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An American Military
By Richard Chiu June 7, 2006

In this time of international conflict, which threatens democracies around the world, our nation questions its current ability to meet the military commitments we've undertaken. Even while we struggle to control government spending, our military is increasing financial incentives for enlistment. On the other hand, we've stretched deployments and delayed separation for currently serving soldiers, borrowing from both our near term effectiveness and our long term ability to recruit. There have even been suggestions from legislators that it would be necessary to reinstitute the draft. Such a measure cannot be considered as a serious option. Modern military science has definitively proven that imposing a draft actually decreases a military's long term effectiveness. It reduces the commitment of the soldier in the field, it decreases support for the war at home, it taxes police forces and logistics without providing any significant increase in combat power. But the current shortage of troops requires better solutions than telling ourselves (and the world) that we just can't do it.

I have long seen a fundamental--and unacceptable--irony in the classic phrase so often used in connection with the American military, "We're here to defend democracy, not to practice it." However true those words were when first spoken on the field, however true they remain when oft repeated to new recruits and disillusioned veterans, I do not believe that they need to be true for an American fighting force. When we look at the reasons why our military has difficulty recruiting sufficient numbers of combat troops to meet our military commitments, one point stands out above all others. The current organization of the military is entirely at odds with the American way of life. Most Americans like traveling abroad, many will pay money to subject themselves to privation and danger, but no American likes to be constrained to blindly follow orders. Yet that is the very foundation of our current system of military command.

Our military, like most modern militaries, is heavily based on the Prussian model. Sadly, the demands of war-fighting technology at the time of the American Revolution favored the Prussian model, and its superiority in that conflict seems to have settled the question in the minds of American military institutions ever since. Though well suited to the model of warfare in which the individual soldier was merely a glorified pack animal capable of discharging a weapon in the general direction of the enemy and responding to the simplest of commands to act in concert, and doubly well suited to the social model in which the servant class was merely a sort of free range chattel of the nobility, it has little utility in a modern army and no place at all in the vital institutions of a democracy. Modern marketing campaigns and increased protections against abusive officers notwithstanding, our military forces are still no place for the native lover of freedom. They are demanding even for the born conformist. If one can assert that our military is in danger of failing because of a lack of manpower, no other disincentive to service can compare to its fundamental organization.

One of the current solutions to our shortage of soldiers, increasing financial benefits, does absolutely nothing to ameliorate this. The other, unilaterally extending enlistments and stretching active deployments, obviously exacerbates the problem. Whatever the material comforts we offer our soldiers, we treat them like indentured servants. It isn't surprising that Americans, particularly those who love their personal freedoms, fail to enlist even when they can see that their country needs them. To appeal to their mercenary impulse is merely insulting. Though our soldiers certainly deserve compensation for their valor and service, that is hardly the reason that men give their lives to the cause of freedom. To deny them even what little right of self-determination remains after enlistment by changing the conditions of the service contract unilaterally is absurd when continued recruitment depends on volunteers.

Our soldiers are there to protect the nation, but they are still citizens of a democracy. They are raised and schooled as citizens, and being suddenly deprived of many of the rights of American citizenship is a real hardship. While the hardships of danger and privation are inherent parts of military service in time of war, it is not a historical reality that the hardship of being demoted from citizen to slave is necessary to an effective military. Our military takes enormous pains to reduce our soldiers' exposure to danger and to make sure that they are well supplied. But we've made comparatively little advance in making those same soldiers feel that they are still members of the democracy they protect. In many ways, we've actually regressed. Some may blame much of this on the excessive self-indulgence of the larger society. I have no disagreement with such observations, but it has no relevance to the issue. I believe that American needs its citizens to have freedom, whether they use it to fight for their nation or to indulge themselves.

A wholesale, top-down restructuring of the military has begun, but will not be complete for many years, and will address relatively few of the issues that make military service unattractive to those who most appreciate and love American freedom and democracy. Indeed, much of the impetus behind this restructuring was the idea that our military wouldn't need to fight a decisive war or occupy the defeated nations afterwards. While the thinking of our leaders and the geopolitical reality has changed, the basic aim of the plans to streamline our military is an unchanged fact. This is one of the major reasons that our current deployments have forced a pause in that restructuring. And none of this changes the fundamental relationship of the new recruit to the military organization and the society our military exists to defend.

So just how are we to improve recruiting when the fundamental nature of military service is so unattractive to Americans? How can we meet our goals of streamlining the military but retain the capability to field enough force to wage a major war and meet our international obligations in occupied areas? I propose that it would be possible and desirable to supplement our existing military forces with units composed of free American citizens who will:

a)Choose their own commanders rather than being assigned to the command of strangers,

b)Choose the conflicts in which they will serve,

c)Choose when they will be separated from continued military service,

d)Subject to the articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as they apply to all military forces serving alongside regular U.S. military forces.

It seems obvious that any military force organized on the principles enumerated above will be radically different from our existing ideas about service in the armed forces. Certainly, the first reaction of anyone familiar with the organization of our existing military would be that if the armed forces were to give their enlisted soldiers the liberty of choosing their own commanders, postings, and separation dates, the military would cease to function almost entirely. I have no dispute with such a view, as I share it. The way that our current armed forces are recruited, trained, organized, and disciplined, it is naturally impossible to allow individual soldiers the freedoms that are basic to other Americans.

However, I do not allow that it is impossible to design an independent military force that could embody these principles, merely because the current organization of our military cannot allow such freedom. Though it may be commonly believed that maintaining discipline and order in a force is impossible without severely infringing the liberty of the individual soldier, this belief seems to rest more on historical precedent than on logical argument. Yet a broader view of history is replete with examples of effective forces which were entirely voluntary. My ideas for the design of such a force may not owe everything to historical examples, but I do not believe the judgment of history dooms the concept to failure.

There are specific features of our existing military are incompatible with providing greater freedom to its own soldiers, either fundamentally or functionally. The centralization and hierarchy of our armed forces cannot be supported by a fully voluntary rank and file. It would be meaningless to be allowed to choose your own commander if all the commanders were constrained to transmit the direct orders of a single authority, and that central authority would be meaningless if it had no control over the various commanders and their units. A somewhat different concern arises if we look at the way that the military currently handles recruitment incentives along with training and equipping new enlistees. The entire program is based on the assumption that the soldier is legally obligated to serve out a specified term, without any question of refusing unattractive assignments or quitting. On the other hand, many important necessities for a volunteer force are already established as part of the ongoing modernization of our military. It is recognized as an axiom of modern military theory that volunteers are more effective and impose lower logistical costs than conscripts. This holds true for soldiers who volunteer for specific missions rather than being constrained by their orders to carry out duties with which they may not agree. Both the demands of modern war and the needs of dealing with a force drawn from a population used to liberty have given the military some experience in the methods of command which are compatible with a truly volunteer force.

Our current military is also experienced in working alongside forces that are not under the direct command of any U.S. military agency. It would not be necessary or even desirable to implement any sweeping changes in the existing military before establishing a new model for military service supplementary to the existing system. I see little reason to believe that the regular U.S. military forces would find it impossible to work alongside independent military units composed of American citizens rather than foreign nationals. Even in the experimental stages, such an independent force would be genuinely supplemental rather than representing any diversion of needed resources.

If we accept that an American force could be organizationally independent of the existing military yet work with our current armed forces, we can make it possible for such a force to be composed of units independent of each other. Each unit would be cooperating with the regular armed forces, they would not need to have any hierarchy of command amongst themselves. Each unit could be responsible for its own organization and recruitment, under the command of its own officers, with the provision that no person could be compelled to serve. These units could also be responsible for their own training and basic equipment such as uniforms and individual armament. Such units would form a type of militia, to be drawn on at need.

The concept of deploying American paramilitaries abroad is bound to cause concern in some quarters. Indeed, it is not uncommon for certain parties to consider our existing military morally comparable (or even inferior) to suicide bombers and terrorists. While little can be done to ally such extreme suspicion of persons who would volunteer for military service, the differences between an American militia and criminal paramilitary forces deserves careful consideration. The first point that must be understood is that militia forces do not inherently violate the Geneva Conventions or any other laws of war. There is no reason that militia would necessarily be involved in committing atrocities, perfidy and other offenses related to impersonating non-combatants or other militaries, or in attacks on civilians and destruction of non-military targets. Further, there is no bar to militia being recognized as authorized combatants fighting on behalf of a nation in its interests. As long as such units are forbidden to engage in war crimes and are held responsible by a recognized authority, they do not undermine either the spirit or letter of the laws of war.

The fact that our enemies have, in current and past conflicts, often been irregular forces that did not qualify as legal combatants shouldn't lead us to conflate the idea of irregular forces with illegal combatants. It should be remembered that regular forces can also become illegal combatants under the relevant provisions of the laws of war. It is an established principle of international law that soldiers cannot justify the commission of war crimes on the basis that the laws of their own nation compel them to follow orders. So following a model of military organization in which the soldier is not free to refuse orders does nothing to enhance compliance with the laws of war.

A more serious concern is over how we are to ensure the quality and character of militia soldiers both prior to deployment and while in a conflict area. It is also necessary to consider the practical necessities of logistic and financial support for deployed militia, as well as to clarify issues of responsibility for soldiers thus deployed.

The U.S. military already has various standards that are applied when considering how (and whether) to integrate foreign paramilitary forces. Applying a similar program stateside to assess the combat readiness and commitment of American militia units would be a necessity. However, this program would have the advantage of using U.S. based training facilities. This program would not seek to train the militia units, it would only be to assess whether they had been properly trained on the use of their weapons, tactical movement and operations, physical fitness, the basic provisions and implications of the UCMJ as applied to the militia, and such concepts as the Rules of Engagement and the Geneva Conventions. While it is not impossible that eventually the military might allow militia units to use its training facilities on favorable terms, the basic independence of both the regular military and militia units should be preserved.

Militia units that demonstrated a basic level of readiness as infantry units could be offered deployments, based on the current military needs of the nation and the capacity of the unit. Acceptance of such deployments would depend on the individual members of the unit, based on their own assessment of the validity of the military need against their personal needs. While it would probably be usual to offer basic pay incentives and necessary logistic support to offset the financial hardships attendant on deployment, the chief motivation would be, as it always must be in time of war, the defense of their nation.

A central element of this concept is that militia units would deploy with their chosen officers. These officers would undertake to coordinate activities with the regular U.S. military and to take actions consistent with the mission for which they were deployed. They would be responsible for the activities of the militia unit as a whole and for suspending/separating individuals that were unwilling to abide by the mission accepted by the unit. It seems likely that in the initial phases of developing such a program, many of these officers would have to be regular officers assigned to recruit militia units. However, during their service as militia commanders, they would need to adapt to a command style in which they would exercise no power of compulsion over their soldiers, other than the authority to unilaterally separate a soldier from the unit. They would probably also need to be attached to a short command chain with a formal mission of promoting development of the militia concept, rather than being under the direct command of superior officers in the theater of service. This would allow commanders to gain experience in working with militia commanders who would not be under the command of any officers of the regular military.

If a regular officer desired the assistance of any militia units, the request would be made to all militia units available for that duty. Of those that volunteered, the regular officer would select whichever units seemed best suited to the mission. The regular military would be responsible for arranging any additional equipment, intelligence, transportation, etc. deemed necessary to the mission (just as the logistic demands of deployment were handled). While this level of cooperation may seem unlikely to the militarily inexperienced, it is no more difficult than what is already required to allow units from different branches to cooperate. It is true that interservice rivalry will probably be evident between the regular branches of service and militia units. But our military (both considered as a whole and in its various branches) has a long tradition of dealing successfully with this particular problem. The jokes told in the Air Force and Navy about the Marines and Army (and vice versa) will be a fair preview of how members of the militia and regular forces will likely regard one another. Though such rivalries can present real difficulties, our military has proven capable of overcoming them.

In the event that, for whatever reason, the overall performance of a militia unit in the field was unacceptable, that unit would be separated as a whole, reverting to the status of American civilians. Were a disaster worthy of investigation to occur, responsibility would lie with each individual according to the actions that individual was established to have taken. If the disaster were shown to have resulted from the supply of flawed intelligence, provisions, ordnance, etc. by the regular forces, then the responsible parties would be disciplined under military law. If the disaster were shown to have resulted from illegal (rather than merely incorrect) actions on the part of any militia, those individuals would be tried either by court martial or by civilian law, consistent with the UCMJ.

In essence, American militia units would be much like the various paramilitaries on which U.S. military efforts have often depended. The key differences would be their American origin and their potential to sustain our nation's force requirements on a long term basis and in any conflict vital to the interests of American citizens.

While I recognize that this idea may seem very novel, the arguments that I see in its favor seem very compelling, whilst all arguments against it seem to be based mainly on the simple historical fact that we haven't done things that way in "a long time". And yet, our military has continued to do things this way, fighting alongside patriotic and freedom loving citizens of other nations. It's just been a long time since we had a serious place for patriotic and freedom loving Americans to serve alongside our regular forces.

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Chiu


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