The Pentagon is seeking Congressional approval to develop its latest secret weapon, foreign languages. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Michael Dominguez testified before a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee last week that language is now a critical war-fighting skill. And the U.S. is way behind in terms of the foreign language arms race.
That’s because government policy for the past century and a half has been to ensure that real Americans speak only English, whether voluntarily or by force. Speaking a foreign language during World Wars I and II was a sign that you might be an enemy agent. Now speaking nothing but English, which once seemed proof of patriotism or a ticket to the middle class, is a threat to national security.
The Bush administration has finally realized that “foreign language skill” is critical to “mission accomplishment” by what used to be called the army, but is now the “21st century Total Force.” Not content with simply mass-producing military jargon, the Defense Department wants to create a “language talent pool” that the military can “recruit or harness during times of surge” (Congressional Quarterly, Jan. 25, 2007).
Dominguez testified that during the cold war, we could tell our enemies by the flag tattooed on their foreheads and the fact that they spoke the enemy language. The rules of engagement didn’t require American troops to understand that language. They just had to identify it before taking out the target.
But today our foes have learned to blend in with local populations, speaking the local lingo and blowing up the local marketplace.
Stealth bombers are powerless against this new breed of enemy soldiers who don’t wear uniforms and drive minivans, not tanks. To confront them the army's new “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap” creates a cadre of “Senior Language Authorities,” soldiers who can earn a bonus of up to $1,000 a month to translate enemy emails from Farsi, monitor cell phone conversations in Southern Kurdish, and infiltrate North Korean espresso bars.
The DOD boasts that 10% of its active duty soldiers already speak a foreign language. But Dominguez admits that unlike learning to shoot or fill out government paperwork, “language skills do not necessarily transfer from one theater of operations to another.” So unless the U.S. plans to invade Mexico or Cuba again, the army needs more speakers of languages besides Spanish. It has already recruited over 300 heritage speakers of Arabic, Dari, and Farsi. But that’s just a drop in the bucket for an army of 1.5 million, so the service academies have also expanded their study abroad programs, placing students in the few universities in the Middle East that haven’t been shut down by terrorists.
But since the military also realizes that language learning takes time, the Pentagon is funding programs in several local school districts to train American children in Arabic and Chinese from preschool through college before they’re “accessed into the force.”
The last language weapon that the army is developing, while it waits for these youngsters to graduate and enlist, is the civilian Language Corps. This linguistic ready reserve will be mobilized “during times of national need or emergency” and flown to hot spots around the world to translate the confessions of captured insurgents, explain to local populations that we come as liberators, and reinforce the linguistic weaponry of American troops through dictations and pop quizzes.
If that seems like a let down, that’s because, even though the Pentagon is paying lip service to foreign language as its latest war-fighting skill, the military will always put more faith in bullets and rockets than dictionaries and grammars. And don't expect any changes on the home front, either, where many Americans will continue to regard anyone speaking a foreign language as a security risk, and immigration reformers will continue to insist that newcomers speak nothing but English or be deported.