Commentary Magazine


The Army’s Language Problem

A decade of war has reinforced to the U.S. Army the importance of cultural awareness. Senior flag officers and junior enlisted men and women have all heard presentations about Islam, and basic elements of Iraqi and Afghan culture. True, discussing the confluence of theology and terrorism remains largely taboo in the politically correct U.S. military, but few troops deploy without knowing basic information about Islam and cultural sensitivities. The notable exception was Gen. Janis Karpinski, whose unit embarrassed the United States at Abu Ghraib; she dismissed cultural awareness as below her and irrelevant to her mission.

Foreign language acquisition remains a problem. Paul Wolfowitz deserves credit when deputy secretary of defense for focusing military attention not only on cultural awareness, but also on the poor state of language acquisition among American servicemen. When I work in Germany, or among Bosnian, Romanian, or Polish troops, there are few that do not speak fluently a second language; few American servicemen do, however, except for many Hispanic soldiers or those from elsewhere who are first-generation immigrants. In recent years, the situation has improved, but only slightly. Senior officers will be the first to admit that the Army and the Marines still have a long way to go.

Some of the criticism directed toward the U.S. military for alleged cultural mishaps has been unwarranted. For example, many (not all) of the allegations that American male troops patted down and searched Iraqi women were false: When troops wear full battle rattle, it’s hard to tell males from females and so Iraqis—and some American journalists—just got carried away with assumptions. Criticism about American raids on mosques was also often unwarranted. Rather than simply treat mosques as inviolate sacred space off-limits to American forces, critics of American raids would be far better off questioning why some mosques became safe havens for terrorists or storage depots for weapons. When push comes to shove, force protection of American troops must always come first.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has assembled all-female engagement teams to meet and work with Afghan women who oppose the Taliban but whose culture and religious practice would not allow them to interact with any unit which incorporated males.

The cultural mishaps which have occurred—burning the Quran at Bagram, for example—are inexcusable and they were punished promptly. Still, they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. Likewise, abusing the bodies of Taliban fighters was an empty crisis: Americans seemed more outraged than Afghans. There is no evidence that any sought revenge because of the behavior of the few troops who desecrated Taliban bodies.

Still, there is one major problem which no level of the Army or Pentagon appears ready to address: foul language. It would sound like a silly complaint if it was not so corrosive to our mission and responsible at times for kinetic backlash. Especially among younger troops and out-in-the-field, every tenth word seems to be “sh-t” or especially creative constructions revolving around “f-ck.” Afghans may not understand English and even those that do will have a poor grasp of idiom, but all understand foul language. While not all “Green on Blue” violence is the result of cultural affront, some is. Likewise, I recently heard of a case in eastern Afghanistan where, watching women carrying heavy loads in the fields, one American soldier exclaimed, “Will you look at how much those f-cking women can carry!” Three days later, tribal leaders lodged a protest complaining that Americans had suggested that Afghan women working in the fields were sexually loose. In certain societies, honor matters. Americans are not the only guilty party. The Canadians had an incident in Somalia two decades ago in which a similar young private exclaimed to a Somali standing guard duty with him outside a meeting, “Boy is your sheikh pig-headed.” The young Somali understood two words: “Sheikh” and “Pig” and four Canadians died over the next couple days because of the misunderstanding.

Before his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus often spoke about how every soldier was also a diplomat. He was right. Few American diplomats emerge anymore from behind the blast walls which fence in American embassies in trouble spots, and so the face of the United States is the soldier. While we might be the strongest country on earth, we are still guests in the countries in which our troops deploy, and so it is imperative to act as guests instead of occupiers. There are few employers in the United States who would let employees interacting with the public swear non-stop.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Political correctness is nonsense, but this isn’t about political correctness. Not only do we pay consequences in our battle to win hearts and minds, but so long as the military also serves as important job training for those entering at the lowest ranks, it does a disservice by tolerating this lack of professionalism. It may be an uphill battle and, admittedly, there are greater battles which must be won. Language may be a detail, but we ignore such details are our peril.

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