An Army of Soldiers, Not so Much Linguists

It doesn’t make sense to train an army made up solely of linguists. I believe that military training should emphasize actual combat skills and job skills so that we have as many deployable and valuable troops as possible.

To speak and understand the language of a country takes an immersion in the language and a great deal of training; it’s unrealistic to suggest otherwise. We’re not sending our military into your country to speak to you; we’re sending them there with a specific mission, but it would be nice if we had enough people trained to serve as linguists:

It’s widely understood that if U.S. troops spoke the languages of the foreign populations they encounter in battle zones, military operations would be more effective and efficient. But creating a large pool of troops proficient in the languages they are most likely to encounter has proved enormously difficult.

A recent bipartisan report by the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on oversight and investigations concludes the military services have a long way to go to develop the language abilities needed in today’s conflicts. What’s more, the services’ efforts to improve skills are hampered by a public education system that fails to inculcate the importance of language and cultural studies in an increasingly globalized world.

“The Department of Defense and the services are trying to enhance these skills, but they’ve inherited a national problem that slows them down considerably,” said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the oversight subcommittee.

According to the report, “The nation, as a whole, lacks an educational infrastructure than can produce the dramatically increased numbers of highly proficient individuals needed, not only for national security, but also for economic competitiveness.”

The problem with that line of thinking is, what languages are we talking about?

Here are the top ten countries that the US exports to:

Canada … US$211.9 billion (up 31.7% from 2002)
Mexico … $120.4 billion (up 23.5%)
Japan … $55.5 billion (up 7.8%)
China … $41.9 billion (up 89.6%)
United Kingdom …$38.6 billion (up 16.3%)
Germany … $34.2 billion (up 28.6%)
South Korea … $27.8 billion (up 23%)
Netherlands … $26.5 billion (up 44.8%)
France … $22.4 billion (up 17.9%)
Taiwan … $22.1 billion (up 20.1%)

Now, how many of these countries have we been to war with? How many are we likely to go to war with? With the exception of China, and even then, is that even a serious possibility? We have desperately needed linguists in these key areas over the last ten years: Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, and Persian.

If you look at the most glaring need, which is probably the Arabic language, you’ll see that there isn’t really any of the necessary infrastructure in the public schools to teach Arabic. And, in the larger sense, you’ll see that there’s virtually no economic incentive to do so. We buy oil from the Middle East; we are not culturally engaged with the Middle East.

There are vast numbers of Hispanic Americans, so the services do not need Spanish linguists (in fact, there are so many native speakers, it is one area where we are in good shape). We don’t need to speak Arabic to pay too much for their oil. And they have figured out that they can simply import labor to make up for any knowledge gaps.

The article goes on to point the finger at Paul Wolfowitz, and with good reason:

The report lauded the Defense Department’s wide-ranging goals to boost foreign language skills and cultural literacy within the services and among outside educators. But it also noted that the department’s internal efforts have fallen short of expectations.

Despite a 2004 directive from then-Defense Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to establish strategic guidance to transform language and cultural capabilities, the department still lacks a clear understanding of what its language-related operational requirements actually are in the field. Similarly, Defense does not have a process for identifying emerging requirements.

In 2005, the department issued the “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap,” which outlined four goals: achieve a foundation of language and cultural expertise within the services; create the capacity to “surge” skilled linguists and cultural experts when necessary; establish a cadre of advanced language specialists; and develop a process for tracking the career progression of language professionals.

But the roadmap did not include long-term strategic goals and funding priorities, which congressional staffers and auditors with the Government Accountability Office say are necessary.

What Wolfowitz failed to understand is that the military is not a meet-and-greet, touchy-feely operation. Linguists should be highly skilled and trained because they have a specialty. It would be impossible to make every member of the military a linguist; by the same token, those who have proficiency in language training would likely be at an economic level where they would not choose to enlist in the military.

Creating special categories of soldiers is one answer. Recruiting experienced linguists, firewalling them from exposure to classified material, and letting them interpret blindly what they’re handed allows more native speakers to come in. Retaining trained soldiers is next to impossible when you’re in the fifth year of an endless war.