This is a long time coming, but I got this tip from Jakob over at Rug Pundits way back in March and finally got around to commenting on it. After discussing how the US Military has been pretty haphazard and delinquent in setting up their language programs, a Dr. Jeff Watson has written a short bit comparing different branches’ language and cultural training that is worth a read.
In short, the different branches focus on exactly what their stereotypes would lead you to expect they do. The Army worries about language retention, the Marines think its largely irrelevant to the killin’, and the Air Force thinks it’s only needed for a select few of their folks (my favorite Air Force bro quote: “I’m taking this class in Arabic History so I know what the people I’m bombing have done wrong”)
Dr. Watson argues, and I’m inclined to agree, that language training is great as a key to cultural understanding. Just learning about Culture as a “this is what these people believe, this is what these people come from” can be terribly otherizing and take personality and individuality out of the population that is purportedly supposed to be COIN’ed. Someone more cynical than me would argue that this is what the military wants, what with the depersonlization. I don’t buy that, I think that anything successful would be grabbed at a moment’s notice.
As for Wright’s assertion that language training gives soldiers a critical awareness of their affect on the people around them? Well, I mean, I’m not sure how much self-actualization would be required for COIN doctrine in Afghanistan, it all sounds a bit too elaborate to me, but I’d be sure to listen if there was fire to Wright’s smoke.
My take? Language training – any language training – is certainly useful. Especially in context of cultural training and cultural awareness. But I think that all three branches examined in this little piece all go about language/cultural training in a way they find expedient rather than a way found to be successful. What’s more shocking to me is the lack of high-level language or cultural training that has occurred…it almost seems like that sort of stuff is for HTTs and PMCs, not for gun-fightin’-soldiers.
Wright had a great line that language training should be a requirement, dovetailed with cultural training, because soldiers are more than just observers. And he’s right, if we are to expect soldiers to work within the population, to be an intrinsic part of a part of Afghanistan, then they need at least a language baseline and prodding to use it. The fact that its avoided because this doesn’t seem to be the sexy part of getting promotions is endemic of a whole cultural impasse.