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No mercenaries in US uniforms Print

BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL - December 28, 2006

WHEN ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF General Peter Schoonmaker testified before Congress earlier this month that the Army was near the breaking point because of extended overseas deployments, he expressed one of the few opinions that congressional Democrats and the White House agree on. The Defense Department needs more Army and Marine personnel, whether or not President Bush decides to send more troops to Iraq.

But the Army and Marines should not resort to one proposal that Bryan Bender's report in Tuesday's Globe said the Pentagon is considering for expanding their numbers: the establishment of recruiting stations in foreign countries.

To meet or stay close to its goals for its current strength, the Army has had to field more recruiters, increase enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, and lower its educational requirements. It has also made it easier for enlistees who are legal immigrants in the United States to become citizens. These are all legitimate ways to keep the ranks full at a time when high levels of casualties in an unpopular war have led more parents and other authority figures to discourage young people from military service. Sending recruiters to Mexico City, Managua, or Manila is a line the military should not cross.

It is true that the French Foreign Legion employs soldiers who have never lived in France, and for two centuries the British have made use of Nepalese Gurkha troops. But such units grow out of a European tradition of military professionals for hire, a tradition that conflicts with the American ideal of the patriot soldier: men and women taking the oath to defend the nation that has provided them with freedom and opportunity.

Doubtless, Army and Marine recruiters in economically stagnant parts of the world could fill their quotas quickly with young people eager for the training, wages, and open door to US citizenship that enlistment would offer. Defenders of the proposal, which was made legal by a recent change in US law, say that the inducement of the citizenship benefit would make such foreign recruits close cousins of US-resident legal immigrants who currently sign up to serve.

But for many of the foreigners, the military's paycheck would be of greater interest than the eventual assumption of residence and citizenship in a country thousands of miles from their homes and families. The word for these troops is mercenaries.

The best way to ensure the Army and Marines do not break, as Schoonmaker fears, is to resolve US involvement in the Iraq war as quickly as possible so that casualties and repeated overseas deployments stop taking such a toll on the willingness to serve. It would be a sad day if a military that fought off Britain's hired Hessians in the Revolutionary War had to go looking for its own now. 

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