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Lost in Translation

One of the biggest deficiencies exposed by the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the lack of language and cultural knowledge within the ranks of federal employees—especially among men and women in uniform. It’s hard to win a war for hearts and minds if the only way you can communicate with locals is through translators, who may not always be around and whose work varies in quality.

It’s a mystery to me why, since 9/11, we haven’t launched a crash program to teach thousands of young people Near Eastern languages. Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi—all these languages are tremendously important in the global war on terrorism. We should look for inspiration to the early days of the cold war, when we ramped up programs to teach Russian and Chinese.

The Defense Department, belatedly, is taking some small steps in the right direction. On Tuesday, the Pentagon issued press releases announcing a pair of initiatives—the ROTC Language and Culture Project and the Pilot Language Corps. Under the former program, four grants (totaling $2 million) have been awarded to Indiana University, San Diego State University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Texas at Austin. This money will pay for the instruction of ROTC cadets in Arabic, Russian, Azeri, Kazakh, Pashto, Tajik, Turkmen, Uyghur, and Uzbek. Under the latter program, 1,000 linguists from across the country will agree to serve the government for a certain number of days per year, and will be available for call-up in an emergency—just like military reservists.

Good ideas, both, but they don’t go nearly far enough. Two million dollars is a laughably small amount by Pentagon standards—roughly equivalent to what we spend on the Iraq war every two hours. The entire defense budget, after all, is well over $500 billion a year; advanced fighter aircraft, like the F-22, cost over $250 million each. The Pentagon tells us what its priorities are by the way it allocates cash. And at the moment, building such aircraft (which are nearly useless for fighting the global war on terrorism) is clearly a much higher priority than developing the language skills we so desperately need.

We should be doing much, much more. We should start by requiring all graduates of the nation’s military academies to spend a year of study abroad—and preferably not in Western Europe. We should be sending thousands of additional military personnel to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and to other facilities where they can spend a year or more in intensive, full-time study of strategic languages. We should also reward and promote currently serving personnel who have attained advanced knowledge of foreign languages and cultures. We won’t close our knowledge gap until a Foreign Area Officer—an officer who has dedicated much of his career to understanding a particular region—gets at least as much respect within his service as a tank commander or fighter pilot.


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