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Military Language Skills & Cultural Competency
New report by the US House Armed Services Committee
11/27/2008 6:39 PM ET
The United States House of Representatives Subcommittee (HASC) releases a report on Building Language Skills and Cultural Competency in the Military, in which it details the importance of the aforementioned attributes, the lack of which has cost countless lives in Iraq. It begins with a quote from Major Kenneth Carey.
If all our soldiers spoke Arabic we could have resolved Iraq in two years. My point is that language is obviously an obstacle to our success, much more so than cultural. Even a fundamental understanding of the language would have had a significant impact on our ability to operate.
The Preface reads as follows.
Although challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan have certainly brought the importance of language and cultural competency to the fore, the lack of service member proficiency in critically-needed foreign languages is not a new problem. In fact, in World War II, the United States found itself hamstrung by a lack of Japanese, and even German and Italian, speakers. The Subcommittee used two vivid examples at its first hearing describing the contrasting experiences of Senator Daniel Inouye and Private First Class (PFC) Guy Gabaldon in World War II. These incidents dramatically demonstrate the impact that foreign language skills, or the lack thereof, can have on ground forces’ operations. PFC Gabaldon, with some knowledge of Japanese, was able to singlehandedly persuade over 1,500 Japanese soldiers on Saipan to surrender. On the other hand, Senator Inouye’s inability to speak or understand German led to tragedy when he came upon a German soldier who appeared to be reaching for a weapon, only later to learn the soldier was reaching inside his coat for photos of his family. Senator Inouye recalled that the experience haunts him to this day.

During the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, many believed that foreign language skills and regional expertise were only required by a very small segment of the force, usually serving in fairly specialized jobs. Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM underscored the need, and provided the impetus, for both cultural awareness and enhanced pre-deployment language preparation.

Among the many accounts of language and cultural missteps in recent operations, one involving the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry (1-503d IN) is particularly instructive, not only because it appeared that the adversary was effectively using the cultural divide against the soldiers, but also because the resulting damage could have been easily avoided. While operating in Ramadi, the unit detained Iraqi women on two occasions in a serious breach of Iraqi cultural norms. As a result, even the populace that would have normally been supportive turned decidedly against the Americans. Even though the events leading to the detention had likely been orchestrated by the insurgents as is common in irregular warfare, the results were no less painful.

This report will examine the Department’s efforts and progress in addressing, in a systematic, comprehensive manner, difficulties such as those experienced by the 1-503d IN in what it promises will be a “transformation” in its capabilities in language proficiency and cultural competence. While it is clear the Department appreciates the importance of language and culture even to the point of investing in K-16 programs, much work remains.
Download the entire 125-page report. LanguageCultureReportNov08.pdf

To see other reports by the HASC, click here.


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