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Return of the Soldier-Farmer

August 17, 2010

The armies that set twentieth-century standards have been instruments of decision informed by a dynamic of closure. They have been intended to win wars as quickly as possible, and with minimal suffering to the states and societies that created them. In the twenty-first century military effectiveness may best be achieved by cultivating a sense of the long duration, evaluating results in a context of not merely years but decades. This would be a fundamental attitude adjustment.

But though military cultures have their own rituals and their own ways of doing things—often quite different from the national culture to which they belong—these are not immutable. The frameworks of warmaking are instrumental and customary, sustained by a mixture of pragmatism, habit, and fear of the consequences of change. Postmodern war will eventually produce postmodern armies whose exteriors might remain familiar, but whose internal dynamics will reflect the new challenges they face.

Dennis E. Showalter via War and Game

The all-Volunteer Army is for all sense and purposes an all-elite force. National practitioners such as the USA expects its troops to be highly skilled in all manner of arms, very near the “Hybrid Warrior” so needed in this day and age. Then there is the problem that these immaculately trained “perfect soldiers” are most often called on for sundry occupation duties, foot patrols, presence, nation building, even disaster relief in some of the most impoverished places on earth, where their intense skills are often wasted, though the need is still there.

The American Volunteer Army models its own training and tactics in large part on those of the Israeli Army, at least from the 1970s. Ironically, the Israeli’s do not possess a Volunteer force, save in some of its elite units, and is a conscript army which can mobilize most of the population in an emergency. The US Army, like the British are true volunteers, depending on its Reserve “Base Force” for many support functions, though not wholly. In other words, the reserve is not its heart and soul. With this you get one of the world’s best, most expensive, and very stretched and overworked armies.

The Roman model, specifically the Byzantine, and also the fyrd as deployed by Alfred the Great way back in the 9th Century has me thinking on some solutions to the problem of deploying troops in an age of austerity. An article I read concerning the German armed forces made me realize the imperative of finding a more cost-effective way of deploying more personnel. This was in the Faster Times:

“Three proposals to shrink the armed forces have reportedly been tabled: the least severe would involve downsizing the force to 200,000 and keeping a degree of conscription in place; the “nuclear” option would be to cut the Bundeswehr to 150,000 troops and dispense with the practice of conscription completely. The middle proposal involves reducing the armed forces to 170,000 personnel and substitute conscription with an undetermined form of short-service volunteers.

The idea of trimming the armed forces resonates greatly inside the German MoD for the simple reason that just over half of the defense budget (EUR16.33 billion in 2010) is consumed by personnel costs.”

Just note that last sentence and realize the cost of training and deploying 21st century Hybrid Warriors to face myriad threats is getting worse, not better. So cut the number of regular elite troops, save them for the dire circumstances and fill out numbers for peacekeeping and standard missions with part-time warriors. Though this might seem a strange way to deploy forces in the age where the Blitzkrieg led by tank and airpower for the most part still reigns supreme, it beats extinction and as we say there is much historical precedent.


One problem the West is discovering in attempts to increase manpower is the immense cost of supporting and sustaining a single recruit. In just the past decade alone the price has increased shockingly, and seems to be rising in conjunction with the out of control prices of weapons systems. Here is David Wood, Chief Military Correspondent at Politics Daily:

The military’s “all volunteer force” concept, which replaced the draft in 1973, has been a resounding success, but at a resounding cost. In the past decade, the Army’s personnel costs have more than doubled, from $27.7 billion in 2001 to a projected $59.1 billion for 2011 — with an additional $11.9 billion in projected wartime personnel costs for next year.

Why? One reason is pay. Since 2002, military pay has risen 42 percent, while civilian pay grew by 32 percent.

America has used an all-volunteer army to fight a protracted war overseas, something unheard in its history as far as I recall (The Philippine Insurrection?). The funds now going for reenlistment bonuses and death/wounded insurances are phenomenal and frankly I think unsustainable for a large nation dependent on large numbers of troops. Below are a few solutions which I think are not only possible but also historical:

  • Selectively recruit from naturally combative populations, sportsmen, hunters, etc. In place of monetary compensation, why not excuse them from the high taxes induced on the population as a whole, or perhaps grants of property in exchange for service, or rights of citizenship in exchange for military service.
  • The US might foot the bill for the upkeep of European special troops, now endangered from extinction because of ongoing defense cuts by our allies. I think it would be a tragedy of the West to lose the capabilities of many of the ancient regiments now falling under the knife, which have fought and secured freedom around the world for centuries.
  • Accept lower quality troops, from reserve and militia forces. Note that such types are the backbone of Third World nations and are naturally adept, plus easier to train in irregular warfare. These are the types of troops giving the world’s best conventional armies the trial of their careers currently in the Middle East. It is more costly to put down insurgencies that it is to ferment one, so we should take advantage of such economical troops. Historically though, the US Military has always consisted of such forces, recalling the Minutemen of yesteryear.
  • A national draft is not an alternative as our country just doesn’t have the temperate for that. Plus it can easily be used for political purposes. What I would suggest is a greater dependence on militia. This would entail expecting a reduced quality of personnel, which currently is an outrageous idea to modern planners. They seem to think that all our forces must be highly trained, to the point of elite status, but historically this is far from normal.

The 21st century army would be composed of Regular Forces, as normal, but in smaller numbers and only deployed at strategic spots such as our nation’s capital and providing the core of overseas deployments. The rest would consist of soldier-farmers, who are not paid regular in money, but allowed to live in military colonies, placed on our border or other hot-spots. They could also be deployed overseas if only for short terms, as compensation for their enhanced rights and for free land, health care, etc.

Perhaps these military colonies might be the basis of a renewing of fellowship in our country, as a compromise between the arch-liberal and arch-conservative who increasingly can’t get along with one another. Learning to tolerate each’s particular belief’s like the Left’s socialism and the Right’s freedom of religion, bearing arms, etc., could be mutually beneficial and temper some of the more radical notions of revolution which are rising noticeably.


Photo by Stan Shebs

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Kurt permalink
    December 17, 2011 7:16 pm

    I would modify your suggestions. Militias are great at maintainance and organisation, so use them for that purpose in numbers instead of PMC supplied troops. Combat troops need to be highly trained, so naturally these are active soldiers. You can add suitable militia recruits to these troops as part of occupation forces. The non-military experience of these men will help a lot in communication with civilians while their intellect and ability make them not inferior to the more trained soldiers. So the problem in my opinion is to create a large militia force that’s not directly in combat, but helps run all the high-tech force multipliers with a small group of suiteable militia men being convinced to risk their neck in the frontlines. This select militia group best receives adequate training (and their intellect will help digest lessons faster) to be of value in armed infantry confrontations. However, the central demand for trained infantry specialists in the field demands mobility of these specialists and an extensive survey to decide on the right moves. Providing an information network for the elite hybrid warriors is the best today’s militia can do and has been it’s traditional role of excellence. Recruiting such a militia, in my opinion, is best carried out by offering very good training that can be used for well-payed civilian positions. The force structure supported by a militia of this type wouldn’t be composed of the poor infantrymen of the Third World, but of professionals operating war-machines in a highly informed battlespace with relatively few elite infantrymen.

  2. September 29, 2010 10:42 am

    The Right’s freedom of religion?

    Really? The Right in America wants freedom of practice for Christians only. This does not consititute a freedom of, or freedom from, religion.

    They’ll even go as far as to rewrite history and put words in the mouths of the Founding Fathers to paint them in a conservative Christian light when the opposite (the liberal Enlightenment) was much more accurate

    Nevermind the, “. . . left’s socialism. . .” comment. It is clear what side of the fence you are sitting on, sir. I mark this as a blemish on an otherwise superb blog.

  3. Daniel permalink
    August 21, 2010 2:13 am

    Mike where and when, you aren’t actually giving examples just using catch phrases.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 20, 2010 6:49 pm

    “You really ought to do some reading mike”

    I do and the barbarians are winning! Because they won’t stand up and fight like civilized folk.

  5. Daniel permalink
    August 20, 2010 5:32 pm

    Pushed out and decide too leave are two different things, name one instance instead of a nebulous “pushed colonials out” and Ill guarantee if there was a victory it was a political one in the colonial home country, So your suggesting we should field inferior military forces and depend on propaganda to convince our opponents far left elements to rally in antiwar protests? In almost every insurgency the insurgency was unsuccessful, and did not have success militarily, however success was had with the college kids. You really ought to do some reading mike

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 20, 2010 4:23 pm

    “Name recent successes of the Middle Eastern or African Militia types in doing anything? ”

    Pushing the European colonials out?

  7. Daniel permalink
    August 20, 2010 2:07 pm

    “Daniel, when backed by good regular infantry, the militia served quite well, recalling Cowpens among others.

    Most of the operations currently performed by our “Perfect Soldiers” could involve part timers, for instance, along our borders or overseas, since the bulk of Middle Eastern and African forces are militia types”

    1 they are not perfect soldiers

    2 How many videos are there on live leave of haj blowing himself op by accident with an rpg,motor, or ied, and how many are their of Americans doing something similar? These warlords and their bands are not what you want to emulate, Say you plan was taken to fruition, our untrained vs their untrained, the result would be parity in casualties, that is not conducive to a long term operation. Look at WWI after the generals killed all the professional soldiers in the first months poorly trained conscripts to told it was a great idea to advance line abreast toward machine guns for another 4 years.

    3. What operations along our borders? The border patrol? The few hundred part time national guard along the border? What are you talking about? What specific over seas missions are you talking about? Iraq Afghanistan Africa South America? What would these cheaper lesser trained forced to be their farmer warriors do?

    4. We have a small military for our size compared to other countries numbers wise, on land its much better to spend the money on personnel than wiz bang stuff, its even better to spend the money on training.

    5. Name recent successes of the Middle Eastern or African Militia types in doing anything? Arab militaries have had a hell of a time trying to wipe out Israel, the Iraqi military did stellar against us in 91 and OIF. Why would one emulate a model of failure and incompetency?

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 20, 2010 5:48 am

    Daniel, when backed by good regular infantry, the militia served quite well, recalling Cowpens among others.

    Most of the operations currently performed by our “Perfect Soldiers” could involve part timers, for instance, along our borders or overseas, since the bulk of Middle Eastern and African forces are militia types.

  9. Daniel permalink
    August 19, 2010 6:05 pm

    Look at the height of the soldier farmer in this country, the revolutionary war, Militia was largely ineffective, many times routing at the most inopportune time compromising the entire force, while regulars fared much better, additionally small irregular forces were able to be harassing to the occupier but were active much more on the periphery, not carrying the fight directly to the enemy.

    “To lead untrained men in to war, is to waste them.” – Confucious

  10. Daniel permalink
    August 19, 2010 5:54 pm

    that’s called extrapolation mike, there’s no data available to reinforce your “technically”.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 19, 2010 5:44 pm

    “nobody volunteered for service”

    Technically that is not true. There are many stories of citizens joining soon after the war started for patriotic reasons. They likely would have been called up eventually which is why I say “technically”.

  12. Daniel permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:42 pm

    really everyone in WWII was a conscript, nobody volunteered for service, there were not superior units that recruited volunteers? units of volunteers did not prove superior to conscripted units?

    Most conscripted forces were in support roles in the US military not to mention we are talking about the force structure of a STANDING ARMY, no one engaged in a WORLD WAR. If a large scale conflict were to break out you would once again see a draft and the people who didnt want to be there would be mostly concentrated in support roles and those that wanted to be there would be in combat roles.

    How many battles did the Germans win after Normandy against the western allies? They sound real effective, which were their effective units the VOLKS or the SS?

    About the training of who we are fighting, whats the extent of your time in either country?

  13. Jacob permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:11 pm

    @ Daniel: “conscript forces have time and time again proven to be absolute crap. The last thing the military needs is a bunch of people who dont want to be there. poorly trained troops are adept at nothing but getting themselves and others killed.”

    Well, U.S. soldiers in WWII were all conscripts, and they fought well enough. And so were a lot of the German troop replacements who were used after they took huge losses in Normandy. The Germans were really good at mixing recruits with veterans which quickly increased the combat effectiveness of the recruits. And besides, it’s not like the insurgents we’re facing in Afghanistan or Iraq right now are very well trained either.

  14. August 18, 2010 6:11 pm

    I believe that infantry soldiers should be treated as specialists; just like a tech’. And they should be invested in as much as any other system. I believe inter-state high level war is still possible. And that just as we will need some exquisite high end platforms we will need high-end specialist infantry.

    Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is where the other wars are to be fought, the new asymmetric wars, the wars amongst the people. For a while now as the war in A-stan has become increasingly unpopular I have wondered if the war against Islamic radicalism is being fought in the wrong theatre. That perhaps Western people tired of their young people dying on some foreign field will bring the war home. Bring up the draw bridge (that is stop immigration.) And fight Islamic radicalism on home ground; where the enemy’s host population is in the minority and can easily be identified. (I am not being racist here I am trying to be objective.) If we have the Taliban contained with few resources (but great expense) at a great distance, surely at home those funds would yield even greater results. (We Brits are too timid, I am expecting the backlash to start on the Continent, but I am convince it will happen.)

    What has this to do with Mike B’s post? Well I think the Arizona and Texas border wars are probably a great threat to US security than the Taliban (Islamic Radicalism.) Imagine if the resources given to A-stan war are used to protect the southern border. Imagine how popular that war would be. I think that by the end of Obama’s second term there will be quite a shift to a more isolationist position (China’s growing power, US companies look to re-entrench home production, Japan’s growing resentment of US forces, the collapse of the North Korea, European Union) Therefore I think Latin America’s anti-US position will become a secondary consideration to protecting the US’s integrity to what ever Republic administration replaces Obama.

    Oh yes Mike’s post!!! But who is currently fighting the US border war. Yes the Fed’s are there. But isn’t it the local sheriffs’ departments and ordinary citizens who are putting themselves on the line. Not specials forces. Not in tanks but in pick-ups and on ATVs. And perhaps as the situation worsens before the federal government commits more to the fight more ordinary citizens will become involved.

    So perhaps Mike isn’t far off the mark. Perhaps citizen soldiers defending their country will return. Perhaps it could be argued that wars amongst people in the Third World are wars involving citizen soldiers.

  15. August 17, 2010 7:26 pm

    Hello Mike Burleson,

    what,no ships?
    We seem to discuss the same topics here a lot and I thoroughly enjoyed reading some different ideas for a change.


  16. August 17, 2010 6:28 pm

    During the 1930s when the RAF was short of recruits it actually raised entry requirements.

  17. Daniel permalink
    August 17, 2010 5:29 pm

    conscript forces have time and time again proven to be absolute crap. The last thing the military needs is a bunch of people who dont want to be there. poorly trained troops are adept at nothing but getting themselves and others killed.

    Lower standards in what, do you have any idea of the cultural differences your talking about? “lower standard” American recruits would be naturally adept at video games, having their feeling hurt and playing games where everyone is a winner

    We should absolutely not foot the bill for European or any other military, if they disband god units and we want to say send the recruiters over there that would be a good idea, In fact we probably should pull everything short of logistical elements out of Europe in the hopes of getting them to wake up.

    I dont think you realize what highly trained is, the majority of US forces are not highly trained they are average, compared to the absolute garbage that is the baseline of the world Most of the stuff the line units do is not hard what makes an elite unit elite is the ratio of studs to turds is more favorable than on the line. You say alot of things as if you’ve never spent a day in uniform in your life, stick to talking about things that make sense like FAC destroyers of AIP subs.

  18. August 17, 2010 3:26 pm

    “But if you want to serve and I can’t talk you out of it, then we have to take you, because that’s your constitutional right. It says that everybody, male or female, should have his born right to pay his service and assume full citizenship — but the facts are that we are getting hard pushed to find things for all the volunteers to do that aren’t just glorified KP. You can’t all be real military men; we don’t need that many and most of the volunteers aren’t number-one soldier material anyhow…[W]e’ve had to think up a whole list of dirty, nasty, dangerous jobs that will…at the very least make them remember for the rest of their lives that their citizenship is valuable to them because they’ve paid a high price for it…A term of service is…either real military service, rough and dangerous even in peacetime…or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof.”

    – Starship Troopers :)

  19. Joe K. permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:42 pm

    For once you have some ideas I can wrap my head around but the implementation would have to be better. A conscript force has the tradeoff of not being as trained as an army grunt and not possessing the survivability of such. And also compare the environments. I’m certain the people in Third World countries have also lived with the reality of fighting other people in their own borders a lot more than the U.S. If anything their conscripts would be better than ours because in those countries you have people who’ve been fighting an enemy since they were children. As such training conscripts is likely going to yield poor quality cannon fodder for us.

    If anything the country should institute more of a mandatory service requirement for either high schoolers or college-age youth, having them spend a year or so before they return to their civilian education. It would certainly draw some fire but I can see two major benefits:

    1. the military would possess a larger pool of cheaper bodies to draw from in the event of emergency situations.
    2. the social benefits of having young people serving for that much of time could influence the way future generations approach and conduct future wars.

  20. Fencer permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:06 pm

    Why should we pay for European SOF? It would cost as much as increasing the size of SOCOM and there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t be able to use the European troops when we need them.

    Lower quality troops are “naturally adept” at absolutely nothing. The insurgents are giving our forces “the trial of their careers” because our troops fight under strict RoE. You put badly trained and equipped conscripts in Iraq or Afganistan and casualties will soar. Even if we used these cheap troops it would still be “more costly put down insurgencies than it is to ferment them” because a couple of guys with an AK-47 qualify as insurgency and you would need enough troops to patrol a city to stop them.

    There are really two types of militia; a town-based conscription system or a volunteer Minuteman-type system. Obviously conscription is not an option, but you can’t exactly expect your volunteers to bring their own M1A1s and F-16s. This is why the militia has become the National Guard.

    The system you propose might almost make sense if Canada was about to invade. “Strategic spots such as our nation’s capital”, “military colonies, placed on our border or other hot spots”; this is absolutely pointless in our current security environment.

  21. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 17, 2010 12:26 pm

    This does seem to be a bit stranger than most of Mike’s ideas but at least he is consistent. He is applying the same solution to people he does to platforms–fewer complex expensive ones and more simple, inexpensive ones.

    A mandatory public service is an idea that is a bit out of fashion but might make a comeback. It is certainly one way to help the unemployment problem.

    It has occurred to me that if we ever did get in a situation where we needed to radically expand the armed services, say by draft, how would we handle the pay? Don’t think we could keep the same pay scale for a mass army, but do we cut the pay of the long time professionals?

  22. August 17, 2010 12:18 pm

    The liklihood of military reform seems remote while its necessity becomes more pressing and obvious daily. We need a new consensus on national security, a clear expression of what our national security needs are, and military forces designed to support and sustain these. To reindustrialize the U.S. and withdraw it from its debtor/pauper status we need to smash the military/industrial complex and free up many 000s of engineers for productive work. That alone seems a pipedream. A draft is unnecessary and undesirable but a mandatory national service program is very desirable for many reasons. It should begin upon graduation from high school, last for between 2/3 years, including four months of basic training, without firearms. Our military services can draw from this pool, giving additional military training to its volunteers, but everyone should be required to do at least 18 months national service before transferring to the military. If we can strip the Federal government of the huge entitlements it has arrogated to itself in the last forty years, this would be a genuine service it can perform for the nation, providing a large, flexible pool of fit, trained young people for the challenging tasks of national defense which this century is going to provide. Have written several versions of a National Service proposal which I am happy to share with anyone who has an interest.

  23. Heretic permalink
    August 17, 2010 11:51 am

    Actually Mike, what I wrote was, “almost NO ONE wants to be a Farmer these days.”

    And no, this is not a “Silly Idea” … it’s an outright crazy, get me my meds, crazy idea. You really went off the Deep End with the notion of Military Colonies. That right there is a trifecta plus of incredibly BAD IDEA work. It is, dare I say it … profoundly UNamerican a notion.

  24. Hudson permalink
    August 17, 2010 11:17 am

    Some form of National Service might work in the U.S., if the program had a Peace Corps type of civilian op-out from military service. It might run for a year, 18 months, two years tops, with paid college tuition or a job with a decent salary + training. What young graduates need today are jobs and not to be burdened by six-figure college debts. Of course, that program would have to be paid for too. But jobs are a big issue. The program might accept older Americans, say, up to age 35, for the Reserves.

    I don’t think we need a government militia on top of the Guard and Reserves–we are not under threat of foreign invasion, unless you count the flood of illegals coming into the country through Mexico. I am opposed to giving U.S. citizenship as a prize for military service, except under extraordinary circumstances.

  25. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 17, 2010 11:08 am

    Heretic wrote “NO ONE wants to be a Farmer these days.”

    I disagree, just read anything by Victor David Hanson. I do a little myself every chance I get!

    “I’m going to file this idea of yours in the “loopy” bin.”

    Or “Silly Idea”?

  26. Distiller permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:41 am

    If you can’t afford colonial bush wars, don’t wage them.
    Or go for South American or Eastern European adventurers, don’t pay them anything, but give them U.S. citizenship and a college slot for 10 years of military service.
    Or recruit some regional (tribal) forces.
    Or or or …
    The U.S. way of business sure is the most expensive!

  27. Juramentado permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:04 am

    The price of training and upkeep is partly because we as a nation believe that a strong military is a well-equipped and well-prepared one. The fact that it is now an all-volunteer army is based upon the underlying ideas that someone who *wants* to be in uniform is better motivated and thus will exhibit higher levels of performance and professionalism. But the flipside of that is there will be fewer people under arms. With that in mind, the only ways to get “force multipliers” with fewer rifles, so to speak, is to equip them better than their projected opponents and give them superior training. That’s simply common sense.

    Mike – you’re arguing that more people need to be under arms. I would agree, only up to a point. There are people who could qualify as “Home Guards” – literally a step below National Guard level units, but not many. Building yet another layer of the armed services presents the same challenges today that confront the actives, the reserves and the NG. You’re invoking another round of expenditures – you just can’t call up these folks and expect them to train with nothing. Someone’s got to foot that bill. They have to have a place to train, something to train with, leadership cadres, organizational tail, not so simple as you make it.

    Military colonies? You’re kidding right?! The whole point behind our form of government, for better or for worse, has always been that the military reports and is subservient to the civilian government. Among other things, that’s what preserves our model of democracy and prevents us from becoming just another Military Dictatorship. Now you’re going to foment that exact model within the boundaries of the United States? Not On My Watch!

  28. Heretic permalink
    August 17, 2010 9:21 am

    Mike, the notion of trading public land for public service (ie. military service) may have been a good one in centuries past, when the US was still a nation growing into its frontiers with a strong settler mindset … but it’s not that anymore. You’re dreaming if you think this notion of yours is going to work.

    For one thing, almost NO ONE wants to be a Farmer these days. Farming is hard work with great uncertainties on an annual basis with a very minimal return on investment over the long haul.

    I’m going to file this idea of yours in the “loopy” bin.

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