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Pride in your work? Iraqi Translators
December 6, 2008 3:28 AM   Subscribe

For the past two months, Iraqi interpreters working with US forces have been forbidden from wearing masks. This decision was recently overturned. Ostensibly, this was because the security situation had become better. Some believe instead that this rule was instated to prevent asylum claims. Some think that it reflects traditional army FUBAR decision making. Personally, I think they are becoming more cautious because the back up plan is a piece of junk.

The problems Iraqi translators face in their home country and in their attempts to settle elsewhere are well documented.

It's not always such a bad job, though: previously
posted by marmaduke_yaverland (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
As opposed to having our troops, you know, actually learn Arabic.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:45 AM on December 6, 2008


As opposed to having our troops, you know, actually learn Arabic.

Yeah, that should be quick and easy.

Do you realize that the Arabic program at the DLI is 18 months long and has a 9% failure rate? That's just from those who score high enough to qualify for it on the DLAB.
posted by Snyder at 4:11 AM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't begrudge anyone who has difficulty learning a language. Kinda hard to cram it into basic before boarding the plane. And it's not as if they ask where to be deployed. "Sir, I took French II, so can I please be stationed in Polynesia?"
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:13 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


SNAFU is probably a more relevant acronym for describing military decision-making, as it has the implication that it's not a one-off built into it. Of course, there's always the hybrid SNAFUBAR.
posted by Dysk at 5:20 AM on December 6, 2008


Kinda hard to cram it into basic before boarding the plane.

Certainly, but an army that expects to project power worldwide ought to make learning foreign languages part of standard training. It's too late to learn a language when you're on the battlefield, but how many US soldiers are not in Iraq or Afghanistan right now, or are there but not exactly in a gunfight every day? US forces have 29,000 people in Korea, for example. How many of them know Korean and are now studying Arabic or Mandarin? I don't blame the soldiers for being lazy about it if language learning is not required, but it ought to be required.
posted by pracowity at 5:31 AM on December 6, 2008


I think it is a bit much to say that troops should be 'required' to be in the classroom when they aren't being shot at. Rather, it is fair to say the military has a responsibility to encourage the uptake of languages, and make sure there are people on the ground - their own people, not translators - who are fluent. Unfortunately, this is a long term problem, that will take a long time to solve. Back in 2003, when it didn't seem so much that the middle east was going to be the enduring problem for this generation, there was not so much incentive to start language training initiatives. Now this has probably changed (I hope it has, anyhow), but it will take years before there are enough linguists who speak the right languages.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 5:45 AM on December 6, 2008


You can make it as required as you like, it's not going to make the languages sink among those who can't or don't want to learn them. Rather, as marmaduke_yaverland points out, they should be encouraged to learn the languages - I'd add they could be offered incentives for doing so. Assuming they aren't already, which they very well may be. The military needs Arab speakers. Knowing it will probably help you not only in either war, but in your military carreer, should you decide to be a carreer soldier.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:48 AM on December 6, 2008


"In either war ..."

Just looking at those three words gave me pause. I still can't believe I live in times where we're in two simultaneous wars. I'm gonna call my dad now.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:03 AM on December 6, 2008


I think it is a bit much to say that troops should be 'required' to be in the classroom when they aren't being shot at.

oh, i don't think americans hate education THAT much
posted by pyramid termite at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2008


Soldiers going over to Iraq do get a smattering of Arabic in predeployment training. It's not really "language" training, because it doesn't train you to speak the language with any fluency, but it does include a smattering of words and phrases.

But getting beyond that, and actually learning a foreign language as an adult, especially if you're monolingual, is hard, and frankly I question how many people really have a knack for it. The flunk rate from the DLI courses, as Snyder points out, is already pretty high, and that's full of people who pass the pre-requisite course and have some interest in learning a language in the first place. They could try to send everyone through one of those courses, but would it be worth the training you'd have to sacrifice, particularly if the flunk rate was 30%? How about 60%? I don't think either is unbelievable.

That's a lot of wasted time; time that could have been spent on other things. Plus, knowing the Army (and just because of the scale of what you're trying to do), by the time they got the language schools geared up to teach Arabic to everyone, we'll be done with Iraq and it'll be time for everybody to learn Pashto or Erenga instead. Unlike (e.g.) combat or medical training, language skills aren't easily applicable from one conflict to the next. If you look at the conflicts the U.S. has been involved in over the past 50 years, the languages you'd need don't repeat themselves very often.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:37 AM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd add they could be offered incentives for doing so. Assuming they aren't already, which they very well may be.

They do. Arabic translators have some of the highest enlistment and reenlistment bonuses available, AFAIK. From here:
The Middle Eastern Translator Aide (MOS 09L) enlistment bonus is $10,000 for eligible individuals who speak certain Middle-Eastern languages and enlist as 09L in the U.S. Army Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). Applicants without previous military service who enlist for 09L in the Selected Reserve may be eligible for a $20,000 bonus.
Re-enlistment bonuses can be much higher, apparently as much as $150,000, although I think it's based on some sort of pay multiplier.

The list of languages they are interested in is here.

I've also heard that if you have native fluency in any of those languages, and you're a U.S. citizen who can get pass a security clearance background investigation, the CIA would like to have a word with you. I don't have a clue what their compensation is like, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


the CIA would like to have a word with you

Who doesn't dream of hearing those 10 little words?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:09 AM on December 6, 2008 [6 favorites]


I wasn't suggesting some kind of general language training should be introduced as part of basic training. At the same time, thousands of soldiers who only know how to say 'Hands up!' is not good enough. I think I was saying that there should be greater numbers of fluent speakers per hundred troops, ones on the ground who can help out in the day to day business of dealing with people. Kadin points to the amounts that the Middle Eastern Translator Aides can earn - for me, that is really suspicious. Instead of thinking, 'Hey these guys are great, let's pay them loads of money,' I wonder whether the army is struggling to recruit the numbers it really needs, and this wage packet is a sign of that.

I can't find it anywhere, but early on in the wars I read about soldiers sent to Afghanistan and their inability to communicate with the locals. Eventually, they worked out that one Afghan happened to speak Russian (from the last time someone invaded), and there was one American who spoke Russian too, so that's how they all communicated. This was something like 1000 men, a whole battalion, and no-one thought to bring anyone who could speak the local language. I wonder if we are still trying to recover from this ill preparedness.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2008


Just looking at those three words gave me pause. I still can't believe I live in times where we're in two simultaneous wars. I'm gonna call my dad now.

You're in three wars actually. Remember there is also the Global War On Terror.
posted by srboisvert at 8:50 AM on December 6, 2008


If we actually understood and spoke arabic, I'd argue we wouldn't be there in the first place.
posted by odinsdream at 8:54 AM on December 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


Personally, I think they are becoming more cautious because the back up plan is a piece of junk.

What do you think impersonally?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:01 AM on December 6, 2008


What do you think impersonally?

that history is the picture of a boot stomping on an anthill over and over again
posted by pyramid termite at 9:14 AM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yes, it is very challenging for the military to develop home-grown linguists and translators. Good thing they're using such scarce resources wisely *cough*, and have leapt upon the opportunities to use those ready to serve immediately *cough freakin' cough*:
A GAO report found that between 1998 and 2003, more than 60 linguists specializing in Arabic or Farsi were expelled from the military for being gay.
I [Sen. Alan Simpson] voted for "don't ask, don't tell." But much has changed… [M]ore than 300 language experts have been fired under "don't ask, don't tell," including more than 50 who are fluent in Arabic.… Is there a "straight" way to translate Arabic? Is there a "gay" Farsi? My God, we'd better start talking sense before it is too late.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) sliced and diced the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by suggesting Condoliar [sic] Rice hire the gay linguists dismissed by the Pentagon…. Ackerman said. “…For some reason, the military seems more afraid of gay people than they are against terrorists, but they’re very brave with the terrorists…. If the terrorists ever got a hold of this information, they’d get a platoon of lesbians to chase us out of Baghdad….”
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:03 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did you read your own quotes? DADT was passed by Congress and is a Federal law the binds the military, so if the esteemed members of Congress think DADT is stupid, well, they can just enact a law allowing gays to serve. I won't attempt to deny that there is some resistance to gays serving in the Military, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says there is no problem with gays serving, so I'm inclined to focus the issue on Congress, and not the DoD.
posted by Snyder at 3:14 PM on December 6, 2008


nakedcodemonkey: The impression I've gotten over the last few years (and this is admittedly just one guy's opinion, and I haven't been in anything approaching a front-line role; just another civvy REMF) is that the military, at least at the higher levels, would be pretty much OK with getting rid of DADT, but it's too much of a political football for them to touch. Congress says that teh ghey is verboten, so anyone who says they're gay gets the boot. Until the law gets changed, they don't really have much say in the matter: all they can do is try to publicize how much it hurts them.

(I also have to wonder, given the way DADT is enforced, whether the people who have been kicked out because if it weren't looking for a sort of no-fault way to get out: morale is pretty low right now, and I bet linguists are getting stoplossed; it wouldn't totally surprise me. AFAIK, you have to pretty much walk up to your CO and say "I'm gay," get caught in flagrante delicto, or try to marry someone of the same sex to get discharged; hearsay or rumor won't do it. My feeling has always been that the Army, at least, tries to abide by the letter of the law while ignoring the [mean] spirit of it as much as possible. I'm not defending the policy — I think it sucks, massively — but I've never met anyone of significant rank that was really gung ho about it. I honestly think most officers realize the loss of talent it involves.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:10 PM on December 6, 2008


that history is the picture of a boot stomping on an anthill over and over again

Close.
posted by dhartung at 10:41 PM on December 6, 2008


DADT was used by many as way out of the military even as far back as 2000, I remember. That's when all you had to do was say, "I'm gay" and you got a "rainbow chit" out of the military (chit is Navy for a special request form). However, ever since manpower shortages, most CO's won't automatically process people for seperation (as they're not required to with a simple statement), though they still have eject people for more convincing evidence, id est being caught in the act, attempting to get married to a member of the same sex, bringing publicity on you . . . it's a lot harder to simply skip and run unless you're seriously committed now.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:39 PM on December 6, 2008


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