The Proud Duck

Thoughts on policy, history, faith, baseball when I get around to it, waterfowl, and life in general by a junior attorney who'd much rather have Jonah Goldberg's job. Or possibly Darin Erstad's.

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Friday, July 29, 2005
Stanford history professor David M. Kennedy has ruffled some feathers by describing American professional soldiers as "mercenaries" and comparing them to Hessians.

That was just wrong on so many levels that I had to respond, via e-mail:

"Dear Professor Kennedy:

I was frankly astonished to see a history professor at an elite university compare modern American soldiers, even imprecisely, to the "Hessian" mercenaries imported by George III to fight in the American Revolution. The comparison breaks down on too many levels to count.

Not only are modern American soldiers not "mercenaries" in the traditional sense of soldiers of fortune who fight for the highest bidder, but technically, neither were the Hessians. George III acquired German regiments not by hiring individual soldiers or companies (as Renaissance princes might have hired German landsknechts or Swiss pikemen), but rather by making arrangements with the rulers of the petty German states for their units to be put at British disposal. The hapless individual German soldiers themselves were generally conscripted, not hired in the manner of traditional mercenaries.

The founders' enthusiasm for militias and distrust of standing armies is well documented. It's also largely accepted that the enthusiasm for militias was remarkably naive and generally led to disaster after disaster as militias proved unable (with some notable exceptions like Bennington and Cowpens) to cope with professional soldiers. The quintessential example of the folly of relying on militia was the battle of Bladensburg, in which the militia defending Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812 ran off at the first salvo of British rockets and let the capital be burned.

Incidentally, President Jefferson was so enamored of the "citizen military" concept, and so concerned (like you) that a standing military would tempt the country to adventurism that he essentially scrapped plans to expand the Navy -- the branch of the service perhaps least suited to the "citizen-soldier" concept because of the great expense of ships -- and poured resources into tiny coastal-defense gunboats, to be manned by wartime volunteers. The gunboats turned out to be virtually useless against the threats to American maritime interests that followed, including North African pirates (too far away for a coastal force to reach) and the British blockade in 1812 (who wants to take on a heavy frigate with a matchbox gunboat?)

That's where I think you make your greatest mistake: Fundamentally, the purpose of a military is to win wars. A generation of military leaders has concluded that a conscripted force is less effective than a professional one, especially in a modern battlefield environment in which extensive training and individual motivation are at a premium. Switching to a conscripted force, in the judgment of those who are in the best position to know, would make the military less effective. A less effective asset is one that is more costly to use. "More costly" in a military context means that more people get killed. When you're asking men to place their lives in harm's way, there is no excuse for allowing secondary considerations to detract from their effectiveness and increase the odds that they will be part of an increased cost.

I suspect that your perception that there is a separation between America and its warriors is a regional or perhaps an ideological thing. Vast numbers of Americans either serve, have served, have friends or relatives who do or have, or at one point seriously considered military service. (For the record, if Stanford's admissions officers had accepted my own application back in 1990 instead of collapsing in hysterical laughter, I had a naval ROTC scholarship lined up.) People with these links to the military may be a little rarer on elite university campuses, but America hardly has an insular warrior class to anywhere near the extent of your argument."


I love reading your posts. You are both thoughtful and droll. I'd love to meet you. Tell me a little about yourself.

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