Professional Soldiers

Matthew Yglesias comes out against both mercenaries and the all-volunteer force on the grounds, “The defense of a democratic society should not be managed through market forces.”

I disagree with the premise that our military is essentially a mercenary force, motivated primarily by money. Indeed, going back at least to the time of Machiavelli, it has been understood that soldiers motivated by fealty to the nation are far superior to the mercenary*, who sells his loyalty to the highest bidder. While, certainly, volunteer soldiers have to be compensated at a higher rate than those who have no choice but to be there, most of those who choose to serve–and certainly to make a career of service–do so primarily for reasons of loyalty to the country, a sense of comradeship with their fellow soldiers, and a sense of duty. I’m continually amazed when I run into former colleagues who’ve stayed in the military, or other officers that I meet from time-to-time, how stunningly uncynical most of them are. The ones who choose to make a career of it are, by and large, a different breed than even those of us who served but got out after a short while.

While I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments for mandatory national service and grant that there are some philosophical reasons for wanting all to share the burdens of service, a conscript army is just impractical for modern times. Soldiering is an increasingly complicated business that takes years to perfect. Conscripts cycle through the system too quickly to be of much value. Samuel Huntington recognized half a century ago that the military is a profession in every sense of the word. That’s far more true today than it was then.

*I use the term in the traditional context–those who will go anywhere and kill anyone for money.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    This reminds me of how someone, maybe Charlie Rangel, came out early in the GWOT ramp-up saying we need to reinstate the draft because (allegedly) an all-volunteer force wouldn’t be able to do the job.

    Maybe I’m just too cynical for words, but it does seem to make the anti-war types’ job harder when nobody is dragooned off the street and sent off to war by compulsion of law.

    Can’t turn Afghanistan or Iraq into “another Vietnam” — politically — without the draft.

  2. Delta Dave says:

    Hmmmm… I served for 20+ years in the Army. I was a volunteer, not a draftee. I didn’t consider money my motive for joining nor for staying…for at times during my career, military pay was so out of step with inflation, that I was living out of my saving account for several years.

    I believe I am fairly representative of those who serve … so maybe with serving in the military … it comes down to several tightly interwoven factors…1) enjoyment of the life, the responsibility, the challenge; 2) the feeling of making a contribution and a difference; 3) the comaraderie and belonging to a community of people dedicated to a purpose and cause worthy of sacrifice and commitment

    There are other reasons, but when your life is on the line, it suddenly become crystal clear some things are more important than others … and those important things are worth your life, if necessary.

  3. BigFire says:

    Re: McGehee

    Nah, Charles Ragel just want to disband the military as we know of it. He knew perfectly well that an army made of draftee in modern era cannot be send oversea.

  4. cas says:

    Mercenaries have traditionally looted whatever and wherever they could. The UCMJ pretty much eliminates that motive. As a 20 year veteran, I can guarantee that no one stays in the US military today to get rich! The factors that Delta Dave mentioned are much more common motivation factors as to why people serve.
    I believe Charlie Rangel was attempting to articulate the feeling of comradeship that even draftees feel when they become part of a unit, and saying that we need more of it. But our society has never been a big supporter of standing armies; it takes a long, protracted struggle, like the Cold War, (or the War on terror?) to force the American public to allow a universal draft. And now, wouldn’t it be both sons and daughters who were drafted?

  5. McGehee says:

    Mercenaries have traditionally looted whatever and wherever they could.

    Is anyone alleging that they Fallujah dead, or any of their co-employees, were looting?

    As for what Rangel was talking about, Cas, I don’t think you’re thinking of the comments that I was referring to.

  6. Dodd says:

    Just the kind of offensively patronizing thing only a sheltered, pampered liberal who knows he’ll never actually have to suffer the consequences should his “preferences” be enacted could say. Not to mention that, if “market forces” aren’t to be allowed as a factor (and they’re no more than that – a variable in the indovidual calculus that leads each of us who actually did serve to make the decision to do so), then the only thing left is slavery (that’s what forced labour is).

    I would say that that’s a shockingly il-liberal position to take, but the il-liberalism of American lefties, being now the essential core of their belief structure, has long since lost its ability to shock.