We hear a lot about the fact that we have a volunteer army. We are proud of the fact that we no longer conscript young men to serve against their will. The idea of a volunteer army instead of a conscripted army sounds an improvement for our country and our freedom. A great majority of Americans approve of this new army in which young men are no longer obliged to serve. It is accepted as a fact that the USA is better off with the "volunteer" army. I don’t think so.
In the Roman Republic, citizens were obliged to serve the City in times of war without pay for their service. Every so often the Volscians or the Samnites or the Veiians or some other enemy of the young Republic would see the possibility to gain territory and they would march on Rome. The Roman knights would ride out and the Roman plebs would march out to meet the threat to the Republic. When the war was over they would march home and go back to work. This ideal that lasted for 400 years this history inspired the thoughts of the men who wrote our Constitution. For that reason, our capitol's architecture is Roman, our legislature is the Senate and statues of early Presidents sport togas. George Washington’s personal hero was Cincinnatus, a Roman Senator who lost his wealth due to illegal and immoral mneuvering by a group of rival Senators. His sons were exiled by the same men and Cincinnatus, although an elderly man, was forced to plow his own small parcel without the aid of a draft animal in order to grow wheat so that he and his wife could eat. At this time the Samnites attacked as they were wont to do and they defeated the Roman army that had sallied forth two days’ march from Rome to meet them. The routed Roman soldiers came running back to the City terrified.
So the Senate met in emergency session to decide who they could trust to rally the Roman army and save the City. To the chagrin of the Senators who treated Cincinnatus so badly he was elected Dictator with unlimited powers, including the right to summarily execute anyone that he chose and he was to be immune from prosecution for anything that he did as Dictator. The maximum term that a Dictator could serve in the City was six months. The enemies of Cincinnatus trembled in fear, certain that he would use this power to seek vengeance, but instead he reorganized the citizens in two days, marched out of Rome, knocked the stuffing out of the Samnites and returned victorious to Rome nine days later, weighed down with booty in the form of gold, silver and armaments. However he did not keep one coin for himself, but turned it all over to the government, then he turned over his powers as dictator and returned to his plot of land, picked up his plow and headed back into the field. The best of Americans were once like that.
The Roman Republic was only overrun once in 500 years because its citizen soldiers had such a stake in the defense of their Republic. They would not be beaten. They destroyed great armies of mercenaries including the army that Hannibal marched over the Alps. But although Rome would not be defeated at home, the Roman citizen army was not an effective offensive weapon. The soldiers and their families voted against great adventures far from home. When the Republic began to unravel under Gaius Marius, the key factor that led to the end of freedom was the change in the nature of the army. Marius replaced the citizen army with a professional army. Within 40 years the liberty of the Roman citizen and the existence of the Republic itself were history. The grand experiment in freedom and representative government died and the age of brute force under the Caesars’ empire reshaped the known world.
So let us return to the United States in the third millennia. Here we have been led to believe that a “volunteer” army is more just than forced conscription. I think that the term "volunteer" used in this case is very misleading. The fact that every soldier has voluntarily signed a contract with the government of the United States does not mean that he or she is a "volunteer". To say that they are volunteers implies that their service is an unpaid vocation. Actually American armed service personnel are paid pretty well. When you take into consideration their benefits, including lifelong health care - grants for college, etc. you find that soldiers and sailors are very well paid.
They are also very well trained. They receive much more training than soldiers and sailors did twenty years ago. Many soldiers have no trouble moving into the private sector because of the advanced training that they have received in many different disciplines.
Generally the term that we use for someone who is well paid to do a job that he or she has been well trained to do is "professional", not volunteer. So semantics IS important and what we have is a professional army, not a volunteer army. That is unfortunate because it is only a professional army that can be used as an offensive rather than a defensive weapon. A truly volunteer army, like the army fielded by the United States in WWII would not fight in the war we are waging in Iraq. In Vietman we fielded a conscript army and that led to unrest at home that forced politicians to pull us out of that dead-end war.
When the government is armed with a professional army, they wield a powerful offensive weapon and the temptation to use it is difficult for some leaders to resist. Some foreign opportunity or perceived danger will seem to be critically, inescapably important. So the bellicose leader will justify to himself or herself that what they aim to do is for the benefit of the Republic and necessary in order to stave off some calamity or other. At this point they will begin to be beset by dissent. Naturally, organically the leader of the offensively oriented state will see that the dissent in the United States or abroad is dangerous to the future of the nation and needs to be curtailed. That leader will then work to control the population of our country and abroad through semi legal and illegal intelligence work. He or she will demand emergency measures that permit the administration to sidestep Constitutional rights… Does any of this sound familiar?
I suggest that we learn from the founders of this great country. They were much wiser than anyone working today in the great bureaucratic urb named after the father of our country. George Washington would have been shocked that we are fielding a professional army that is waging preventive war and nation building by force. He would have suggested that we immediately return to our borders and permanently disband the professional army. He would suggest that we return to an army that, besides a small reserve of professionals to protect us and train conscripts, is formed of citizens that serve in time of need.
A professional army is a temptation to a leader who does not understand the nature of our history. A professional army is the deadliest danger that our Republic may have to face.