Giving up on plans to beef up the nation's defenses by teaching thousands of military personnel critical languages, the army has decided that it's easier to train linguists to shoot and do one-handed push ups than it is to get soldiers to learn Arabic or Pashto.
True to its slogan, "Be all that you can be," the Army turns America's muffin-topped teens into lean, mean fighting machines. But while it has no problem training raw recruits to break down and reassemble their rifles blindfolded in a sandstorm, its well-publicized efforts to teach our troops the languages of the enemy have failed.
Most soldiers can't even pronounce Iran and Iraq correctly (as if an M-16 is not enough of a give-away, calling these countries eye-ran and eye-rack instantly labels you as "not from around here" in the tinder box that is the Middle East).
The U.S. government has always been suspicious of native speakers of enemy languages. It dealt with the problem in World War I by banning the use of German, and in World War II, instead of putting Japanese-Americans to work breaking Tojo's secret codes, it herded them into detention camps.
Similarly, after 9-11, the Army assumed that all Arab-Americans were secretly working for Osama bin Laden, and so it wouldn't let Arabic speakers translate for the War on Terror.
But there just aren’t enough non-Arab-Americans who speak Arabic and have the clearance to work in counter-terrorism and military operations. And so, instead of drilling hopelessly anglophone troops in the Arabic equivalent of,
I don't know but I've been told,
amo-amas-amat . . .
a tactic which hasn't produced enough fluent speakers of the language, the service is now looking for a few good native speakers of Arabic to join up for translator duty.
By combing through the millions of résumés on monster.com and emailing anyone listing Arabic as a language skill, Uncle Sam found enough volunteers to form the 51st TICO (Translator and Interpreter Company) and put them through translator training at a fake Iraqi village in the Mojave Desert.
Soon the "Linguistic 51st" will ship out to Iraq, where they might as well be wearing big bulls eyes instead of their Army translator patches, because it turns out that Iraqis don't trust anyone who speaks English, and they trust you even less if you speak English and Arabic.
Once in country, the 51st TICO will keep busy dodging car bombs while providing useful cultural and linguistic hints, like reminding English-speaking troops,
- always accept food when it is offered,
- don't drop Korans in toilets,
- and leave the shooting of unarmed civilians to the private security contractors.
But at least they'll be able to pronounce Iraq correctly.
Filming an ad to recruit more speakers to Arabic.
The Army's NTC (National Training Center), in the Mojave Desert, is the site of the fake Iraqi town of Medina Wasl, where the Army is training Arabic-speaking recruits to peel spuds, frag their officers, and translate for their hopelessly monolingual but seriously untrusting comrades in arms.
It may have been Shakespeare who came up with the line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (2 Henry VI, IV.ii), but it turns out that the people we really don’t trust are the translators.
The army regularly questions the patriotism of its own Arabic translators at Guantánamo, and once in a while it arrests them for allegedly conspiring with the enemy. But the price of translating in Iraq can be even steeper. In 2005, 40% of private contractor deaths in Iraq were of translators. Plus the insurgents regularly call the thousands of Iraqis working as translators traitors and put a price on their heads. But when things get too hot for these translators at home and they seek safety in the U.S., their applications for visas are either denied because they speak Arabic, or if they're among the 50 or so who have have managed to get admitted, they risk expulsion because, well, they speak Arabic.
With stats like these, army translators in the 51st TICO are likely to find their new MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) even more dangerous than defusing IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), and a lot less satisfying than waterboarding prisoners. The Iraqis will distrust the translators, and so will the Americans who were so anxious to recruit them. In the end it might be better for the Army to just supply its troops with a laptop and a Rosetta Stone "learn Arabic in 10 minutes" CD which they can then trade to Iraqis in exchange for sensitive information about the insurgency.
Rosetta Stone advertises, "Escape the endless tedium of translation, memorization and grammar drills. Learn Arabic naturally - the same way you learned your first language." Level 2 of Rosetta Stone's Arabic language-learning software gives lovely aerial views of American cities.