More Iraq (Sorry!): Languages at War

Phil Carter has an interesting post on why the US military establishment is still failing to provide the language skills and area knowledge its soldiers need. Rather, the post is good, but the comments discussion is cracking! Phil’s basic point is that there are nowhere near enough Arabists in their forces (no surprise, perhaps, given the way “Arabist” was repurposed as a neo-con term of abuse), and that this is equivalent in importance to not having enough guns.

“Indeed, in today’s operational environment, cultural competency must be regarded as an element of combat power — and something to be measured when one assesses the readiness of our forces.”

You said it. Let’s go back to that Washington Post report I linked down-blog. (Link)

“Last month, three trucks filled with two dozen soldiers from Charlie Company were ambushed near a Tigris River bridge. Instead of meeting the attack, the Iraqis fled and radioed for help. The Americans said the Iraqis told them they had lost 20 men, had run out of ammunition and were completely surrounded. When a U.S. quick reaction force arrived, the area was quiet and the Iraqi soldiers were huddled around their trucks. Four were missing; it was later learned that they had hailed taxis, gone home and changed into civilian clothes. One soldier, the company’s senior noncommissioned officer, refused to come out for several hours, saying he continued to be surrounded by insurgents.

After the incident, McGovern said he summoned an interpreter, asked him to translate the soldier’s words verbatim and “disgraced” the Iraqi soldiers. “You are all cowards,” he began. “My soldiers are over here, away from our families for a year. We are willing to die for you to have freedom. You should be willing to die for your own freedom. If you continue to run away from the enemy, the enemy will continue to chase you. You will never win.” McGovern asked the interpreter, Nabras Mohammed, if he had gone too far. “Well, you shouldn’t have called them women, and you shouldn’t have called them” wimps, Mohammed told him…[snip]…U.S. forces then ordered the Iraqis to arrest everyone inside the mosque, including the respected elderly prayer leader. The Iraqi platoon leader refused, U.S. soldiers recalled. The platoon leader and his men then sat down next to the mosque in protest.

“We wanted to tell the Americans they couldn’t do this again,” Dhanoun said. In a measure of the shame they felt, the men insisted they had not entered the mosque. “You can’t enter the mosque with weapons. We have traditions, we have honor, and we’re Muslims,” Dhanoun said. “You enter the mosque to pray, you don’t enter the mosque with guns.”

Well, that’s set the bounds of the problem nicely. Compare and contrast my HOWTO Occupy Tunisia post, containing pages from a British Army handbook issued to all ranks in Tunisia, 1942. The very first piece of advice is: DON’T enter mosques! It goes on to give useful advice on a wide range of topics, including the desirability of healthy scepticism towards the French colonial power, the inadvisability of starting fistfights, and the importance of treating the civil population with dignity.

I commented on Phil’s post, and I’ll reiterate one of my points here. Another Second World War lesson is that Britain found that it was possible to teach “difficult” languages to considerable numbers of men quickly. The Joint Services School for Linguists, a wartime innovation, had to evolve new teaching methods, and chose to concentrate on language-as-communication over formal teaching, as well as using total-immersion teaching. Postwar, it went on teaching Russian to high standards for large numbers of conscripts screened for linguistic ability up until the end of National Service in 1962. (It also made a considerable contribution to English literature, oddly enough. Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Dennis Potter, DM Thomas and Sir Peter Hall were all graduates.) The course aimed at producing translator-standard linguists in less than a year, and it ran through 5,000 conscripts in its postwar existence.

So – it can be done. Why it hasn’t can perhaps be seen in the reasons the JSSL succeeded. Those were: commitment to understanding Russian language and Russian culture, strict meritocracy, considerable investment, and innovation. I suspect 1) and 2) are the keys.


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