The citizen soldier

Phil Klay writes: I can’t say that I joined the military because of 9/11. Not exactly. By the time I got around to it the main U.S. military effort had shifted to Iraq, a war I’d supported though one which I never associated with al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. But without 9/11, we might not have been at war there, and if we hadn’t been at war, I wouldn’t have joined.

It was a strange time to make the decision, or at least, it seemed strange to many of my classmates and professors. I raised my hand and swore my oath of office on May 11, 2005. It was a year and a half after Saddam Hussein’s capture. The weapons of mass destruction had not been found. The insurgency was growing. It wasn’t just the wisdom of the invasion that was in doubt, but also the competence of the policymakers. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been proven wrong about almost every major post-invasion decision, from troop levels to post-war reconstruction funds. Anybody paying close attention could tell that Iraq was spiraling into chaos, and the once jubilant public mood about our involvement in the war, with over 70 percent of Americans in 2003 nodding along in approval, was souring. But the potential for failure, and the horrific cost in terms of human lives that failure would entail, only underscored for me why I should do my part. This was my grand cause, my test of citizenship.

The highly professional all-volunteer force I joined, though, wouldn’t have fit with the Founding Fathers’ conception of citizen-soldiers. They distrusted standing armies: Alexander Hamilton thought Congress should vote every two years “upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot”; James Madison claimed “armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people”; and Thomas Jefferson suggested the Greeks and Romans were wise “to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army.”

They wanted to rely on “the people,” not on professionals. According to the historian Thomas Flexner, at the outset of the Revolutionary War George Washington had grounded his military thinking on the notion that “his virtuous citizen-soldiers would prove in combat superior, or at least equal, to the hireling invaders.” This was an understandably attractive belief for a group of rebellious colonists with little military experience. The historian David McCullough tells us that the average American Continental soldier viewed the British troops as “hardened, battle-scarred veterans, the sweepings of the London and Liverpool slums, debtors, drunks, common criminals and the like, who had been bullied and beaten into mindless obedience.” [Continue reading…]

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