Appearing today in the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
Arm with words as well as weapons
EDITOR’S NOTE: Columnist Adam Fisher’s offering today is an open letter to Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe, Adjutant General, Massachusetts National Guard.
Dear Gen. Keefe: My son is assigned to the 1-181 Infantry Regiment/Gardner as a Specialist 4 infantry man. As such, he is scheduled for overseas deployment next year. I would like to make it clear from the get-go that I am not writing to you on my son’s individual behalf, but rather on behalf of any and all troops under your command who will likewise find themselves in an alien and potentially hostile land far from home.
When I, as a parent, first heard that my son and others like him would be deployed, I was naturally concerned. I realize that not every overseas deployment to the Middle East implies combat, but as a parent, the worst-case scenario arose.
I have no doubt that the training my son has received is as good as it can be given budget constraints, but anyone knows that there is always a difference between training and facts. Combat – when it occurs – has this in common with any other aspect of life: No one knows for certain what is going to happen next and the best anyone can do is hope that the training provided is equal to the circumstances that actually occur.
And it is in this regard that I am writing to you. When my son told me that a deployment was in the offing, the first thing I said to him was that besides learning his weapons and tactics, he should take the time to learn at least 100 words of the language most frequently spoken in the place where he was to be stationed. Just 100 words.
If you have kids, you can imagine the response I got. When I tried to suggest that a single word or a little bit of conversation might avert some potential bloodshed, he looked at me as if I were an extra- terrestrial ... and not a very smart one at that.
When I asked him whether he agreed with me that a good soldier could hardly be called a good soldier if he did not take the trouble to learn from his opponent, he paused and thought, but still remained unconvinced. When I said that one of the most obvious weaknesses of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the lack of personnel who spoke the native tongue, he gave me his “so what” look.
This old man realized that being a nag is hardly the way to convince a young colt and so I am asking you if shoehorning just a little language training into the National Guard curriculum would be not just possible, but also useful.
Our country is embarked on a course that studiously ignores former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about falling victim to what he dubbed “the military- industrial complex.” Our country is hip-deep in the military-industrial complex and yet anyone who has even a superficial understanding of history knows that yesterday’s enemies are frequently today’s friends. Think Germany, Japan or Vietnam, for example.
And as often as not, those friendships are built on small beginnings – as for example a few words in the local tongue.
I checked my suggestion out with a former Vietnam war Marine colonel who had been where the bullets flew. Not a desk jockey. And he agreed that there were times – however few they might be – when conversation might defuse a mortal combat alternative. Should the soldiers learn? “It’s doable,” he said.
“Please,” “thank you,” “put down the weapon,” “food,” “I am honored to meet you,” “where are the others?” “are you hungry,” “yes,” “no,” “please sit down,” “the dates are delicious,” “would you like some water?” ... the list of possible small phrases goes on and on.
Will an extra 10-20 hours of teacher-to- student language training work infallibly? Certainly not. But what if it worked just once?
The United States is embarked on a foreign policy strategy that relies heavily on military might. This is likely to go on for years.
Based on the assistance of your good staff, I understand that there are a couple of hours devoted to culture and language during the mobilization training that precedes any actual deployment. But as one staff member observed, “there is only so much time.”
I further understand that officers are sometimes hooked up with interpreters in the field. But not every soldier is attended by an officer and assigning an interpreter to every foot soldier is obviously impossible. Wouldn’t an internal interpreter, however limited, be more reliable? Equally unlikely is the idea that foot soldiers will teach themselves in the absence of some upper-echelon order. And for these reasons, I suggest a more intensive individualized training segment for those who are most likely to find themselves in harm’s way.
To the extent that you find this linguistic suggestion sensible, I sincerely hope you will act on your own authority and not simply kick the can down the road and send a memo or create a study group. It’s a simple matter that might save American lives ... or even just one.
Thank you for your attention and consideration.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is a regular contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone else who wishes to write to Gen. Keefe can send mail to him at the Joint Force Headquarters, 2 Randolph Road, Hanscom AFB, MA 01731.
PS. And the first email of the day appearing in the inbox (who gets up earlier than I do???) read
You are right on. Do you recall the true story of a Christmas Eve during WW1, when soldiers in opposite foxholes (French and German) came out and sang Christmas carols to each other? A similar situation. Or in my own experience in Germany in 1945, when an American soldier spoke to my mother, who happened to know English? A bond was established in the minds of us young children watching, which we have never forgotten.
Sincerely, and may your son be safe.