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Press and Commentary

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After hiking for 45 days, Marine veteran Ramon Castro is reportedly nearing the end of a 2,000-mile trek along the U.S.-Mexico border to protest the deportation of noncitizen veterans. Over the past two decades, thousands of noncitizens enlisted in the U.S. military, providing critical contributions to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.  Despite their service, the U.S. government deported perhaps thousands of these veterans from the nation they fought to defend.

It’s hard to know the exact numbers: in 2019, the Government Accountability Office found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t consistently keep records of the numbers of veterans it deported — and didn’t consistently follow special procedures it had established for veterans facing removal.

The modern U.S. military relies deeply on its foreign recruits — roughly 5,000 noncitizens enlist each year. Approximately 24,000 noncitizens are currently serving in uniform. Yet, as Castro’s march underscores, the fates of these noncitizens can be precarious. [...]


On the heels of Russia’s invasion, Kyiv opened embassy hotlines and launched savvy websites to attract and funnel foreign volunteers into Ukraine’s fight for its survival. In recruiting legionnaires — noncitizens or foreigners who join another state’s military — Ukraine is embracing a military tool that has long shaped history’s major wars.

Although research on foreign legions and the states that recruit them is still growing, recent history suggests lessons and insights that seem tailor-made to inform Ukraine and those following its conflict closely. In particular, Finland’s use of legionnaires during the Winter War suggests how these volunteers not only provide a boost to the combat effort, but can also serve to rally the international community.

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References in the Press

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An interesting subplot of the Russian invasion and subsequent war in Ukraine has been the rush of fighters from other countries to join the Ukrainian foreign legion and to fight as legionnaires on behalf of the Ukrainian government. The phenomenon of legionnaires is an interesting one that crops up all throughout history yet has remained relatively understudied. What role do legionnaires play in conflicts? How does their impact differ from that of typical soldiers? How can we distinguish them from contractors or mercenaries or other categories of fighters? And what can legionnaires tell us about the ways that states like to conduct international affairs and international conflict?

To talk through these issues, Jacob Schulz spoke with Elizabeth Grasmeder, a researcher and author of an international security article entitled “Leaning on Legionnaires: Why Modern States Recruit Foreign Soldiers.” They talked about the historical practice of use of legionnaires and what it can reveal about conflicts today.

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