Better Late then Whenever

by Asher Kohn on 5/16/2010 · 4 comments

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.


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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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{ 4 comments }

TJM May 17, 2010 at 12:05 am

The problem is the plethora of existing training requirements and readiness checklists that already need to be fulfilled. Even prior to today’s operational tempo, it was common for units to refer to their requirements versus their time alloted to fulfill them as “stuffing 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag.” Now add on top of that our current optempo, additional requirements related to these deployments, and Soldiers barely even have time to complete the course that are required for promotion.

When I was a platoon leader, my Specialists needed to attend PLDC in order to make Sergeant. In 2003, when we returned from OIF I, that was waived because Soldiers simply didn’t have time to do that given our current optempo (many were already overdue to attend, but we were already training up for our return to OIF III). Ditto BNCOC for promotion to Staff Sergeant and I think ANCOC as well. Now throw in language training, too? Good luck with that.

When the chain of command tries to figure out how to stuff today’s 20 pounds into that same 5 pound bag, they’re going to look at the language training and decide, “well, we’ve got to cut as many corners as possible; we’ll have interpreters in theater, so we’ll skimp on the language classes.” I am sure that most, if not all, commanders would completely agree with the importance of that training. But they have requirements foisted upon them (soldier readiness, required training, etc) and they also have other more critical skills that need to be addressed first (shoot, move, and communicate).

It’s not that they don’t care or don’t want it. They simply don’t have the time to spare.

Abdullah May 17, 2010 at 5:48 am

“He love that goat.”

Outlaw May 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm

The Army has had an overall weak language program (regardless of which language) since the mid 1980’s.

The weakness point has always and will remain always sustainment training of that language.

There has for example always been the fear by the military that if you train someone in a critical language ie Arabic, Russian, Phastun at some point they will leave the military for those better paying defense contractor positions simply put they earn far more money with their language expertise than in the military.

It is not only languages where we see this occurring—take at look at how many military analysts leave the military and join defense contracting positions for double the salary–who can blame them.

Andrew May 17, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Asher, I agree with much of what you’ve written and have often been disappointed to see, prior to previous deployments, language and cultural training taking a backseat to more lethally-focused or other training. TJM touched on the reasons for this very accurately.

I’m a company grade Army officer that just finished a month-long Dari instruction course at Fort Campbell. Our brigade put a great deal of emphasis on language/cultural training and will be deploying to Kandahar shortly. The emphasis has been refreshing and we have pushed basic language capabilities down to the soldier level. I even have several soldiers who will deploy nearly a month later than the main body as they’ll be completing a 6-month Dari or Pashto course.

In the course I recently completed, the instructor was a recently emigrated Kabuli who had worked as an interpreter for both the UN and the US Army. He was very knowledgeable but a bit overwhelmed in a class of 20 students. Surprisingly, the biggest difficulty we faced in the class was jerk soliders who were more interested in learning how to make “your mom” jokes in Dari than conjugating verbs in the future tense. This is a very small sample size and in no way do I imagine that other language classes experienced the same learning environment. Sometimes, however, soldiers just want to act like that loser in high school that sat in the back of class and poked fun of the kids who were actually interested in gleaning something from the instruction (this might be why they are privates in the Army). Discussions with peers in other classes have led me to believe that my experience was not entirely unique, though.

From my limited experience, when emphasis is finally placed on the importance of language/cultural training, sometimes great resources are spent on exceptional soldiers who stand to benefit themselves and their unit a great deal from the training. Other times, it is squandered on geniuses who don’t know what the present tense is in English, let alone Arabic, Dari or Pashto.

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