U.S. already makes ample use of mercenaries. We rely on tens of thousands of contractors in Iraq, Colombia and elsewhere, many of them not Americans. They would be much more useful if they were in uniform and subject to military orders so we could avoid mix-ups like the one that just happened in Iraq, where Marines detained 19 employees of an American engineering firm for allegedly firing on them.
Would foreigners sign up to fight for Uncle Sam? I don't see why not, because so many people are desperate to move here. Serving a few years in the military would seem a small price to pay, and it would establish beyond a doubt they are the kind of motivated, hardworking immigrants we want.
Anyway, what's the alternative? $100,000 signing bonuses? Recruiting felons?
Max Boot is senior fellow of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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