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I Served in a Foreign Military, and It Was Perfectly Legal

As my family swore an oath to pledge allegiance to the United States, a year later I was swearing allegiance to the Republic of Finland.

I moved to the United States when I was nine years old. I did not speak a word of English, had never eaten bacon, and did not understand why the cashier at the supermarket asked me how I was doing as she scanned my groceries. I was homesick and wanted to return to my birthplace of Finland, which I still considered to be my real home.

Fast forward to my teenage years, the American experience had grown on me, and I had begun to believe that living in the United States was a gift, one that many young people my age could only dream about. Before graduating high school, I turned in my green card and proudly accepted my newly-minted American citizenship certificate. It was the proudest day of my life.

As circumstances would have it, I had the right to maintain my Finnish citizenship. As someone with a deep respect for the nation of 5.5 million people, which has staunchly defended its independence against Russian aggression for generations, I reckoned that relinquishing my citizenship would only be an insult to my forebears. Even today, as an American citizen, I deeply value my native land and the freedom and opportunities it provided my family.

Finland remains one of the few countries left in the West that has a mandatory military service requirement for young men. Considering that the nation shares the longest border with Russia in Europe, this policy still remains popular among the fiercely nationalist electorate.

For most of my life, my grandfather would ask me if I was going to cross the Atlantic and do my stint in the military upon graduating high school. For years, this question weighed on me.

To my surprise, the United States allows for dual citizens to serve in foreign militaries without loss of American citizenship, as long as the foreign nation is not engaged in hostilities with the United States and the dual citizen has no intention of relinquishing American citizenship. According to the U.S. Department of State:

There is nothing that we can do to prevent [foreign military service] since each sovereign country has the right to enact its own laws on military service and apply them as it sees fit to its citizens and residents.

A few months before graduating 12th grade, I chose to delay my first of year college in order to fulfill my military service to my native country. My reasoning was that Finland was a friend of the United States, both culturally and politically, and we even shared the same rival to the east. It’s not as if the United States and Finland would ever go to war, I assured myself.

For a period of less than a year in the Finnish Defense Forces, I learned how to shoot a machine gun and how to pitch a tent in the woods. But most importantly, I gained a newfound appreciation for all men and women who serve in the military. My basic training in the military was probably the hardest thing I had ever had to do, so I cannot imagine what it is like to be engaged in actual combat as a professional soldier.

Tent in Santahamina Base, Finland.

After receiving my discharge papers and boarding a flight home, I recall landing at JFK Airport in New York, relieved to be safely in the country I now consider home. However, this feeling did not last long. Although I was back in the United States, as I gathered my bags and headed outside on the cold New York day, I couldn’t shake the unease of knowing that, though I would soon be starting college back home, I would still be a reservist in another nation’s military.

Not only that, but I had also pledged my complete loyalty to the Republic of Finland in a mandatory military recognition ceremony. Driving back on the New Jersey Turnpike towards home with my father and seeing that big American flag painted on the storage cylinder near Carteret, New Jersey, I couldn’t help but wonder: how could it be possible that the United States—the Greatest Country in the World—allows its own citizens to go and join other sovereign nations’ militaries?

While I can list off a series of reasons why a strong Finland is in the interest of the United States, in principle, it is wrong that I was allowed to go and serve a foreign army with the full consent of the United States government.

First, there is the obvious worst-case scenario, which the State Department acknowledges on its website by saying: “The United States recognizes the problems that may be caused by such foreign military service.”

What if by some devastating, but unlikely, circumstances Finland were to find itself a belligerent party to the United States? Would the United States government have to round up all of its Finnish military reservist dual citizens and treat them like enemy combatants (there are hundreds of us by the way), while stripping away our rights as American citizens? Lawmakers have without a doubt considered this scenario, and have deemed it so unlikely that to address it is not worth valuable legislative time. But unlikelier things have happened. And good policy making does not exclude the possibility of an unlikely scenario from happening.

Second, and most importantly, it is fundamentally unpatriotic. Ever since completing my stint in the Finnish military, my patriotism has been brought to question. And for good reason. When I told people that I loved the United States, that I was loyal to America, people would inevitably bring up the fact that I had served in a foreign military. For years, I tried defending it.

It’s not easy to admit to being wrong, but I now realize that I was. If we still believe in the United States that to enlist in the military is the most patriotic thing you can do, then to enlist in a foreign military may be the most un-patriotic thing a citizen can do.

If we are a country that claims it is truly exceptional, all citizens should be expected to be patriots. Least of all, they should not be patriots of foreign countries.

Military ceremony in Vantaa, Finland.

As I have mentioned earlier, I believe there are American citizens with noble reasons for wanting to take up arms on the behalf of another nation. Israel, for example, takes in thousands of Americans each year to serve in its defense forces. Being a close ally of the United States, this practice hardly receives any scrutiny. Regardless, Israel is a sovereign nation with its own domestic and foreign policy goals, some of which are not aligned with those of the United States.

While there are sound reasons as to why the U.S. benefits from a strong Israeli state, Israeli-minded American citizens can provide their support in other ways. For example, they can enlist in the U.S. military to serve alongside Israeli troops, or influence the legislative process so that the U.S. government provides more aid to Israel.

Participating in military service is hardly the only way to support a friendly foreign nation like Israel and Finland.

I believe that the United States should consider changing its lax rule regarding foreign military service from the current hands-off stance to a more critical one. Under certain, exceptional circumstances, it may be in the national interest to allow Americans to go and serve in a foreign military capacity, like that of a strategic partner such as Finland when the United States deems it to be in the national interest. However, this should be the exception, not the rule. In such a case, there must be a stipulation not to require any American citizen to swear their allegiance to a foreign flag.

If Finland were ever in a situation that threatened its sovereignty, I would be in the front lines lobbying for the United States to go to Finland’s aid. But I don’t need to don a military uniform and swear my unquestioning allegiance to do that, and neither does any other American.

Henri Mattila is a Co-founder at Merion West.

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