Are we Americans too chauvinistic to learn a thing or two from the French? I hope not, because in 1831 France had a great idea. It’s called the Foreign Legion, and, as Molly Moore reports in the Washington Post, it is still going strong. Today the Legion has 7,655 members, making it about the size of two U.S. army brigades. Its personnel come from 136 countries.
The ability to recruit so widely is a direct result of the Internet. “Once an almost exclusively European force,” Moore writes, “the Legion now counts Asians and Latin Americans among its fastest-growing cadres of soldiers. Although French law forbids the Legion to actively recruit beyond French borders, the Internet has rendered the law almost meaningless.”
But even as the face of the Legion has changed, its legendary esprit de corps remains unchanged. Its polyglot soldiers are bound together by the French language and by a shared desire to run away from their former lives. They have proven extraordinarily useful to France in the past, and remain so today. As Moore notes: “Legionnaires serve in Afghanistan, Chad and Ivory Coast with regular French military forces. They were deployed with U.S. military forces in Somalia in 1992 and have been part of peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Rwanda and Cambodia. They also took part in relief efforts in South Asia after the December 2004 tsunami.”
Why is this an example to learn from? Because, as I’ve argued in the past, we should be setting up our own Foreign Legion, which I’ve suggested should be called the Freedom Legion. Given the recruiting difficulties suffered in recent years by the army this would seem like a no-brainer. Why not hire gung-ho recruits from around the world? If the French can do it, we certainly could, and our task would be easier because a lot more potential recruits speak English than speak French.
Whenever I’ve made this proposal in the past, various objections have been raised, along the lines of, “How dare you suggest employing mercenaries”? Leave aside the fact that we have employed lots of mercenaries in the past and still do today (they’re called security contractors). Leave aside, too, that a much higher percentage of the U.S. armed forces were composed of foreigners in the 19th century. What I have never understand is why raising foreign forces would harm the United States when it hasn’t harmed France. When the benefits of global recruiting are so clear, and the harms so conjectural, it is hard to see why we still hold off.