According to the Houston Chronicle, the U.S. army has kicked out as many as 58 Arabic translators recently because they were gay. 40 members of the House of Representatives want to know why, when the army is so short on troops that it’s issuing what it calls “moral waivers” that allow convicted felons, drug users, and those who fail to meet the army’s educational standards all to join up, it can afford to dismiss soldiers with language skills that are actually critical for pursuing the war on terror.
In a separate story, Rep. Barney Frank (D, MA) cited a report that in the past decade the army released 322 soldiers with critical foreign language skills because of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And as long ago as 2002, CBS News reported that that army dismissed 9 gay translators, six of whom were specializing in Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, the military's prestigious language training center.
The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law, passed in 1994, allows gays to serve in the military if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual acts. The law forbids commanders from asking about a soldier’s sex life (don’t ask), but requires those openly acknowledging their sexual orientation to be discharged (that’s the don’t tell part). The GAO, the accountability branch of the federal government, reports that so far 11,000 soldiers have been outed and ousted, and a UC Santa Barbara study found that it cost more than $363.8 million to train and replace them.
Questioned by New York Rep. Gary Ackerman about this waste of human talent and taxpayer dollars, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, appearing before Congress to seek more funds to train Arabists, claimed to know nothing about it. Ackerman then asked whether the State Department also had a ban on gay linguists, and Rice said they did not. But she didn’t ask to see any résumés, and despite the severe shortage of proficient Arabic speakers in the security and diplomatic services, those translators dismissed from the Monterey program and other army units for acknowledging their sexual orientation are not being scooped up for other government jobs, either.
No one doubts that the military needs soldiers speaking critical languages, and no one doubts that these languages are hard to learn. After 9/11, enrollments in the nation’s Arabic programs skyrocketed, but many students, finding the learning curve too steep, dropped out after a course or two. Even those who persisted were still far from fluent either in the classical, literary Arabic used in print or in the many intricate dialects of the language used to conduct day to day business -- including the business of terror -- in Arabophone countries. One Pentagon official estimates that it could take twenty years to train enough trustworthy Arabists for the nation’s defense. In 2002, only 70% of the 500 soldiers enrolled in the Monterey Arabic program actually passed their certification (it’s not clear whether the six dismissed for being gay are included in that figure).
Not only is it difficult for the military to train compulsively monolingual Americans to speak Arabic, it’s also tough for the Pentagon to find Arab American soldiers for that job: American troops speaking Arabic as their first language often can’t pass the security clearance. And even if they do, they may be regarded with suspicion by their superiors. Since 2001, several heritage-language translators with top security ratings have been arrested on suspicion of espionage,though, to date, there have been no translators convicted.
As for those Iraqi Arab-speakers attached to the American occupation forces, they are frequently assassinated by their countrymen for consorting with the enemy. Translation is risky business in a war zone, and it should also come as no surprise that many Iraqis don’t trust anyone who speaks English.
Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sees no irony in the fact that the military finds convicted felons and illiterates less morally problematic than well-educated homosexuals without so much as a parking ticket on their records who might actually be able to understand what the enemy is talking about (not to mention what our Iraqi “allies” are really saying). Gates insists that in drumming out the translators, the army is simply following the law, a law which he has no intention of reviewing.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this latest military catch 22: the army needs a few good translators, and when it finds them, it gets rid of them. It’s just a version of the bigger American monolingual catch 22:
Americans, whatever their origins, don’t study foreign languages all that much -- we don’t even study our heritage languages. We are a nation forged from many ethnicities, and while Teddy Roosevelt once warned that the United States could become a polyglot boarding house, we have become instead a monolingual nation, one that doesn’t trust speakers of any language except English.
So, as long as the rest of the world speaks other languages, we’ll need translators. And as long as our enemies continue to plot against us in languages we find inaccessible, like Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, the military will need translators as much as it needs bullets. But depending on translators only emphasizes our helplessness, and sharpens our fear that translators, masters of two languages, speak with forked tongues.