If you don't speak the language…

Max Boot examines the puzzle of foreign language incompetence:

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.

Some of Max’s solutions are challenged in the thoughtful comments. E.g.,

…If we decide to immerse all military officers in the languages of Thomas Barnett’s non-integrating belt, however, we need to determine up-front WHY we are doing that — why we are asking our trigger-pullers to be talkers — and have the people buy off on it.



I may be wrong about that, but I think it’s at least worth a public discussion. It should definitely be a deliberate decision about expected roles of the military, explicitly approved by Congress and the executive, rather than creeping in through the back door.