The Breakfast Table

G.I. Mom

Dear Anxious of Waterford,

Don’t you worry about your trillion-dollar fighting force.

Haven’t you noticed that the U.S. military always wrings its hands about how tough the mission is going to be? No matter how wretchedly Third World the enemy, it’s always going to be a perilous mission, fraught with hazards.

They’re such a bunch of whiners. I thought I was going to go nuts in Saudi Arabia before the Gulf War if one more soldier started singing the blues about how hot it was, how bored he was, how the dust was messing up his weapons. Then, when I visited the U.S. peacekeeping contingent in Macedonia, the captain of the unit told me his No. 1 mission was to send all the guys under his command home “without so much as a hangnail.” Odd. I thought the No. 1 mission was the mission: i.e., keeping peace on a volatile border. Then, last week, did you catch that private or corporal who was testifying to some congressional committee about how rough military service has gotten? With so many foreign assignments, he’s never home with his kids.

Getoutahere, guys! You’re supposed to be warriors! If you want to be Mr. Mom, don’t enlist in the military.

Ever since the Gulf War I’ve been convinced that the United States needs a Foreign Legion, à la France. It’s no good building a military out of young mothers and bootstrapping inner city kids trying to earn college tuition, because a) they don’t really want to fight, and b) nobody can stand seeing them get killed. The fact is, most conflicts of the post-Cold War world are less than existential. They are take-it-or-leave-it interventions to safeguard an economic interest (Gulf War), secure a regional status quo (current Iraq bombing), or further a humanitarian goal (Somalia). And the fact is that Americans, from Colin Powell on down, don’t want to expend the lives of their soldiers on non-existential engagements.

By contrast, France has in its Foreign Legion an army whose soldiers have contracted to face death in the front lines whether the interests served are vital or not. As one scar-faced and heavily tattooed British-born legionnaire told me: “The French government doesn’t have to worry about mums at airports weeping over the body bags for people like us.”

The genius of the legion is that it takes hyper-aggressive social misfits and, through a combination of near-insane discipline and a tight surrogate-family structure, channels violence that might otherwise have expressed itself as crime. I know, I know: The legion’s very flexibility has led to its use in some of the most egregious misappropriations of imperial power. But in U.N. peacekeeping missions, I found them tough yet almost courtly, carting their starched linen tablecloths into battle with them. Because many legionnaires are themselves from troubled countries (I met Romanians, Vietnamese and, yes, Yugoslavs), they always seemed to act with consideration toward victims of upheaval. And they never moaned about the dust.