Saturday, June 11, 2005

My hovercraft is full of eels...

Phil Carter laments the, er, lamentably slow going in evidence with regards to the US armed forces getting their act together as far as post-9/11 language requirements are concerned.

There's no denying it's a frustrating state of affairs and I think even with the benefit of hindsight Phil is right to argue that arses were not got in gear anything like fast enough..


Or, can someone explain why the U.S. didn't instantaneously require students at the three service academies (West Point, Annapolis and Air Force) to learn Arabic plus another foreign language? Or why this wasn't made part of the standard curriculum for new sergeants and lieutenants going through professional military education courses?

I'll give it a go.

There are only so many hours in the day and professional officer education has a lot of trouble fitting in what it does already. The problem with Arabic, as Phil notes, is that it is a ferociously difficult language for Westerners (especially native English-speakers) to learn. I personally feel that it is a reasonable judgement call for people who have a zero-sum alotment of time slots to allocate to make the judgment that the down sides of spending that time trying to learn Arabic outweigh the probable benefits.

  • By the officer candidate age, many potential officers' language-learning skills will have ossified to the extent that they simply can't hack it.
  • Full immersion not being a possibility (at minimum 1 year intensive learning plus 1 year "in country" to emerge non-fluent), it may be felt that language lessons for non-specialists will not being notably greater returns than "just in time" handy tourist phrasebook style cramming pre-deployment.
  • Unless the US plans to undertake other large-scale COIN ops a la Iraq in the Middle East, Arabic language skills are likely to be vital (as opposed to desirable) largely for a trained cadre of specialists, rather than all officers.
  • It involves ploughing significant resources into an area that many planners (rightly or wrongly) may believe will become a relative sideshow with the rise of China.
  • Given the desirability of small group learning for a complex foreign language (12 people per group maximum) there may simply not be the teaching capability available in the first place. Rectifying this will take time and speeding the process up may involve bringing in native-speakers of less than proven loyalty and discretion.
None of this is to say that the development of large numbers of Arabic-speakers in the US Army would not be a Good Thing. It's merely to say that the fact that it hasn't happened is not necessarily (or, not only) a sign of foot dragging on the part of the higher ups.

There is little doubt in my mind that the US armed forces would do well to send more of their promising junior officers on attachment to foreign climbs to learn the lingo and the culture. They already do this up to a point (Hi, Chris) but expanding it would clearly be no bad thing. The inclusion of some form of regional studies component in officr education would also be welcome. That said there is arguably no real prospect of the US Army being able to deploy the sort of basic language and cultural grounding available to, say, the British in the imperial period. Indian Army officers were generally both culturally sharp and either bilingual or multilingual (Urdu and, in some cases, Goorkhali). But this came from the fact that they effectively lived their entire professional lives in the countries in which they were based (and not behind conrete and razor wire). Young Brits signing up for the Indian Army (and, incidentally, you had to perform better to be posted to an Indian regiment than a British one) recognised that they might well not see the home country again in years, decades even. India (albiet often [but not always] a somewhat rarified, privileged, narrow version of it) became their life. This sort of immersion is simply not available to US Army officers and would almost certainly be considered undesirable to most even were it available.


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