Why it's time to bring back the citizen-soldiers who won World War II
By STEELE BRAND | Special To The Washington Post | Published: June 7, 2019
Seventy-five years ago, the United States and its Allies launched an unprecedented amphibious invasion of France that became the most decisive defeat of Germany in that theater. Ironically, the kind of men who achieved the D-Day victory, America's citizen-soldiers, would slowly be phased out in the decades following the war — something that poses a threat to our republic today.
The citizen-soldiers of D-Day were men who had occupations or plans for occupations before the war. Some had been groomed to run family businesses. Some were fishers or machinists. Others had just entered college. They had mixed reactions to being drafted or enlisting, but most of them left behind their livelihoods to defend their country. Few considered soldiering as anything more than a temporary detour.
Dick Winters' autobiographical account, "Beyond Band of Brothers," captured the sentiments of these soldiers and their D-Day experiences that were neither grandiose nor glorious. "Killing did not make me happy," he remarked, and when evening came on D-Day, "I did not forget to get on my knees and thank God for helping me to live through this day . . . and I promised myself that if I survived, I would find a small farm somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside and spend the remainder of my life in quiet and peace."
Citizen-soldiers such as Winters are vanishing from our military. When the Cold War opened, many believed that a new era of war-fighting had dawned. A highly volatile international scene with the possibility of war at any moment, coupled with a more interventionist America required easily deployable, trained troops. Then the Vietnam War became so unpopular that scrapping conscription for an all-volunteer army became a political necessity.
While politicians have occasionally raised resurrecting the draft in recent decades, it's usually more an attempt to spotlight the uneven burdens of defending America, not a proposal that many Americans take seriously. Killing for country is now primarily the job of professionals and volunteers.
A recent study by the Rand Corp. explains some of the consequences of this shift. Civilians exercise less control over the military because so few now serve. The militia ideal of the founding era, or even the citizen-soldiers who won the world wars, has disappeared. As a result, military service is less obligatory, less universal and less civilian than it has ever been in U.S. history.
It would appear we have abandoned the constitutional vision that defined who we are and served us so well for over two centuries. Historically, republics suffer when they do not expect their citizens to fight or cannot find enough of them willing to do so, which has been a recent problem as most branches of the military struggle to meet their recruitment goals. Historically, this is symptomatic of a debilitating disease — a lack of civic commitment — that could kill the republic. In ancient Greece, city-states such as Athens and Sparta that created republics defended by average citizens devolved into a mercenary culture, then were conquered by the Macedonians.
The Roman Republic conquered the Mediterranean with citizen-soldiers. The republic decayed, however, and when tyrants turned it into an autocracy, the first Roman emperor transformed the army into a professional corps loyal to him alone. Citizen-soldiers were just too dangerous for an autocrat.
When Americans shook off the professional and mercenary armies of Britain, they swore to rid their new country of what they saw as the pernicious evil of warrior classes. The sentiment explains why the Declaration of Independence denounces standing armies and the Constitution prioritizes militias for national defense.
To reimplement their vision, Americans must undertake four changes: They must be better informed about the bedrock ideas that animated our system of government, engage with the news, use the resultant knowledge to participate in government and begin their political lives at home, by caring for their neighbors.
To achieve this, citizens should begin by reading about the basic republican ideas, something as simple as one of the Federalist Papers, a dialogue of Plato or an oration of Cicero. Set it on your nightstand and spend five minutes with it per night. Each of these republican texts reminds readers that defending the country is every citizen's responsibility.
Second, citizens should follow international news and demand transparency about American intervention abroad. Civilians can only vote, lobby and protest in the public square — and accordingly take control of foreign policy — if they are knowledgeable. Ignorance and apathy have been the tools of tyrants since ancient times.
Third, citizens should participate in government, beginning at the local level. Voting is not enough. Join the local volunteer firefighters. Serve on your town council. Enlist in the National Guard. Republicanism demands that average citizens serve the common good, up to and including setting aside their vocations temporarily for the common defense when needed.
And finally, citizens should never lose sight of the fact that local institutions — especially family, neighbors, spiritual associations and vocation — inform and motivate broader civic participation. Alexis de Tocqueville correctly observed that America was founded on strong local institutions that built the republic from the bottom up. If American civic culture fails at the local level, it cannot succeed higher up. Face-to-face interactions with our neighbors teach us a lot more about national politics than following the latest headlines online.
Caring about one's neighbors is the first step to caring about one's country. When this spirit is blended with being well-informed, Americans will have the capacity to be good citizens and, if necessary, good citizen-soldiers. Fostering such a culture will also enable Americans to demand more from themselves and their communities and less from the government.
This kind of thinking may sound foreign today, but the citizen-soldiers of D-Day felt it in their bones. Winters embodied these values. As a young man during the Great Depression, he learned the value of hard work in his Pennsylvania community with roots in the Amish and Mennonite traditions. Before the war, he worked to pay for school. With little time for frivolities, he remarked that he dedicated "a great deal of time . . . with my inner thoughts and ideas stimulated by reading."
After the war, he returned to Pennsylvania and fulfilled his promise from D-Day. Peace was hard to find, but Winters said it finally materialized by 1960 when he moved his wife and two children to a small farm. The soldier had finally found peace as a citizen. This D-Day, we should do more than remember what men like Winters did in the war. We should remember what they desired to return to in peace.
Brand is assistant professor of history at The King's College, a former U.S. Army tactical intelligence officer and author of "Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War."