Academic journal article Parameters

The US Citizen-Soldier's Past, Present, and Likely Future

Academic journal article Parameters

The US Citizen-Soldier's Past, Present, and Likely Future

Article excerpt

Recent problems in the recruiting and retention of US military personnel have prompted some to ask a series of questions: What was the "tradition" of the American citizen-soldier, and how much change in this tradition has occurred? Have basic changes in American culture occurred recently that have led to a narrowing definition of citizenship and its responsibilities" and, related to this, are we justified in describing current problems in recruiting an all-volunteer force as ones that "signal the demise of the tradition of the citizen-soldier"? What might be the significance to recruitment of recent changes in the purposes for which the United States employs its power, and what consequent policies should the Administration consider? [1]

In this article I propose some answers to these questions based on my reading of the historical and sociological records as we understand them today.

The "Tradition" of the Citizen-Soldier

Let's begin by stepping back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when "True" Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic--men like Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Shaftesbury), Colonel Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard, Joseph Warren, James Lovell, and Samuel Adams--wrote with passion about the dangers of standing armies. Listen, for example, to the fears expressed by the future martyr-of-Bunker-Hill, citizen-soldier Dr. Joseph Warren, in his "Boston Massacre" memorial oration, 5 March 1772:

Our houses wrapt in flames, our children subjected to the barbarous caprice of the raging soldiery, our beauteous virgins exposed to all the insolence of unbridled passion, our virtuous wives, endeared to us by every tender tie, falling a sacrifice to worse than brutal violence, and perhaps like the famed Lucretia, distracted with anguish & despair, ending their wretched lives by their own hands. [2]

Inspired by what they understood from Thucydides, historians of Rome, and the Florentine champion of citizen-soldiers, Niccolo Machiavelli, they worried about the fate of their polity's collective civil and political rights (often expressed as "liberty & property") at the hands of what they perceived to be an ever-growing threat of encroachments upon those rights from a monarch (or un-royal chief executive like Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell). Such a person could control affairs of state with a standing army and officer-"placemen," seated from one of Parliament's "rotten" and "pocket" boroughs. [3] These advocates of "the citizen-soldier" called on free adult men of property to respond to their sense of duty, to their sense of political obligation, by serving for a period of time in the militia of their community.

Thus military service, indeed, compulsory service in militias, was deemed appropriate under what has come to be known as the "consent" theory of government. [4] Throughout the 1760s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, republican essayists insisted that responsible men should respond to their sense of obligation in order to protect "their private property and political rights." [5] Jefferson's Declaration of Independence speaks of governments deriving "their just powers from the consent of the governed," but this theory cut both ways: That is, a justly-derived government, such as that of the United States, can in turn expect military service from youth who would (by the 1890s) "pledge allegiance" in publicly funded schools and enjoy other such free social benefits, as well as more general advantages like the rule of law, prosperity, the prestige of citizenship in "The Great Republic," and the capacity to elect their own lawmakers, the franchise (by the age of 18 in 1971 for all, earlier for some). [6]

An alternative vision of national defense of the community's interests was proposed in the late 18th century by "New" Whigs like Adam Smith and his American Federalist Party counterparts, who reasoned that replacing the militia with a regular military force (the True Whigs' dreaded "standing army") made good economic and political sense: Keeping the state militia system of citizen soldiers in an adequate state of readiness, Federalist Secretary of War James McHenry argued in 1800, would cost the United States more "by the abstraction from labor or occupation" of the militiamen than the cost of a regular army. …

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