What Happened to our Citizen Army?

Posted on December 14, 2011


Our modern army is quite efficient as an all-volunteer, professional fighting force.

But let me suggest that that is not the central, or even the principal, role of the Army in our society and throughout our history.

By “Army,” I am writing of all the armed forces, but the Army is the biggest and the oldest of our branches of the service and I’ll just use “army” to mean all.

All of you ex-Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard types just cool it for now.

You may legitimately say, “but what is the role of the army if not to defend our country?”

That’s a good point. George Washington and the Continental Army were recruited to kick the British out and defend our liberties as defined by the Declaration of Independence.

With a couple of notable exceptions, General Washington actually lost most of his battles with the British. But, he kept the Continentals from dissolving and they brought the colonies together in spirit that sustained the revolution until the French alliance kicked in with French soldiers and fleets that tipped the scales.

All of the Continentals were volunteers, not conscripts or draftees. They enlisted for a period of time and were free to go home after their term of service. And a lot of them did, often leaving Washington in the lurch, begging them to stay to keep the army together.

During the Civil War both sides took a page out of the French playbook. After the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, the revolutionaries turned to conscription to defend the Revolution against conservative monarchies all around it.

And, under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French went one giant step further with their citizen armies—they overran most of Europe to persuade their neighbors in Prussia, Austria, and Spain for example that the benefits of the French Revolution were really good for all.

And, until France’s citizen army hit Russia—too big—and the English– the English Navy blocked the way—it ate up other armies and proved that mass conscription was a formidable modern strategy.

Especially important was the esprit d’corps which existed in the French Army. The soldiers felt part of a larger spirit—one of belonging to a national will—that helped create a common bond among them.

They were not just conscripts or mercenaries; they were Frenchmen fighting for higher values of nation and the values of the French Revolution, somewhat amended by Napoleon who had crowned himself emperor, a most un-republican form of government!

Conscription and drafts were not particularly successful during our Civil War because so many loopholes existed, such as being able to pay someone else to go do your service.

During the First World War, however, the Americans got it right. The doughboys of General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force were fighting for a way of life at home that was threatened from abroad. The draft brought them in from the farms and cities and Pershing molded them into a good fighting force.

It would happen again in the Second World War, except that war erupted in our very face on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The “greatest generation” was largely conscripted in the draft to fight and the GIs who emerged from that war knew they were part of a larger whole, not just Nebraskans, or New Englanders, or Georgians, or New Mexicans, but truly Americans whose shared experience in the military molded them.

That is the rationale for an American army, although it is, just as surely, to defend our freedoms.

I think a citizen army should exist, which puts me in the category, in this country at least for now, of a troglodyte.

But the Swiss and Israelis would understand my argument. Every able bodied individual in those countries does national service.

A citizen army exists not only to defend the country, but also to take and mold all the young men and women in the country into understanding, and embracing, the concept that they belong to something larger and more moral and more worth preserving than simply taking care of their own selves.

I know this flies in the face of “globalization” and the feel good notion that the world needs to face problems together, with good will and rational behavior. Some could even say that citizen armies fan the flames of competition and nationalism. Militarism becomes a leading cause of strife and war.

Even our own Army does not want conscripts and the draft. They are professionals who take pride in their profession, and would rather not be in the business of “baby sitting” generations of post-pubescent young people.

But professional armies—though not strictly mercenaries—are disconnected to the pulse of the country they serve, largely because they are a small, non-representative group of professionals.

How many sons and daughters of members of Congress serve in the Army? How many from your family? Do you have a direct stake in soldiers being wounded and dying in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Iraq?

I don’t mean a genuine sympathy expressed in airport terminals, on parade routes during Veterans Day, etc., but a gut feeling when a loved one is in harm’s way?

And, to finish, yes, I did my service, not in the Army, but the Navy, but it didn’t make much difference to me which branch I went into. It just so happened that the Navy ROTC building at Duke was the first one I found when hunting up Navy and Air Force ROTCs as a callow freshman at the age of seventeen.

I still keep in touch with friends of mine who did their service like me. We have a special bond and an understanding of what it means to be an American. It is an experience that is like no other in my life.

Published Sunday December 18, 2011 in The Tuscaloosa News

Posted in: A Citizen Army