The Military’s Most Important Role Is Border Defense

Our country has been thrust into a scene out of The Camp of the Saints: a large caravan of migrants organized in Honduras is streaming towards our southern border proclaiming the right to enter and work in our country. They’re not invited, nor is this legal, but they are seizing their destiny (and ours) as pueblos sin fronteras, “workers without borders.”

The Fourth Generation Threat to National Sovereignty
Some have scoffed at the description of this “caravan” as an invasion, dismissing it as right-wing hyperbole. But what is the difference? Formal or informal, through modern armies or tribal warriors, invasions are objects of concern because they determine who controls a land and its resources.

Post-Westphalia, states and their professional armies became dominant; noncombatants were mostly off limits. Tribal warriors gave way to professional soldiers. Armies would cross borders, leaders would change, and the peasants would go about their affairs mostly with indifference. Then nationalism appeared on the scene. It tapped into a deep emotional well, the abiding quest for community. National leadership was perceived as more legitimate, more in line with the ethos of the governed, and thus naturally less burdensome. Various choices a state and its leaders face—what language to speak, which religions to respect, which heroes to honor—are less disruptive when there is an alignment of political borders and national culture. The natural justice of nationalism was one of the reasons it became a formula for peace between nations and happiness within them.

Before nation-states, the alternatives included: multinational empires, nations without states, and nations divided among dozens of indefensible statelets. In the past, as now, there were transnational allegiances—religion, language, ethnicity—and there were local allegiances, as well. But the nation-state proved, until recently, the most legitimate and powerful mode of political organization.

Much of the literature about “fourth-generation warfare” recognizes that nation-states and their authority are under threat, diminished by global and transnational forces—powerful multinational corporations, mass migration, and international religious movements—as well as competing, less hierarchical organizations, such as terrorist cells and criminal gangs.

This destruction of state authority is not completely apparent within our borders, but it appears dramatically so elsewhere.

Who runs Mexico, for example? Is it the government? And, if so, which part of it? Clearly the Mexican government is, at best, only nominally in charge, having given up on stopping the caravan after a pro forma attempt to assert sovereignty and placate its stronger neighbor.

The U.S. Military Can Be Legally Deployed on the Border
Threats to nation-states, including military threats, are not limited to other states and their militaries. The U.S. military spent the better part of the 19th century fighting pirates and hostile Indians, only briefly becoming a modern conscript force during the Civil War. The army reverted to its heritage as a frontier constabulary thereafter. More recently, the military has been fighting a plethora of nonstate enemies, especially Islamic Jihadist groups and drug cartels. Yet, unlike the earlier Indian Wars, nearly all of this activity takes place today overseas.

Before its growth and dominance in the two world wars, the U.S. military was focused inward, operating almost exclusively within U.S. territories and on the border. In addition to the Indian wars, it played a large role in occupying the defeated South. The latter proved controversial, however, ushering in strong limits against the employment of the military in domestic “law enforcement” through the Posse Comitatus Act.

But just because the military operates domestically does not mean it is engaged in law enforcement. Using the military on the border is as American as the Constitution, which provides: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence.

The divorce of the military from border defense—an artifact of World War II and the subsequent Cold War—should be considered more critically.

No one saw a conflict between Posse Comitatus and the deployment of troops in a string of forts along the border with Mexico to deter and punish incursions. This use of the army in border security culminated in Black Jack Pershing’s 1916 punitive expedition against Pancho Villa. Thereafter, the military focused almost exclusively on overseas threats from nation-states, particularly in Europe, mostly ceding its role at the border to a law enforcement agency in 1924 when the Border Patrol was created.

In the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed massive illegal immigration from Mexico, the military demurred. Historian Matt Matthews, in his excellent paper on the deployment of the army on the Mexican border, described the decision as follows:

In 1954, U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell launched Operation WETBACK, a major coordinated effort to round up and expel illegal aliens. Hoping to reinforce the Border Patrol, Brownell turned to the U.S. Army for help. To his dismay, the proposal was rejected. The Army claimed such an operation would “seriously disrupt training programs at a time when the administration’s economy slashes were forcing the service to drastically cut its strength. Army generals also opposed the idea because a division would be needed just to begin to control the influx, while sealing off the border would require even more troops.”

The Military Must Reorient Itself to National Defense
While renaming itself the Department of Defense in 1947, the old Department of War was far more concerned with immediate national defense. The post-war military prepared to refight World War II in many respects, devoting its training and equipment to countering a conventional threat, the Soviet Union. The wars we actually fought, particularly the one in Vietnam, deviated from this plan, as the fighting tended to be counterinsurgencies against mostly unconventional enemies.

As with border protection, counterinsurgency did not align with the large conventional military’s ethos and strengths. It had inherent ambiguity and required the skills of the soldier, as well as the teacher, policeman, engineer, and social worker. After Vietnam, the military refocused on confronting the Soviets, ditching much of its hard-won counterinsurgency wisdom. This culminated in a big victory in the first Gulf War, but thereafter—whether in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan—the U.S. military found itself facing unconventional threats for which its training, doctrine, and equipment have yielded mostly inconclusive results.

This institutional resistance from the Pentagon to countering unconventional, transnational threats has not dissipated, in spite of the loss in Vietnam and the inconclusive results of the long War on Terror. The military continues to buy expensive weaponry mostly useless against guerillas and criminals, while pivoting its doctrine and training towards conflicts with “near peer” competitors. This reboot is happening even though international gangs, illegal aliens, and insurgents have killed far more Americans than any Russian soldier ever did, and even though the majority of wars we have fought since World War II have been “low-intensity conflicts.”

The creation of a Department of Homeland Security in wake of the 9/11 attacks should have been far more controversial than it was. If we needed such a department, what the hell was the Department Defense doing?

The Pentagon was devoted to preparing for a conventional war. But such conventional conflict is mostly avoidable and highly unlikely—not least because of the possibility of escalation to nuclear war—even as unavoidable and extant fourth-generation conflict is already here, most dramatically in the immigration caravan.

Trump’s call for the military to stop the caravan and protect the border—along with his call for the wall—are controversial because they call into question the entire paradigm of our foreign policy experts and the related “defense” apparatus. His “America First” policies aim to provide a tangible benefit to America and its people, as opposed to pursuing purely global interests such as “stability” and “influence.”

Playing whack-a-mole with mobile terrorists, massive forward deployment of U.S. forces, and occasional brinkmanship with Russia and China have proven to be expensive dead ends. By contrast, the application of military power and a sophisticated wall along a defined frontier leverages the power of the state against non-state actors. It surely can work; it’s a question of will and resources. It worked for Israel, which effectively shut down the problem of far-more-motivated Palestinian terrorists through a sophisticated wall.

Non-state actors threaten our country, but they cannot take on our military power head on. Our poorly protected southern border and Byzantine protection for dubious “refugees” benefits big business, the Democratic Party, and illegal immigrants themselves, but this neglect of the border comes at a high price to American citizens. The flow of mere economic migrants provides a crowd in which dangerous groups can hide. Moreover, the steady flow of illegal aliens represents a cumulative threat to our national sovereignty, prosperity, and unity.

Our military and political leaders must adapt to the times. The reluctance to use the military on the border comes from the obsolete paradigm of a world where nation-states have a “monopoly on force.”

Yet many historically transformative invasions were not by uniformed militaries and may not have even been particularly violent. The first English colonists in North America came as religious farmers seeking peace. At first, they had peaceful relations with native tribes, which we celebrate on Thanksgiving. The barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire were as much an immigration phenomenon as they were a military invasion. Whether violent or not, the result in each of these cases was the same: displacement of the existing people and their way of life.

Before political correctness stifled common sense, it was common to say, “If we hadn’t won World War II we’d all be speaking German.” This metaphor spoke to something deep and powerful: the fear of feeling like a stranger in the land of your birth. Today, in many parts of the country, you need to know Spanish just to get by; Germans and Frenchmen are now finding their streets filled with the sounds of Arabic and Turkish. These shifts in linguistic unity signal a broader disunity, the fruits of massive, unrestrained, and unassimilable levels of immigration.

The caravan forces us to face a very important question: does the state and the military protect the nation and their way of life?

A nation without borders will not long exist. President Trump, with his uncommon common sense, knows this, but his subordinates are reluctant to change course. The military’s own history, however, and the history of every defeated army on earth, should provide a ready source of wisdom: militaries lose when they are preparing to fight the last war. A new type of invasion is manifest, and it calls for a new type of military, one at home on the border.

Photo Credit: Caitlin O’Hara/AFP/Getty Images

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.