The Pentagon has ordered all its soldiers to reveal what foreign languages they speak.
There was a time when the U.S. Army regarded soldiers who spoke a foreign language as subversive and did its best to silence them or even purge them from its ranks.
What our boys and girls were fighting for, after all, was the right to speak English and to spread the language to oppressed peoples everywhere. So invested is our military in spreading the joys of English that it's still common enough to see the bumper sticker, "If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a soldier."
But after getting bogged down in two wars in the Middle East against enemies who haven't the courtesy to speak English, the government has determined that foreign language skills are really "critical war fighting enablers" (CWFE's).
A year ago the Defense Department declared foreign languages a weapon, and it's been busily training the troops to speak languages like Farsi so we don't have to. The DoD even wants to set up a special linguists brigade, a group of crack foreign-language-speaking troops ready to deploy in trouble spots around the world at a moment's notice.
There's just one hitch: despite all its efforts at recruitment and training, not enough soldiers speak a foreign language, and those who do just won't come forward when asked. And so the U.S. Army has reversed its traditional policy of "don't ask, don't tell" and ordered soldiers to confess the names of the languages they speak.
The motto of today's army is "never volunteer" (numquam evocati), and the order to divulge this mission-critical linguistic information came after fewer than 10% of the troops in the all-volunteer army filled out a voluntary survey to determine how many of them speak a foreign language.
Alarmed by the poor turn-out, the Secretary of Defense ordered all active and reserve troops to complete the language survey by March 15 – even if they only speak English.
Of course, the army isn't doing much better than America's civilians, so far as language is concerned. Speaking more than one language is an advantage in most of the world, where it's good for business, for cultural exchange, and for the advancement of knowledge. But in the U.S., foreign languages are good for only one thing: to demonstrate to other people that you are, in fact, foreign.
Since being foreign is such a liability, immigrants to the United States abandon the languages they bring with them as quickly as they can, and if their children don't turn out to be completely monolingual English speakers, then their children's children do. Those who manage to retain some of their heritage language don't always boast about it, and if they happen to join the military, they’ve learned to keep their guilty secret to themselves.
But now in a stunning turnabout, the army is ordering soldiers to speak the language that once dared not say its name. Even so, the Pentagon can't find enough foreign-language speakers among the troops, so it's also trying to persuade civilian polyglots to join up.
The army needs speakers of other languages so badly it will accept you if you're a felon, bipolar, or even semiliterate, but to prove that even the Pentagon has standards, you'll only be allowed to speak your language in this man's and woman's army if you're not gay.
Field commanders have been directed to ensure participation in the online survey, and since language is now a CWFE, soldiers identified as being especially proficient in the key languages of Iraq and Afghanistan will be eligible for foreign-language pay bonuses and immediate deployment to the war zone of their choice. Those refusing to take the survey will be offered a blindfold and a cigarette.