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  • Language goes to war: Pentagon launches Language Corps

    The Pentagon has announced the formation of a Language Corps, an all-volunteer linguistic national guard charged with defending America “during times of war [and] national emergency.”  The Corps will recruit at least 1,000 civilian linguists specializing in a set of as-yet-undetermined strategic languages so that the armed forces can “respond in emergencies, whether international or national.” 

    According to Pentagon spokesperson Robert Slater, while the army does have a number of bilingual soldiers, most of them either speak Spanish, because they’re among the few Latinos who haven’t forgotten their heritage language, or they know some French or even a smattering of Latin that they picked up in high school.  Those languages won’t be of much military use unless the President decides it’s time to retake Cuba, New Orleans, or the Vatican. 

    But there are languages that the army does need, and the Pentagon is setting up the Language Corps because it can’t be expected to “identify, hire and warehouse professionals with skills in 150 languages.”  In fact, it can’t even find professionals with skills in two languages critical to the national defense, Arabic and Pashto.  Despite the fact that Afghanistan and the Middle East have been trouble spots for decades, the army hasn’t been able to “warehouse” enough linguists to deal either with the war in Afghanistan or the “peace” in Iraq.

    That’s where the Language Corps comes in.  Language Corps volunteers, who can be called up at any time to strike back at terrorists and enemies of the state, will sign up for renewable three-year tours, either in a linguistic ready reserve or in a smaller, active-duty group of weekend warriors serving a specific number of days each year.  The Corps will assist troops or government contractors as they try to understand what the enemy is saying when it isn’t busy blowing them up with roadside bombs.

    The military is moving away from amassing tanks and battleships, bombers and big guns, essential for conventional warfare but expensive to manufacture, cumbersome to deploy, and totally unsuited to today’s urban street fighting and antiterrorist operations.  As part of  this switch from a just-in-case stockpiling of war materiel to a high-tech, mobile, just-in-time strike force, the Pentagon wants grammarians to take their place alongside computers, cell phones and iPods as the latest weapons against today’s enemy, who refuses to wear a uniform, fight fair, or fight in English. 

    Back in the 18th century, when America was breaking free from England, nobody needed Kevlar, battles were fought in English and afterwards everyone sat down to tea, unless of course the tea had been thrown overboard in an excess of patriotic zeal.  But today’s wars are being fought with subtitles, and the troops in a modern army need translators so they know who to shoot at. 

    Of course, simply being able to understand a foreign language is hardly enough to qualify one as a language commando.  Candidates will be toughened up by six months of basic training during which they will practice conjugating irregular verbs while carrying full battle packs.  Other training maneuvers include simultaneously translating while dodging reporters’ questions, diagramming sentences after being dropped into the wilderness miles from the nearest library, and separating friend from foe by asking everyone they meet to pronounce the word “shibboleth.”

    Turning over military functions to private contractors has long been a feature of the new capitalist army.  So outsourcing strategic lexicographical operations – or LEXOPS as they will now be called in armyspeak, itself a foreign language of a sort – to a cadre of language mercenaries is no different from hiring soldiers of fortune to escort military convoys or paying local strongmen not to attack those convoys. 

    While the army clearly thinks that a volunteer Language Corps made up of crack grammarians is the way to go in an era where regular soldiers can barely read English at an eighth-grade level, many of the civilian linguists temporarily attached to military units will be academics, and that in turn will pose problems that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates should have anticipated, since in his last posting he served as president of Texas A&M. 

    It’s not that these foreign language specialists – or FlangSpex – won’t take the assignment seriously.  After all, they're already used to a life of publishing and perishing.  It’s that they’re likely to see the way to get ahead in this man’s army as placing articles in first-tier journals, not decoding enemy emails while bullets whiz overhead.  Making the ultimate sacrifice for their country for them means failing to get an NSF grant, or agreeing to take on an intro-level class.  And they’re likely to respond to a direct order from a superior officer not with a crisp salute, a “Yes, sir,” and instant compliance, but by forming a committee to study the matter in some depth before formulating a thoughtful response, complete with footnotes and a works cited page, for presentation to the full faculty before it goes to the provost. 

    But the biggest obstacle faced by the Pentagon’s Language Corps isn’t convincing a bunch of pointy-headed linguists to sign up or re-up, it’s finding speakers of 150 strategic languages among the country’s doggedly monolingual civilian population.  Today’s all-volunteer army is a cross-section of America, and while English isn’t the nation’s official language, it is, effectively, its only language.   The Pentagon can threaten nonanglophone enemies of the state with its latest weapon, the Language Corps.  But like it or not, the Corps’ motto, “Parse this!” is going to be in English.

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