What Happened to the American Citizen-Soldier?
A Former US Army Intelligence Officer's Lessons from
the Roman Republic
When the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, I was running late to Latin at Texas A&M. I never made it to class that day. The school, with its famous ROTC program and patriotic reputation, all but shut down. Students gathered around the campus televisions.
As I watched the twin towers falling, I had already begun envisioning a vocation in history, but now that future necessitated a detour. Imbued with a sense of civic duty, I recalled Polybius’ vision of a historian. Polybius believed that “it is not possible for a man with no experience of warlike operations to write well about what happens in war.”
The previous spring I had taken a class on the Roman Republic and fallen under the spell of Cicero, Livy, and Plutarch. The summer before the attacks, I interned in Washington D.C. and couldn’t help but notice the Roman influences in the art and architecture of American politics. Before I flew back home in late August 2001, I walked straight up the steps into the Capitol and toured the neo-classical testament to the world’s new Rome.
For eight years Polybius’ words haunted me as I pursued my goal of becoming an interdisciplinary historian, earning degrees in history, political science, and theology. As I was finishing the dissertation that would become the seeds of my book about Roman warfare, Killing for the Republic, I enlisted in the Army. One month after defending my thesis, I shipped off to Basic Training in an attempt to sate my conscience and answer Polybius’ summons. So began a series of lessons about Rome, war, and civic sacrifice in my own republic.
Basic training was the best thing I never want to do again. I expected all the shouting, push-ups, and hazing, but I wasn’t prepared to have my independence eliminated and my life micromanaged by the government. I went from reading great texts whenever I wanted to cleaning grimy toilets whenever I was told. Being shoved into a barracks with 60 young men, most of whom had never seen the inside of a college classroom, was the real training for me. As Polybius had already warned, I needed the experience, perspective, and humility.
Anyone can learn to follow orders, march, and fire a rifle. You can even learn to sleep standing up. But the army aims to do more, to tear individuals down to some sort of raw human material that they can reshape into a patriotic community.
Some of this “training” was cruel: I remember the drill sergeant who always found excuses to keep us from church and punish us on Sundays. Much of the training was asinine: they made us drink water until we threw up. Some of it was brilliant: one time someone got into mischief during a field exercise and the entire battalion was mustered at 2 am for a roll call. We had not governed ourselves so now we had to give an account, with everyone sounding off in numeric order. Sleep deprivation and exhaustion never allowed us to get past the number 137 before someone miscounted, making it a very long night. Everyone had a greater sense of communal responsibility after that.
One day after I had performed some push-up penance a drill sergeant asked me what I wanted to do in the army. I said intelligence, but I was thinking about infantry. “Do infantry,” he responded before asking, “you’re not tied down are you?”
“I’m married,” I said. He frowned and then fired back, “You need to get rid of that.” He was serious, but I was annoyed so I rashly responded. “No, I rather like my wife, so intelligence it is.” More push-ups.
Another enlightening episode was the day we were all polled as to why we joined. Nearly everyone said they wanted a career in the military or needed a job. Some mentioned better opportunities or college after serving. A handful talked about serving their country or fighting terrorism. That was the first time it registered that I was not what the army was looking for. They needed people who wanted a career in warfare.
The most beneficial part of Basic was getting to know people I never would have met in the ivory tower: 18-year-olds that were hardworking, loyal, and dutiful. They came from all over the United States, from small Alabama towns to the heart of urban centers like Philadelphia. At first I thought this cross-section was an accurate representation, but I rarely came across the son of a CEO or the daughter of an investment banker. I was the only PhD-turned-private I knew of. There are exceptions, and the middle-class is prominent, but soldiers from the wealthy and the highly educated are underrepresented.
Citizen-soldiering has been supplanted by a warrior class of soldier-citizens. There are logical reasons for this. Labor has been specialized and our culture focuses on individual success more than public service. If you want to become a doctor, an accountant, a politician, or a professor, you need to focus on that career path. The same goes for the military. There are the Reserves and National Guard, of course, but these are playing smaller roles today. Frequent deployments have often made them look more like active units.
After Basic Training I moved on to Officer Candidate School and then specialist training in Arizona. I was finally reunited with my books and had the chance to start reframing my graduate research. I was struck by the differences between the citizen-soldiers of republican Rome and the soldier-citizens of modern America.
It would have been unthinkable for an elite Roman to avoid war. The wealthy, well-born, and well-educated led the republican legions and were among the first to die in the face of disaster. After three years of war with Carthage, an enemy commander famously returned to the Carthaginian senate and presented a pile of gold rings, equivalent to two gallons today, worn only by Roman elites. These had been stripped from the leading statesmen, the wealthy, and their children that had died fighting for Rome.
Despite America’s martial beginnings in the militia tradition, the notion of so many elites serving—much less dying—in combat is unthinkable. War is for the professionals who have chosen that career path. We anticipate that our modern, all-volunteer army will not be fought by the political, intellectual, and socio-economic elite. With very few serving, we no longer even expect sacrifices from most of our citizens. If you had pointed that out to a Roman citizen-soldier, they would have said you don’t truly have a republic.
I was not the best soldier because I never fit into the culture. My captain noticed this one day and chastised me, saying, “you’re still acting a civilian.” The problem was that I was still thinking like a citizen who would someday cease to be a soldier.
On the eve of our deployment, our commanding officer—a man I deeply respected—tried to explain why we were going to Afghanistan. He drew a map of the region and explained the complicated politics that necessitated U.S. intervention. He was right. Central Asia has always been a pivotal frontier and thoroughfare. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it had also become a geopolitical tinder box with natural resources, pipelines, and terrorists. This didn’t change the fact that I was skeptical about his reasoning. I was here because 19 lunatics killed 3,000 civilians.
Unfortunately, due to an injury, this colonel who had trained us so well was replaced at the last minute by a man who always reminded me of Slim Pickens’ character from Dr. Strangelove—you know, the guy who rides the bomb out of the airplane and launches mutually assured destruction.
My job in Afghanistan was to identify the high value targets, map their pattern of life, and figure out the best way to eliminate them. To this day I have few regrets about this. These people were truly despicable, the kind that blackmailed pregnant teenagers for terrorist work, trafficked drugs into farming villages, and recruited kids to plant IEDs. I was ready to finish my job and get home as soon as possible.
Then two things happened. First, a truck full of explosives burned down a large part of our base. Twenty-four hours before that explosion, I had planned to work out 30 feet from it. Twelve hours before that I was given an assignment at another base. When it happened, I merely heard a boom. When the news reached us, I rushed to the med station to see the guy I shared a desk with bleeding profusely from a hole in his side.
I set about with a renewed resolve, dedicating extra hours to mapping out and identifying targets. Then the second event happened. One night I passed through the operations room and saw a live feed of IED stagers desperately trying to race away on a motorcycle from a team of coalition helicopters. As they were obliterated on the screen a cheer erupted in the room. I knew this had made that road safer for the moment, but I also knew these were probably just young men looking for a job. They were counterparts to the kind of kids who had impressed me so much in Basic. Something inside me revolted.
For a month a series of questions taunted me. Targeting Al Qaeda seemed just, but now a host of other groups had emerged, and they recruited people who simply saw the U.S.-led coalition as aggressors—the Soviet invasion redux. Had our ongoing presence there decreased or increased the number of terrorists? Was Afghanistan more or less peaceful? Punishing the people responsible for 9/11 was one thing, but did we have the right to remake Afghanistan into some sort of liberal democracy? Could that even work in a land with a completely different history and culture? Should my common humanity with these people have inspired my coming to their country as something other than a soldier?
My convictions about Rome shifted as well. As Polybius warned, I had now experienced the horrors of war and was no longer the same person. Writing about republican warfare took on a different edge as I compared the militarism of the Roman and American republics. I understood the complaints in the historical record from common soldiers. I saw the complexity of the Roman legions’ marching into foreign lands. I considered whether it was cosmically just that Rome’s militarism ultimately devoured the republic itself.
Less than .5 percent of citizens today serve. When I returned home, I was one of the few Americans who had seen combat. My home had changed a great deal since Basic. I now had two daughters: a toddler confused as to why I’d been gone and a baby with no idea who I was. I’d prioritized nation-building over my family. I felt guilty about that choice and about the young Afghans who had merely wanted a job or foreign powers out of their homeland. I wondered how winnable, and how just, the War on Terror actually was.A consequence of extremely low military participation is a growing divide between the civilian and the soldier.
Strength without justice creates tyranny. Rome discovered this when they created the strongest armies but saw the erosion of the civic mores that had bound the republic together for centuries. It started treating its allies inequitably and behaving more brutishly with potential opponents. At home, politics turned corrupt and violent. Civil wars terminated the republic.
Roman citizens cared too much about war, but Americans care too little. Apathy is just as dangerous as blind patriotism. A consequence of extremely low military participation is a growing divide between the civilian and the soldier. Recent election cycles cite issues ranging from healthcare, the economy, the environment, and immigration. The ongoing war on terror is something many Americans rarely consider these days.
Apathy about military matters is not healthy for a republic—it results in sacrifices from too few and inhibits the citizenry’s oversight of the state’s coercive power. Roman emperors knew this, which is why the first emperor turned Rome’s citizen-soldiers into professional armies loyal to him alone.
I wrote Killing for the Republic because I hoped to make a historical argument for why citizens should care about their republic. I wanted to explain how republics fought wars, why Roman citizen-soldiers were particularly good at it, and what insights this still has for us.
Perhaps the most important insight I learned is that a citizen’s involvement in war leaves scars—not simply physical ones, but moral scars. Warfare should always leave us discontented, even when we win. It should point to the imperfections in humanity that will never be solved by temporal political action.
I now teach in New York City. Every day that I commute into the World Trade Center I think about 9/11. Many days my conscience is clean because I was afforded the chance to serve my republic. Just as often my conscience pricks me for leaving my family to be a part of the team that killed those young men. And that’s a tension I should have to live with.
Steele Brand’s Killing for the Republic is out now from Johns Hopkins University Press.