Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Como Se Dice "FUBAR" En Espanol? Or Any Other Language? (Updated)

The Defense Language Transformation Roadmap is out on the street. Fred Kaplan rants about it in a recent Slate Article. The paper is short, easy to read, and has some interesting ideas. Kaplan says its not adequate, but I'll let him say that so I don't get my O-3 ass in a sling.

Language is one of the things we don't do as well as we should in the military. You take a smart kid out some place like Denver City TX, which is where I went my last two years of high school. You ship them off to basic training, the Defense Language Institute (DLI) where they learn Arabic or some other language, then on the advanced training where they learn how to be an intelligence soldier. If they're lucky they may get some time at home station to hone their skills, and then its off to Iraq or Afghanistan or Djibouti or whatever crisis of the week is brewing.

So you've got some kid who's probably never even been out of Texas who's job is now to figure out what the hell some Iraqi is saying. And, oh by the way, somebody may get killed if he doesn't get it right. That's not what I call setting the conditions for success.

On top of that the low density branches like intelligence, foriegn area officers, PYSOPs, and civil affairs are the only ones with any kind of language mandate. There is always a huge demand for language skills so often highly specialized soldiers end up being translators for generals. Sure, that's a necessary function, but that's one less intel soldier in the fight.

The roadmap poses some interesting ideas, but I think there is one aspect that it does not explore. We need to develop language skills in the Army Reserves and Guard, and the development of these skill does not necessarily need to be tied to an intelligence MOS.

Take me for example. I somehow didn't manage to kill all my brain cells in college at Texas Tech so I'll go as far to call myself a reasonably smart guy. I live in Austin about a mile from the University of Texas which has a robust languages program. If the Army would be willing to foot the bill and pay me for my time, I'd be more than happy to go part time to school to learn a language. I may not come out of the program with native fluency, but I'd be a hell of a lot better prepared for war.

One of the great things about the reserves is that I'm surrounded by smart, motivated people. So why can't we develop a language training program for people like that? Some kid in a Military Police unit in the reserves or an Infantry unit in the National Guard has just as much need to understand Arabic or Korean as any other soldier. If he/she is smart enough and has the time, why can't the Army cough up some money for a college language program. If you infuse the Army with soldiers who have basic language and cultural skills, then you alleviate the need to use MI soldiers as straight translators.

To make the program attractive and to create incentive to gain and improve language skills, why don't we increase foriegn language pay while we're at it? One friend of mine who is in the language business had advocated for tying monetary incentive to tougher languages. Everybody in Texas speaks a little Spanish, but how about the Waziri dialect of Pashtu? If you cough up some money, I guarantee somebody out there who didn't kill all their brain cells in college will take you up on it.

But, what I can't do is take a year off from work to go to DLI and learn a language. Neither can most soldiers who are beyond their first term in the Army. A part-time program with lots of monetary incentives would be a winning solution.

Update: Excellent CS Monitor Article, here.

Interesting Quote:

Army Capt. Adam Sellers can see both sides. As a member of the Foreign Area Officer program here at the DLI, he understands the need for good language skills - he's committed to spending a year in China to become conversant with its language and culture.

But he also thinks back to his time as a commanding officer, and wonders when he would have had a spare moment for language instruction amid all the drilling and training.

"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said, 'I don't have time for that,' " he says. "It's a huge culture shift for the Army."

When I was company XO of D Co 311th MI** in the 101st, the division's SIGINT company, we had lots to do as well. But, we made time for language training because it was essential to our mission. The Army has to make language and cultural training part of its "Mission Essential Task List" in order to meet the challenges of the GWOT and beyond.

** Note: Under transformation the 311th MI no longer exists. The Delta Daggers are no more. Too bad. We were a pretty good outfit.


At April 13, 2005, Anonymous Toms Dad said...

As a past member of the 70's Army and father of a 11th ACR medic, I find your observations of language and the Army very much to the point. My first lesson in "what the hell did he say" came in Viet Nam. NO BIC? Nic Verstain, Que? and more. When my son said he was going to Iraq. The first thing I told him was to learn the language and what the people were like. Don't piss off more people, they already have a long list. He reasured me that the Army would teach them some pharses to help them get along. I told him besides "halt or I'll shoot" and "hands up" you don't get much In the order of thank you or even have a nice day.
I just hope someone with insite and money will read your post and see it's more than just a good idea. We should work at changeing the joke ..."Join the Army, go to strange places, meet different people and kill them". Old joke, new war.

At September 16, 2010, Anonymous John Wright said...

very interesting article army style


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