Language, Culture, and Army Culture: Failing Transformation

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Editor's Note: COL Outzen puts forth a compelling plea for the Army to pay more attention to promoting language proficiency.  The other services are similarly lacking in these fields.  Although individual program managers are creating some bright spots, the truth is that poor personnel management and the burden of one-size-fits-all training preclude many servicemembers from attaining true professionalism in their fields.


A decade of Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations have highlighted our military’s shortcomings in employing and understanding foreign languages, the people who speak them, and various types of knowledge derived from language communities. The Department of Defense had identified this critical capability gap by 2004, and by 2005 had directed the Services to treat language capabilities as a core warfighting skill akin to marksmanship[1]. This implied significant organizational and cultural change within the Army and sister Services, which have traditionally viewed foreign language skill as a niche meriting limited and episodic attention.  Six years have elapsed, though, and the Services have failed to produce doctrine, organizations, or practices that can be considered transformative.  Instead, they have applied band-aid approaches by contracting out language and related capabilities, while not reforming the way the fielded forces train for or employ language and related skills in any significant way[2]. Given emphatic calls from senior leaders such as the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chief of Staff of the Army, it is hard to understand why the Army has made such little progress[3].

That we have not successfully transformed is beyond dispute among those paying attention since the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap was published[4].  With massive cuts to the DoD budget looming, though, simply recognizing failure is insufficient; the Army and DoD must develop coherent and effective responses sooner rather than later[5]. The response must both be effective and survive budget austerity, which rules out much of the Army’s current approach[6].  This essay offers a series of observations about why and how we have failed to transform language and related capabilities, and presents several recommendations for successfully moving ahead.  The observations focus on the U.S. Army’s efforts, since the Army has the preponderance of resources and responsibilities for DoD language and culture operations, but are broadly applicable for the other Services as well.

Recommendations for new approaches follow the observations below, but this essay is more cautionary than prescriptive.  We have underperformed at great cost for a decade, and can afford neither the same expense nor the same results in the coming decade. Critical for COIN and CT, language requirements carry equal importance for engagement and security cooperation missions, and the need for effective conventional operations in coalition; the need will only increase[7]. Especially after reductions in force structure that appear certain over the next decade, the Army’s efforts worldwide will frequently depend on an “economy of force” presence overseas, fewer in number but with substantially greater linguistic capability and local influence.  The inability to master local languages and intellectual environments greatly increased the difficulty of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but remedies of a sort were available by committing more troops, more time, and more money.  We have none of those luxuries in the decade of resource scarcity ahead; such inability may foreclose strategic options altogether.  The Army and DoD need radical change to produce better language capability; this paper may serve as a departure point for discussions of remedy.  


The Army never mastered languages and population-knowledge in Iraq or Afghanistan, and never made broad organizational or doctrinal changes to develop long-term capability in those areas.

Militaries have failed throughout history to keep up with demands of the contemporary battlefield, but seldom have they continued to fail after a decade of proof that commanders, soldiers, and civilians alike were suffering directly from that failure to transform.  This transcends simple institutional inertia with marginal effects; our language incapacity has handicapped our operations and doubled our work in cities and villages from Baghdad to Kabul for a decade. The Army still suffers acute shortage of speakers of critical languages across the Combatant Commands and theaters.  Commanders still struggle to find soldiers with effective language skills and regional/cultural expertise, and must match them to appropriate jobs in combat theaters on an ad hoc basis.  The Army still lacks a method of developing and deploying teams with focused linguistic-cultural skills, and cannot systematically produce the quality of population-centric knowledge COIN requires.  While our cadets and language professionals have access to better training and better incentive pay, we have not significantly broadened or deepened the pool of foreign-language capable soldiers, and still rely overwhelmingly on contract linguists and contract “cultural expertise.”  Command language programs in garrison and in deployed theaters are not contributing much in terms of availability and efficiency or skills sustainment[8].  Arguably the Army is losing more language capability than it is producing every month, as soldiers exit service or experience skill decay through non-use.  Unless we become a forward-deployed Army that once again has generations to grow such skills through contact with local populations, as in Korea and Germany during the Cold War, these problems appear to be the new normal:  we will pay lip service to the importance of foreign language capabilities on the battlefield, nibble at the problem around the edges, and enter future conflicts unable to comprehend the populations we encounter. Then we will spend massive amounts of money for short windows of partial capability. The cost for such incapacity has and will continue to be severe – lost tactical opportunities, garbled intelligence, frustrated negotiations, and damaged partnerships. This is not an argument for keeping large-scale inventory in specific languages - Iraqi Arabic and Pashtu for instance – but for broadening baseline capabilities and surge capacity by training a force with more language capability across the board. 

We have relied excessively on contractors for language and related expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Private firms offering language interpretation and related services provided partial relief in a resource-rich environment, but are not sustainable and provide no long-term capability. Contract-dependence may have been a logical response in late 2003 and a short time thereafter, when the Department and the Army realized that the plan for short, high-tech war with minimal follow-on tasks was a mixture of poor planning and fantasy[9]. Contractors could have been an appropriate interim measure, bridging the gap between initial shortfall and the arrival of a surge of purpose-trained teams of uniformed personnel.  Instead, the Army and Combatant Commands developed a near-total and open-ended dependence on contract linguists, which brought both enormous expense and severe operational limitations[10]. The limitations of contractor language support were well illustrated by British filmmaker John McHugh’s short film Lost in Translation – Afghanistan, released in June 2008; the episode is anecdotal, but has played out so frequently for U.S. forces over the past decade that any veteran of field deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan will see bitterly familiar footage[11].  Interpreters not trained in the right dialect or not functional under combat conditions are a familiar story to many veterans of our current conflicts.  Even when the interpreters are competent, relating to local populations primarily through interpreters dooms U.S. forces to levels of personal and cultural distance that pose serious obstacles to long-term cooperation and understanding. When the contracts are up, these linguists depart, leaving no residue of capability or training base for future surges.      

We lack language “evangelists.” 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of U.S. Army response to operational language requirements is that our institutional culture has not changed in a significant or comprehensive way.  Many commanders seem to expect someone else to fix the problem, either contractors or some “surge” capacity that unfortunately doesn’t really exist.  Most commanders have just learned to operate without effective language and culture tools.  Changing the expectations and priorities of commanders is a form of cultural change; cultural change requires evangelists; the simple fact is that the Army lacks such evangelists for foreign language capability.  Even in operational fields where language is already considered a core competency, such as Special Forces and Foreign Area Officers (FAOs), only a minority have current qualification[12].  The language labs at many bases – including those hosting elite, frequently-deployed units – suffer chronic underuse.  Major headquarters frequently fail to afford their personnel language sustainment time, and sometimes lack facilities for such training[13].  The Army’s approach to language maintenance is very narrowly focused on units with language-required Military Occupational Specialties, which normally means intelligence units with soldiers in the Military Occupational Specialties 35P or 35M.  A Command Language Program (CLP) is only directed for units with such personnel, and funding from The Army Language Program (TALP) is restricted to them as well.  Command Language Programs could be a vehicle to broaden the pool of linguists and diffuse language skills throughout the broader force, but instead are used to reinforce the stove-piping of language into the intelligence world[14].  Even many FAOs seem uncertain as to whether language capability is critical or just an enabling skill for other things, such as policy analysis or security assistance[15]. The hard truth is that foreign language capability cannot simply be purchased, outsourced, or obtained through monetary incentive alone; it requires behavioral and institutional change, and constant affirmation that it is a core organizational function. In addition to evangelists, institutional change requires command buy-in. Commanders must see deployable language capabilities less as a critical type of support, and more as a critical war-fighting capability[16].  Unfortunately, very few Army leaders are working for this deep and thorough sort of change.

Service language strategies – including the Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy (ACFLS) – fall far short of the DLTR’s call for “transformation.”

The Services produced implementing strategies for the 2005 DLTR only after a delay of three to four years; one suspects that they were trying to figure out how to say “we can’t afford to transform.”  The General Accounting Office pointed out that the DLTR would only become a strategic plan once the Services fleshed out the implementing details, but the Services’ slow and tepid response to most of the DLTR’s guidance was remarkable[17]. Some of the DLTR’s fundamental goals – better inventory of language skills, effective Service management of linguist populations, improved support to the warfighter, broader and greater emphasis on language skills across DoD – seem not have been fully acknowledged by the Services, let alone fulfilled.  The ACFLS, for instance, in a sharp departure from the spirit of the DLTR, essentially excuses units and headquarters from any role in training sustainment for languages; the responsibility lies with the training base and the individual. This is something like training soldiers to shoot in basic training, then never again, or administering the APFT every six months without affording soldiers training time for physical fitness. 

Rejection of a unit responsibility for language sustainment means skills mastered in entry-level training or pre-deployment will degrade and perish quickly[18]. Perishable knowledge is a critical problem; once cadets are commissioned or language professionals are assigned other primary duties without explicit allowance for sustainment, slow but steady loss of capability inevitably ensues.  The only way we can be certain that we are improving the numbers and capabilities of our linguist populations is through sustainment training; otherwise language skill decay and linguist exit from service will assure downward pressure on overall capability. To be clear, the increase in language training requirements and opportunities at officer commissioning sources, including both the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) and the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), has been a positive step[19]. Even this is a fragile and dependent measure, though: DoD funded the expansion at USMA as a supplemental project, for example, rather than a core funded part of the curriculum, and the future of those funds is subject to excision[20]

We Lack Clear Terminology for “Language-derived Population Knowledge”

Another shortcoming of the ACFLS is its invention of a categorical separation of “language” from “culture,” coupled with assertion of primacy for the latter (“big C little l”)[21]. Little wonder that in a DoD Language Summit held six years after the publication of the DLTR, DoD language management authorities were still calling on the Services to recognize language as a core capabilities – the Services appear to have deferred reform because they don’t see language as a core function, just a tool to get at “culture”[22].

The ACFLS’ blurred categories of “culture” and “language” merit further discussion.  Asserting that “culture” is a realm of knowledge or expertise separable from language, and that we might attain knowledge of the former without the latter, is an unsupported (likely unsupportable) proposition.  The two are of course intimately related, and can only be effectively learned together.  Attempts to separate the two produce an overly academic, highly generalized type of knowledge that may have sufficed for studying the Japanese in World War II, but cannot equip us for the intimate and complex interactions that modern COIN and urban operations entail.  This approach has largely been discredited in the broader field of anthropology[23].  Furthermore, placing primacy on the ill-defined and synthetic category of “culture” over language is mystifying.  The term “culture” in a military operational context is poorly defined, and blurs distinctions between manners, belief structures, art, religion, and traditions -- knowledge subsets that can in fact only be accurately understood by speaking to the people bearing those ideas in a language they understand. Spoken language so thoroughly permeates how and what people think that it is folly to learn subsets of those “thoughts” without knowing the language; languages are more systems of thinking than they are mere systems of communication.  Someone who speaks “language x” with a population of native speakers will absorb in short order familiarity with their customs, beliefs, behaviors, and so forth, but someone who has studied various aspects of “culture” without knowing the target language has error and separation built into their knowledge from the start. If the Army had to choose one priority between language per se or the products of language it arbitrarily calls “culture,” it chose wrongly[24].  In reality, the choice poses a false dilemma[25].

The word “culture” does not suffice to describe the breadth of knowledge about human societies in operational areas that must be mastered, but other terms currently used are little better.  GAO reports, for instance, alternate between “regional expertise” and “area expertise”, ignoring the critical point that this is knowledge about humans, their behaviors and connections, more than the regions or areas in which they live. The U.S. Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, on the other hand, uses “culture” as a less encompassing term - as only one of thirteen variables in the operational environment, separate from things like religion and demographic sociology[26].  The variation in terminology and analytic scope points out the need for a unifying concept for knowledge about populations that is derived from their thoughts and behaviors; knowledge that is therefore language-dependent and language-derived, but separate from the study of the language itself. 

The Army delivers language-enabled operators to long standing institutional customers such as embassies and intelligence centers, but hasn’t figured out how to put them in the hands of Combatant Commanders and deployed forces.

Part of this is a demand signal and inventory problem, part is conceptual, and part is a deployment platform problem.  Those commands who have long required language capability,  such as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), have established pipelines, procedures, requirements, funding, and field organizations for language-capable personnel.  Officers and enlisted going to DSCA or DIA assignments across the globe frequently have access to quality language training prior to deployment, and some sustainment training at station.  Neither Army nor Joint doctrine yet provides for an analogous capability in operational forces, despite clear evidence that the current, population-centric operating environment demands such a capability. DoD and the Army lack doctrinal and organizational approaches for placing language and population experts at the disposal of field commanders. My experience advising and liaising in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at strategic headquarters included at least a half-dozen instances of senior commanders expressing great surprise when they met a fully-language qualified officer or NCO serving at the right time and place; it clearly is not the norm[27].  Models for deployable language and culture teams exist but have been ad hoc rather than doctrinal solutions.  These include DIA’s Defense Liaison Team Iraq (DLT-I) from 2004-2005, the current Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands (APH) program, and Special Operations Command’s Culture Support Teams (CSTs) for female engagement in Afghanistan.  These were and are evolving responses to specific needs, but each shows that the Services and Commands can produce effective organizations and doctrines for language and population-centric knowledge when conditions require.  Rather than evolving such platforms in tortuous fashion in the field, the Services should anticipate recurring requirements in these areas and find/resource doctrinal solutions, while educating commanders about how to request and use them[28].

The Army has not adopted and spread innovative approaches from the field. 

Some commanders have taken the initiative to commit unit time, money, and personnel to specific target languages in preparation for specific deployments.  Certain battalions in the 10th Mountain Division have sent a few soldiers per company for training over several months prior to deployment; at the larger end of the spectrum we find the Joint Staff’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands (APH) program, which provides hundreds of service members foundational language skills an iterative deployment pattern[29].  Another example is the practice in 5th Special Forces Group of holding back one member of each ODA during deployment rotations for full-time language immersion in preparation for the subsequent rotation. This is a radical commitment (one twelfth of available personnel) reflect a serious commitment to effective language capability[30].

Two organizations focused on improving content and delivery of language-focused training and operational support also merit mention: the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational and Cultural Learning (CAOCL).  DLI has both updated its curricula and proved agile enough to support emerging initiatives such as APH, while CAOCL has done well in integrating language and culture concepts and products for USMC deployed forces[31].

The primary Achilles Heel of the larger-scale approaches is funding, especially given what is widely expected to be a decade of severe budget austerity and steep reduction in force structure. APH, for example, was conceived and implemented as a sort of Manhattan Project for language and culture, with a degree of personal commitment and drive from multiple four-star officers that was unprecedented in the history of DoD’s language efforts[32].  The combination of senior leader turnover, budget austerity, and troop reductions in theater will likely mean the massive reduction, or perhaps elimination, of that program in the next several years. Like contract solutions, resource-heavy special-purpose organizations may not be a feasible approach in the coming decade[33].  The examples from 10th Mountain and 5th SFG, however, provide an interesting model for how we might integrate language capability across a broader spectrum of the operational force in future.


These seven observations paint a pretty bleak picture:  top-level recognition of a serious capability gap; institutional and organizational rigidity that prevents fundamental change; conceptual confusion in identifying solutions; expensive short-term remedies that leave us right where we started; and likely the most severe wave of budget and force cuts in sixty years approaching. Have we foreclosed the possibility that our next generation of soldiers might enter their operational areas less handicapped by deficient language skills and population knowledge?  The answer does not depend on a rear-guard action for expensive programs, but a focused effort to clarify operational need, and ideas for building the capability into our force.  Here are some reform ideas that might serve as a starting point for that discussion.   

Unify the Concept

We should recognize language and culture as aspects of a single category of military information that commanders require, rather than two, or five, or ten disparate types of information.  I would nominate “language-enabled population knowledge” (LPK) as a unifying concept for information about target populations, the regions they influence, their views and values, and other information of relevance to military operations.  Gross data about economy, political structure, military forces and objective measures may be accessible to analysts without language skills, but these “world view” types of knowledge unique to LPK should be recognized as a separate and necessary domain with an assigned type of operation and operator assigned to it.  Language is the critical skill, LPK is the critical product to provide to commanders, and both general-purpose and task-specific operators must be developed to provide it.  The LPK concept can focus collectors, analysts, operators, and commanders on the connected nature of the various facets of population knowledge and their inseparable link with spoken language.  This would also correct the imprecision of referring to “culture” when what we mean is a broad but finite body of knowledge of relevance to the military planner.

Assign Lead Responsibility for the Language-Culture Mission 

The U.S. Army’s best hope for progress on language and culture solutions is the FAO.  This is not to say that FAOs are merely linguists; language and LPK are critical to FAOs, but so too are political-military knowledge and operational currency.  If FAOs cannot integrate and lead in this critical domain of military knowledge, however, no one can or will. The doctrinal, organizational, operational, and budgetary aspects of the “language and culture” problem are thorny and weighty enough to warrant a coherent and integrated solution – with a formally tasked FAO Corps in the lead.  The FAO population should be organized into a Corps, with a Commanding General, doctrinal responsibility, and standards common across COCOMs and agencies.  They should be given the enduring mission of evangelizing language transformation and integration as a key warfighting function across the Army enterprise.

A FAO Corps can become the Army’s builder and integrator for deployable organizations and effective doctrine for providing LPK.  We have fielded a wide variety of LPK collectors and advisors in the past decade, but never developed a mechanism to integrate and focus their efforts[34]. Instead of providing Commanders integrated teams, doctrine, and expectations, we have relied on pick-up teams. The result has been very partial coverage of a vast spectrum of information and knowledge requirements. Our ability to describe requirements, fashion solutions, surge capabilities, and institutionalize skills will all benefit from having a Corps with language and LPK as a primary mission.

The idea that FAOs and the functions they perform are necessary at the strategic but not the operational or tactical landscape has become less and less credible over the past decade.  Senior commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have called urgently for more FAOs and FAO-like capabilities, and have strongly endorsed the efforts of the FAOs they were able to deploy[35].  Despite the failure of one early attempt to meet that need in Iraq, by 2010 commanders in both Iraq and Afghanistan were clamoring for more FAOs and were integrating them into forward units extensively[36].  The breadth and immediacy of battlefield need renders language and culture operators more like communications or logistics operators, and less like more technical functional specialists (Operational Research Systems Analysis – ORSA – for instance); expansion of Functional Area 48 into an organized Corps would address this immediacy.

The Army must do a better job of inventorying language skills across all commands, and develop the ability in times of crisis to surge those linguists to deploying commands and areas, even if parent units or agencies are not deploying as a whole[37]. Establishing a FAO Corps would provide a framework to organize surge capacity into coherent teams; this might require only a small number of core personnel at Army Service Component Command or Combatant Command level[38]. These “on call teams” might be gathered periodically for orientation and refresher training, and once called can provide immediately responsive linguist support, plus a management core for follow-on reserve or contract language and LPK operators.  The FAO Corps can be established with relatively little additional cost or footprint, an important factor in the looming budgetary environment. The smaller FAO programs in the other services can then develop relationships with the FAO Corps for habitual training, doctrinal and professional development – as they currently do for a number of other combat support specialties.

Build the Bench

A formalized FAO Corps should be expanded through inclusion of Warrant and Non-Commissioned FAOs.  These would fill not only existing support positions at attaché and security assistance offices, but might also form the basis for deployable FAO teams that could be made available to tactical commanders and Joint Task Forces to provide early-in language and LPK support[39]. By excluding warrant and Non-commissioned officers from the specialized training and long-term development in such roles, we are missing the full potential to the expand capability base.

The Army should also broaden the pool of linguists by implementing some level of foreign language proficiency bonus for soldiers scoring between 1/1 and 2/2 on the Defense Language Proficiency Test.  Other services have done this for APH; anecdotal evidence shows that linguists qualifying at 1/1 with a short period of initial training may be can achieve broader competency through self study or subsequent instruction[40]. More positions should be coded for linguist-qualified soldiers (perhaps at the lower 1/1 level), especially in combat units and critical headquarters. 

There is a more novel approach we might try, one that has been contemplated by Congress but not enacted. I call this the “Ivy-Army Partnership.”  A combined effort between certain top-level universities (not restricted to the Ivy League of course) would establish centers for focused study of language and LPK both for students and for language-qualified military personnel.  Training might be provided on a periodic, in person basis, on a distance-learning, continuous basis, or some combination.  Such centers would work both on the Services’ needs for higher-level language and LPK capacity, and on the troubling civic aspect of isolation between the military and the academy. The program could be linked with other agency initiatives, especially the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute language training, to gain other efficiencies and leverage low-density capabilities. In the ideal scenario, program graduates and even instructors would provide value as mobilized reservists to help support and guide language and population-focused operations in times of crisis or war.  A version of this proposal was included by the House of Representatives in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed DoD to partner with institutions of higher learning to establish training centers for “strategic language and regional area expertise.”  Unfortunately, the final NDAA (Public Law 111-84) significantly watered down this language and merely “allowed” such a project[41]. It has not been pursued, but there is reason to think the Ivies and other elite universities would respond positively.

Change Army Culture

The most effective change that we might pursue to realize a transformation in Army and DoD language capabilities has no specific price tag attached to it:  a change in Army culture itself.  As long as the Army’s decision-makers politely nod but implicitly reject broad institutional adoption of language capability as a core war-fighting function, we will not make a dent in operationally-ready language and LPK in the force.  Until we make the language lab on Army installations a place of equal vitality and command focus to the gym, we will fail to meet a mission identified as critical by the Department.  We must make greater efforts to identify, track, employ, and reward linguists at tactical and institutional levels. We should formalize an integrated and tasked mission set to ensure progress. But most of all, we need to create a sense of zeal and mission. Like all cultural changes in the Army, this can only be achieved through leadership intervention. There are a few flag officers in the Army and the other Services who are pressing hard for language and LPK skills enhancement; anyone who spoke with Generals McChrystal or Flynn about language skills and their operational impact has seen what language evangelism looks and sounds like. The open question is whether the current and rising generation of senior leaders feels the same way, and can press reform to the level required for a decade of anemic budgeting.  


[1]. Defense Language Office, Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (DLTR), (Washington, DC: GPO, January 2005), pp 1-3.  See also General Accounting Office (GAO), Report 09-176R, Defense Management: Preliminary Observations on DOD’s Plans for Developing Language and Cultural Awareness Capabilities (Washington D.C., November 2008), and GAO, Report 10-879T Continued Actions Needed to Guide DOD’s Efforts to Improve Language Skills and Regional Proficiency (Washington D.C., June 2010). 

[2]. Matthew Chlosta, AfPak Hands Begin Immersion Training, 5 May 2010 (accessed 18 March 2011),, DoD has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on contract language solutions, and hundreds more in ad hoc equipment and training solutions; none qualify as an enduring solution for language or population knowledge capabilities.  The Af-Pak Hands Program (APH) is just one example.

3. See Secretary Gates’ remarks at West Point on February 25, 2011, General Martin Dempsey’s remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 2, 2011, and Admiral Mullen’s comments at the Defense Language Institute, August 2009.

4. See GAO 09-176R and GAO 10-879T, and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Building Language Skills and Cultural Competencies in the Military (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, December 2010).   

5. Estimates of the coming cuts range between $350B and $800B over the next decade.  See Tara McKelvey, Pentagon’s Worst Nightmare, (accessed 3 August 2011); Colin Clark, Panetta Must Rein in Personnel Costs, Panel Says, (accessed 8 June 2011); or Charles Hoskinson, Panetta’s 5 Challenges, (accessed 8 June 2011).

6. Two innovative approaches to bringing language expertise into deployed forces, the 09L (heritage speaker) linguist program, and the Af-Pak Hands (APH, discussed in detail below), are resource-intensive and likely candidates for the chopping block under the coming budget austerity.  As the military forces shrink in size, time as well as money will militate against sustained investment in language capabilities.  LTC Abbas Dahouk, personal communication with author, June 8 2011.

7. Bond, Levon “Speaking the Language: Cultural and Linguistic Fluency in COIN,” Canadian Army Journal, Volume 12 Number 3, Winter 2010, pp. 69-84.

8. During eighteen months in Iraq and Afghanistan, I searched in vain for evidence of effective language sustainment or management programs for deployed forces.  Command language programs may exist on paper, but they are not enhancing sustainment or availability of language skills and experts. Missed opportunities abound; one example is the failure to harness underused linguists at main bases to assist familiarization or refresher training for deployed linguists.     

9. Scales, Robert “Culture Centric Warfare,” The Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2004, 33. The fantasy of short, high-tech wars and rapid redeployments yielded only slowly to recognition that an era of prolonged counterinsurgency (COIN) had dawned.

10. GAO, Report B-299315.7/B-299315.8, World Wide Language Resources, Inc., August 12, 2010. Contract linguist solutions for Iraq and Afghanistan have involved multiple billions of dollars in contract value.

11. (accessed 23 June 2011).

12. One staff officer familiar with the training and assignment process for officers estimated that less than 40% of FAOs have a current qualification in their assigned foreign language (personal communication).  Anecdotal information indicates that the percentage is no better in the Special Operations Forces community.

13. The Pentagon, for instance, has a magnificent fitness center but no language laboratory, and most staff officers are not afforded time for language study during the work day.

14. Department of the Army, AR 11-6 Army Foreign Language Program, 31 Aug 2009, Washington, D.C.

15. A revealing exchange in this regard occurred in successive issues of Military Review in 2004-2005. Michael Vane and Daniel Fagundes argued that FAOs would be better off less tied to specific regions and languages, without explaining how the Army would then maintain such expertise or how FAOs would then differ from or competent 59Z or other field grade staff officers.  Friedenberg rebutted appropriately, emphasizing the key role of language in developing regional expertise.

16. GAO 09-176R and 10-879T

17. General Accounting Office (GAO), Report 09-176R Defense Management: Preliminary Observations on DoD’s Plans for Developing Language and Cultural Awareness Capabilities, 25 Nov 09.  See also GAO, Report 09-568 Military Training: DoD Needs a Strategic Plan and Better Inventory and Requirements Data to Guide Development of Language Skills and Regional Proficiency, June 2009, and GAO, Report 10-879T, Military Training: Continued Actions Needed to Guide DoD’s Efforts to Improve Language Skills and Regional Proficiency, 29 June 10.  See also the December, 2010 HASC O&I Report cited above. 

18. Author knows several trained linguists who reached 3/3 DLPT level in Category IV (most difficult) languages, then degraded within a year to less than 1/1 due to work schedules which precluded sustainment study. This is both an operational and a resourcing shame.

19. Foreign language requirement for West Point cadets was raised to four semesters, for instance, according to USMA Arabic professor LTC Abbas Dahouk, personal communication, 8 Mar 11.  Additionally, the US Army Cadet Command has developed a Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency (CULP) program which aims to send ROTC cadets into immersion environments, though this initiative seems to suffer from the same conceptual culture-language problems discussed below under the Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy.

20. Personal communication from LTC Abbas Dahouk, 1 Mar 2011.

21. Headquarters Department of the  Army, Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy, Washington, D.C., 1 Dec 09, p. 7. 

22. Defense Language Office, Language and Culture: Changing Perspective, Washington, D.C. February 2011.  The Language Summit appears to have presented solid thinking on challenges and proposed solutions, but the problem remains implementation by Services and Commands.  See also the critique of conceptual inconsistency between DoD and Service strategies in GAO  09-176R.

23. Levine, Robert A., Journal of Personality Studies, December 2001, Volume 69 Number 6 pp. 803-818 “Culture and Personality Studies, 1918–1960: Myth and History.”

24. Chomsky, Noam “New Horizons in the Study of Language and the Mind,” Anthony Arnove’s The Essential Chomsky, pp. 287-289.

25. Watson, Jeff “Language and Culture Training: Separate Paths?” Military Review, 1 Mar 2010. Dr. Watson argues against separating out “culture” from language or trying to train as separate tasks, based on extensive experience in training both types of tasks. 

26. University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, Red Team Handbook Version 5 November 2009, pp. 21-18, and the various GAO reports previously cited.

27. This includes leaders such as BG H.R. McMasters in Iraq (2005) after working with a talented Middle East FAO, and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal in Kabul in 2010 when working with Af-Pak Hands personnel.  Personal communication with author (November 2008, November 2009, and July 2010, respectively).

28. Author’s first-hand experience with DLT-I in Iraq in 2005, and APH in Afghanistan 2009-2010. See Thomas Ricks on SOCOM’s CSTs, cst_afghanistan.

29. Drazen, Yochi “Afghan War Units Begin Two New Efforts,” Wall Street Journal, 6 October 2009. The Af-Pak Hands program (APH) was stood up by the Joint Staff’s Pak-Af Coordination Cell (PACC) in mid-2009, and involves several hundred officers spread between assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, bases in the U.S., and language training assignments.

30. Command Sergeant Major Stanley, Jason, personal communication, 19 Mar 11.

31. DLI’s new series of proficiency tests, coupled with refocus on critical languages and enhanced flexibility in delivery modes and locations, has improved options for commanders (personal experience).  CAOCL’s development of language and culture visual aids for warfighters, as well as conceptual integration of language and culture to USMC doctrine, should be considered a model.

32. Then-LTG McChrystal and Admiral Mullen both adopted APH as personal priorities in early 2009, and announced their support during a series of small group discussions and public statements in May and June 2009.

33. Serious discussion is apparently ongoing for up to 30-40% budget cuts for DLI, for instance.

34. Atmospherics Teams, Bilingual Bicultural Advisors, and Human Terrain Teams are examples, in addition to contract linguists and a sprinkling of special advisors (often FAOs).

35. Personal communication with author from General Stanley McChrystal, General David Petraeus, and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster.  These and other leaders have same praised specific FAOs and the same time they mentioned the paucity of FAOs available on a consistent and timely basis in operational theaters. As an illustrative example of a “good year,” in 2009 83 FAOs were deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other operational deployments, compared to 248 in training and 741 assigned worldwide to more traditional FAO assignments.  See DoD’s 2009 Annual Foreign Area Officer Report, page 31.

36. The abortive attempt was DIA’s Defense Liaison Team – Iraq (DLT-I), fielded as a proto-Defense Attaché Office and sent packing by General Casey in 2005. Examples of improving integration of FAO’s include the Regional Support Teams of ISAF’s Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, and the APH program, which includes many FAOs and was essentially designed to develop “FAO-like” personnel in a region which had too few FAOs.

37. This would require accurate inventories as a starting point – this is a failing mentioned in repeated GAO reports, including GAO Report 10-715T. 

38.  According to DoD’s 2010 Annual Foreign Area Officer Report, the Defense Security and Cooperation Agency (DSCA) is working on plans for deployable/surge teams for contingency security assistance.  This would be positive in so far as it goes – but would need to be integrated under COCOM or JTF command, and tied to other linguistic-cultural operations, or would remain a niche enhancement.

39. USMC is developing plans to train Non-Commissioned Officers as FAOs and RAOs, which would be a secondary specialty. Marine Corps Times, 6/13/11, p.18. 

40. For COIN applications, an 11B qualified at 1/1 is to be preferred in most cases over a contract linguist at 3/3.  Author is aware of multiple cases of soldiers turning a short initial period of instruction and limited proficiency into full proficiency through self-study and experience. 

41. Congressional Research Service, FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act:Selected Military Personnel Policy Issues, December 2009. 


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Native language and culture are inseparable. For example, human culture, as a process of self-improvement is a worship for learning. Sorry, but little benefit from dialogue with poorly educated native speaker. In the army you can continue your education if the student has a starting base from school

The Language Skills Gap.

Individual Entrepeneurs (Evangleicals?) May ocasionally get religion about how desirable a broadly based language capability is, but the intertia of the big army, well, it's simpler to train for that daily four mile run.

I certainly never received any ataboys on my EER (Thirty years ago) for my personal pursuit of Russian Language Competence. I was punished for it.
(Former 96B/35F).

If you think that the Army FAO program has problems, check out the Air Force--it is a complete train wreck.

DoD failure in achieving language fluency can be spelled in a variety of 4 and 3 letter words, namely DLPT and/or OPI. The lack of a vision or understanding of how to match mission goals with language training is at the core of the problem. All language training I have seen at DLI, or sponsored by DLI, is still stuck in the cold war era, focusing on reading, writing and passing meaningless standard tests. Even in the Special Forces, whose program started with good ideas and understanding, got entangled in that web of lack of understanding how evaluation works, what it is all about, allowing this misunderstanding to blind their vision until in the end they fell as slaves to DLI's confused vision. My personal story is one of disappointment and despair, and I tell it here not for self-promotion but to illustrate how discombobulated language training in the US military has become. I have been an applied linguist for over 20 years, I spent the last 10 here in the US trying to introduce the US government to new revolutionary methods of language training. During the last ten years I have shown that US soldiers, regardless of aptitude or prior academic inclinations, can actually master the speaking of languages at high levels within very short periods of time (6 months for a level 2 in all languages and 4 weeks to level 1 in all languages ""). However, all of my efforts went unacknowledged, disparaged and killed despite the fact that when my students were subjected to independent and proper evaluation they surpassed all measures. In the end, what mattered most to the military bureaucracy was whether my students managed to pass the improper and poorly constructed and administered DLPT, which in my opinion has no relation to 90% of the missions that soldiers conduct nowadays. Even the OPI became a part of this mess when the USG subjected third party organizations such as LTI to its control and influence. For lack of space here I will add no further comment but an expression of gratitude for Col. Outzen's article.

I enjoyed reading the article you provided the link to on the training/education used for accelerated language learning. Two questions, how many qualified instructors are there for this methodology? Five military students isn't exactly making a dent in our deficit of linguists. After learning a language using this method are the students able to retain the skill learned on their own with a reasonable investment in time?

I have read about a few accelerated learning processes for foreign languages and was always frustrated the military didn't pursue them, but as you correctly pointed out the focus for the military has always been statistics based on DLI performance instead of real capability.

As many have pointed out, one of the problems is how the Army handles personnel - far too often soldiers with proficiency in a language are sent to places where it does them no good.

Another problem is, with the forces being drawn down in Afghanistan, and not knowing where units will be deployed next, what languages should the services spend their limited resources on? A great example of this was the 5th Stryker BDE out of Ft Lewis: they had a Language-Enables Soldier program, where one individual per platoon went to Arabic classes for 10 months, then sustainment training once a week. This didn't do a whole lot of good when 6-months prior to deployment the BDE got switched to go to Afghanistan instead.

You mention a lack of incentives for personnel to learn and maintain language proficiency, but what is your opinion on current incentives such as Foreign Language Proficiency Pay? Personally I don't think it's enough of an incentive for someone to learn a new language, but I think it's useful for those who already know one.

Lastly, I think the idea of an FAO corps is rather interesting, but would like to know some more specifics about how you envision it would work. Are you talking about having FAO officers at the BN and BDE level? Would a lot of this capability not overlap with existing CA and CMO positions on those staffs?

COL Outzen's recommendations are illogical to the extreme. Of course some personnel in the military with certain jobs must have a high degree of foreign language capability (interpreters, interrogators, interceptors, and foreign area officers). In other jobs language proficiency is desired like Special Forces, and of course any of deployed on stability operations for any length of time didn't feel comfortable relying on translators, but then again we didn't have the time to invest to go through the same pipeline that COL Outzen went through. His job is critical to national security, but has he well knows the Army doesn't win wars with a Foreign Area Officer Corps.

Let's put aside the argument that being able to speak the language of the country you're working in is useful. Of course it is, but that isn't the real issue that we're debating. We're debating whether the Army should invest more money and training time to language training. Maybe to some extent, but here is a dose of reality.

The Army must be prepared to deploy anywhere in the world and fight. If the assumption is now that language is a "critical" warfighting skill on par with marksmanship then we better just stay home (often the best course of action). In the Area of Responsibility for U.S. Pacific Command alone there are over 1,000 languages spoken. I'm not sure how many are spoken worldwide, but suffice to say it is in the thousands.

Narrowing it down to Iraq as one recent example. Like many others I was deployed there a couple of times in recent years. My Special Forces language training was on focused on two Asian languages (minimal proficiency in both, and not simultaneously). We had SF soldiers who spoke Arabic at various levels of proficiency and admittedly they were more proficient in that fight than those of us who didn't. However, that is one country and one language and one place, should the entire Army study Arabic? My interpreter was a good man who worked hard, and we became more effective as a pair over time, but he frequently couldn't translate when talking to Kurds, Turkomen, or even some Arabs with a different dialect, and he grew up there. English is my wife's second language, and while she speaks at the college level there are still nuances she doesn't get.

QUOTE The inability to master local languages and intellectual environments greatly increased the difficulty of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but remedies of a sort were available by committing more troops, more time, and more money.UNQUOTE

I agree with the first part, strongly disagree with the second. We don't have enough time as it is now to maintain our combat skills with the current optempo, so without making the Army bigger (unaffordable) so we can better balance training requirements with deployments this isn't even feasible.

I had a friend who was a BDE commander preparing to deploy to Iraq and he actually put several of his guys into Arabic language school (a risk he accepted), and at the 11th hour they were diverted to Afghanistan. That is the reality of language training for the Army. The world is an unpredictable place and will remain so.

QUOTE Commanders still struggle to find soldiers with effective language skills and regional/cultural expertise, and must match them to appropriate jobs in combat theaters on an ad hoc basis. UNQUOTE

Lets say in one company we have a PLT Leader, XO, PLT Sgt, and heavy weapons section leader who speak Spanish and their deployed on a combat operation in Latin America. Do we pull them out of these critical jobs and make them translaters? During the Cold War SF did a better job with language training because ODAs as a whole for focused on a specific country and they all learned that language (again mostly at the level of ordering a better and asking how much). Depending on what group you're in now you may have three of four different languages on the same team, so it makes training management a nightmare, and of course the team as a whole is oriented on the same language so depending on what country they deploy to the medic or team leader may end up being a translater which isn't the intent. Their jobs come first, not being a translater.

The author supports my point when he writes the following:

QUOTE: Afghanistan, released in June 2008; the episode is anecdotal, but has played out so frequently for U.S. forces over the past decade that any veteran of field deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan will see bitterly familiar footage[11]. Interpreters not trained in the right dialect or not functional under combat conditions are a familiar story to many veterans of our current conflicts. UNQUOTE

How does he expect all our guys to get trained in the right dialect? Much less the right language!

Maybe someday we'll all become cyborgs and we can simply insert the appropriate language chip into that section of our brain, but until then we need to make reasoned investments and stop chasing fantasies. The author is right, we don't have the money or time to invest in this relatively low return investment (based on the number of countries we could potentially deploy to).

COL Outzen's criticisms of the Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy (ACFLS) indicate that he fails to appreciate that it is in fact a strategy, which is to say that the team drafting the ACFLS had to reconcile desired ends with the ways and means available. While it is abundantly clear that greater language proficiency distributed throughout the GPF would be very useful for a variety of missions, including BPC, COIN, HA/DR, etc. we simply can't fit language acquisition training into the three to four year terms of service of the majority of the GPF. A more limited approach, like we are using to train small numbers of language enabled Soldiers to the 1/1 level for deployment to Afghanistan, does work; because the numbers are limited.
The ACFLS identifies cultural education as the main effort for the GPF because it is what we can do for the majority of GPF Soldiers, those who we are not able to send through a language training program. A substantial body of research exists to support this approach; some conducted by ARI and other Service entities examining military situations, more by academia investigating a broader range of experiences. For those so inclined I suggest reviewing this literature before accepting on faith the assertions of those who suggest any approach that doesn't preeminently feature language learning is invalid.
Language ability has been, and will probably remain, a difficult issue for the Army. There are many institutional constraints blocking the way to an ideal solution. We need to think carefully about where to invest our limited resources to achieve the greatest gain in useful capablity. Is it best to focus our language effort on those we deem professional linguists, developing in them deeper ability and experience, or should we spread the effort across the entire force seeking a modest level of ability, much of which might never be used? As addressed above, we can only have it both ways to a very limited degree.

This sounds like quite a bureaucratic answer to COL Outzen's article. I wish you'd identify yourself and your equities. Your criticisms would have more credence if you did so.

I was a very unusual breed of cat - an armor officer with a graduate degree from Georgetown when I went on active duty. I turned down one FAO job as a lieutenant, and with a 54 (Operations and Force Development) alternative specialty, held down a major's FAO slot as a captain with a 2/3 language rating. To my way of thinking, language labs are not even worth having. ALL sustainment language training should be delivered by Advanced Distributed Learning. Except for the immersive training DLI provides, NONE of it should be bricks-and-mortar. As far as the personnel system is concerned, there IS an analogy to the APFT. We cut people from the team for failing to maintain physical proficiency, but because we are afraid of losing good soldiers or compromising honest-to-gosh warfighting standards, we refuse to apply any incentives - positive or negative - for language proficiency. So we rotate between failure and mediocrity - why would anyone expect anything else ? I knew one MI major who spoke FOUR - count 'em - FOUR foreign languages and the Army retired her out of tactical intelligence early back in the 90s. This is the kind of signal the Army sends to its language capable officers. Don't even bother, it will not help your career. At all.

Those of us who have spent long periods of time attaining and trying to maintain language proficiency can offer some tips about the difficulty associated with this process. In my late 50s, I developed a rare taste for German Schlager music. That's part of the culture. Most of us, even if we live in-country for years, sometimes immersed, mostly not, cannot attain deep cultural understanding without eventually becoming students of ONE (not many) culture. Yes, some of this knowledge is transferrable. But the trick is to graduate overcome the stereotypes we form as we learn the language and culture at the most elementary level. It is always deeper and more complex than we perceive. That's why I started listening to Schlager, that's why I'll hang out in Schlager areas in Second Life, where they speak and type in the latest indecypherable slang. The little nuances you pick up like that can be a matter of life and death when living and working and fighting in a society that, believe it or not, is changing around us (but we never pick up on the changes, since we are still contemplating the wonder of Afghan rugs).

Some of this ought to cause us to question our "up or out" approach to personnel management. If in fact, we have struggled corporately to attain a minimal level of cultural and linguistic proficiency - does it make any sense, any sense at all, to shelf this hard-won capacity (which is certainly NOT a success of our civilian education system) ? If we as a people are self-centered, inwardly facing, and unwilling to engage with the rest of the world, what does this mean for our national security capability ? Are we in fact DISADVANTAGED in soft power ? Do we not need a stronger return on investment here than in those areas where we do still hold an advantage ? I have seen far too many cases where we lean on our immigrant population to close the gap.

Col Outzen mistakenly assumes from the beginning that everyone is agreed on the nature of the problem: That soldiers in the field have poor knowledge of the local language and/or customs where they operate or, in any case, that the training in these areas which they have received is too segmented into "linguistic" versus "cultural" knowledge. Yet while this may all be fact, in itself, it isn't a problem; just how these supposed deficiencies prevent the troops from accomplishing their tactical or strategic goals [which would be a problem] is not specified or even defined.

For instance: Do commanders have poor intelligence because they must rely on poorly-trained contract interpreters? Is it because they do not know enough about the natives to judge when they are being lied to and when they are told the truth? In what instances has Col Outzen found that a particular mission or objective was check-mated purely on the basis of insufficient language skills on the American side? Does there exist any empirical evidence that sectors are stabilized more quickly when they are held by units with higher numbers of locally-fluent officers? Is deep knowledge of a foreign language necessary because it enables a better literal understanding of what's going on, or rather is it necessary because with comfort in another language comes the confidence to negotiate effectively with stubborn foreign counterparts? Etc, etc, etc...

Such questions may be beyond the intended scope of the paper, but in my view, they matter a lot, since any solutions must surely depend on what practical challenges arise from these language barriers. For example, "Unify the Concept" sounds like a good idea in the abstract, but Col Outzen's recommendations for doing it reads more like a list of reasons why existing functions and components need to work together more effectively than a recipe for revolutionary thinking. And while "Changing Army culture" may be a worthy goal, to a non-Army man in the business world who has a bit of experience with large bureaucratic institutions [like myself], that sounds pretty vague and probably unreachable on anything like a reasonable time frame.

At the heart of my skepticism of the recommendations I cite above is my tendency to view problems relative to the likely cost of their solutions. Let's accept as writ the notion that proper language training would solve many of the problems faced today by COIN or CT commanders. Assume, too, that the ideal solution to this would be to train every single decision-maker in the right combination of linguistic expertise, cultural sensitivity and knowledge of local history and economics, and marry that to the US military's existing strengths. Finally, assume that the US military faces the usual limitation of resources, with particular note of (a) a declining defense budget and (b) a likely de-emphasis on the role of, and resources directed toward COIN (in favor of, say, strategic re-balancing against a conventional great power like China).

The question then becomes, Okay, well since we can't have the ideal solution, what's the next best thing? Col Outzen proposes what seem, at least to an outsider like me, two excellent ideas--establishment of an FAO Corps and partnership with leading civilian institutions like the Ivy League universities. Excellent because, among other things, they're concrete and probably relatively cheap. But how do our efforts need to be directed? Is it preferable to train 10,000 soldiers to 50% of native fluency in Dari or Pashto, or 5,000 soldiers to 75%, or 3,000 to 90%, or 1,000 to 100%? Whatever our resources and goals may be, it's probably a safe bet that 10,000 soldiers with 100% native fluency is not gonna happen ever. And this brings us back to the issue of what the practical repercussions are of our military's supposed deficiency in language training.

This piece proposes some good ideas that would help our armed forces become incrementally more effective--improve coordination between the various intel and training arms of the military; formalize foreign expertise training; partner with top-notch schools. But I think we need a clearer idea of why our foreign policy goals are being stunted on the micro level by a lack of language training in the first place, before we can justify shaking up the entire military to correct for a plain fact: that America is an English-speaking country and a culture all its own.

The need for "the Services to treat language capabilities as core warfighting skills akin to marksmanship" would seem to be based on the idea that the general purpose force (GPF) would be heavily employed and used to do COIN and/or CT work; all in the service of our goal to transform states and societies along western lines.

If the general purpose force, today and in the future, is not going to be used to do COIN and/or CT work in the service of our goal to transform states and societies along western lines, then is there still a need for significant language capabilites within the general purpose forces?

To answer this, we must know:

a. While abandoning COIN as our method, have we retained as our objective the determination to transform states and societies along western lines?

b. If so, is there a still thought to be a role for the U.S. Army generally and for the general purpose force specifically in achieving this objective?

c. What might this GPF role be?

(1) To building partner capacity (BPC) -- so as to help friendly governments overcome hostile population groups?

(2) To build and defend sanctuaries (R2P) -- so as to help friendly population groups overcome hostile governments?

d. Considering that the new role for the GPF may be, as noted above, BPC and R2P, are language skills -- in these scenerios -- still considered to be as needed, as useful and as critically important as such things as marksmanship?


I am not, nor have i ever been "anti-coin." I have been however anti-dogmatic thinking, which in my view population centric coin and the army's embrace of it over the last four years has been dogmatic to the extreme.

To your point about understanding culture and foreign populations in war, well sure, of course that sort of understanding was and is important, no argument there. But Outzen's piece suggests something different, it suggests the notion of a weaponization of sorts of cultural knowledge through foreign language skills. Weaponization of cultural knowledge within the framework of population centric coin means that if we simply understand a foreign people through language skills we can therefore win them over to our side and the side of the government we are supporting. It is this conception of cultural knowledge through language skills that i disagree with, and not the importance of knowing and understanding foreign cultures as a military necessity when operating in foreign lands in whatever capacity that might be.


Gian, I don't know how you come up with something so complicated from something so simple. What I see is that if you want to know what the people you are working with and around are thinking and why they do some of the things they do, you have to be able to talk to them. If you can't talk to them, you can't ask them. If you can't ask and understand the answer, you won't know what is going on. That seems pretty plain to me.


If I may:

Consider that during World War II -- and during the Cold War that followed -- very few members of the military needed to know and understand Japanese, German and/or other foreign languages. So, if we believe that the military will be employed primarily in these type scenerios in the future (to wit: for great power war purposes), then maybe we have no great need for significant language skills.

Likewise, if the military is not likely to be massively employed in COIN/armed nation-building activities in the future, then again there may be no significant need for mucho language skills.

BPC and R2P?

It depends, I would think, on whether these are to be a massive, across-the--board undertaking utilizing many/most of our Army/armed forces personnel to do these jobs.

Bill C.: In WWII in Europe, we had those skills. The services were filled with immigrants and 1st generation sons of immigrants. And we were fighting a very well educated people in the Germans and amongst other fairly well educated Europeans. So there were lots of people who knew and understood the language of the enemy and the people we were fighting amongst and a fair number of them knew English.

In the Pacific we were fighting on little islands mostly so you are right. Japanese language skills weren't all that needed. But despite that I believe there efforts made to train people in Japanese. If we had had to fight on Japan itself, then we would have been quite handicapped I believe.

If we ever, God forbid, have to fight the Chinese then we will have need for lots of people with significant appropriate language skills, and that will be a big fight. If we don't have that, and I'll bet we won't, we will be badly handicapped. I'll wager that unless we change things (and I'll wager we won't), they will have lots and lots of people who can speak English and we will have almost nobody who can speak any sort of Chinese. That will hurt us. If we can't understand what he is saying but he can understand what we are saying, that is bad for us.

Col. Gentile Said:
"This article is indicitive (indicative?) of the trance-like power that Coin still holds over some quarters of our army: that there is a cipher to success in these wars of armed nation building in foreign lands and that success rests with the tactical action of the army. In this case the specific tactical action of success is better language and cultural knowledge."

My 2¢:
Success in "armed nation building" requires an indigenous population that wants a nation (not a collection of tribes flying in loose formation) and wants a nation like one that we are willing to enable by sending our children and our dollars to give them the room to build. Not a nation we make up from whole cloth.

I suspect that one of the main reasons for this language/culture failure rests with the motivation of the people you are trying to train. The guys who go outside the wire don't care. In country, their world is their unit..period. They didn't sign up to become UN interpreters or to win hearts and minds. Don't want to get to know the locals (who might be targets or victims on any given day). The idea that they will do this just because some field-grade wants it to happen is silly. With Americans, orders only go so far then they have to believe. (and volunteer or not, my bet is that right now, in Astan, belief is in short supply)

The idea that line units can be good at this function is a fiction. If you want to do this you need to have units staffed with people who care about the process involved and who CHOOSE that course of service. Then they will learn language and culture (cause then it is a survival skill) otherwise, not so much.

The military as a whole may have failed, but the soldiers have been filling in those gaps for years.

Not one soul assisted my language training and desire - I paid, I excelled, I was inevitable used and sent to places where my language aptitude was clearly out of place.

I can't fathom how many people were sent to France with Arabic language skills (being they sent me to Georgia with French skills).

The whole enchilada is broken and that was back in 91 gents, not 2004 !

Military Intelligence ? Surely you jest LMAO

The author of this piece said this:

"The Army never mastered languages and population-knowledge in Iraq or Afghanistan, and never made broad organizational or doctrinal changes to develop long-term capability in those areas."

Embedded within this sentence is a counterfactual or what-if that posits if the US Army had language skills and knowledge of the population then Iraq and Afghanistan would have turned out differently. I disagree and cite Iraq expert Riedar Visser when he said a few months ago that events in Iraq over the past 8 years turned not on the tactical and operational actions of the US Army on the ground but with matters of strategy and policy.

This article is indicitive of the trance-like power that Coin still holds over some quarters of our army: that there is a cipher to success in these wars of armed nation building in foreign lands and that success rests with the tactical action of the army. In this case the specific tactical action of success is better language and cultural knowledge.

Gian, you see the statement as counterfactual because this fits your worldview to see a counterfactual. Take off the anti-COIN glasses for a second and consider this statement through an unjaundiced eye. Even in a high-intensity conflict, language and culture are still important for dealing with civilians on the battlefield, tactical interrogation of prisoners, and having an overall better understanding of the enemy. The first two examples are specialized skill sets, but the last applies to everyone.

The idea of increasing language and cultural training within the Army--and the military in general--fits with Sun Tzu's maxim: "It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle."

Furthermore, even accepting your appeal to authority statement from Riedar Visser, is it incorrect to think that a better understanding of the language and culture will positively affect strategy and policy decisions going forward? Or would greater understanding somehow lead to worse strategy and policy decisions? One of the fundamental problems in American analysis of the world is the tendency to view others as mirrors of ourselves; the old saw comes to mind: "inside every is an American waiting to get out." Increased understanding other cultures and languages could go to reducing this mirroring. If only we had a command language program at the NCA level... [now that last is a blatant counterfactual]

Attempting to use COL Gentile's logic:

If our strategic goal is to transition outlier states and societies (1) away from political, economic and social systems that are incompatible with our own and (2) toward political, economic and social orders that, we believe, will cause us fewer problems and provide greater utility/usefulness instead, then is there a role for the United States military in this process?

If the answer is "no," then we need proceed no further re: such questions as those relating to language skills for the U.S. military, etc.

If, however, the answer is thought to be "yes," then -- properly considering the various restraints imposed by applicable resources -- what might the role of the U.S. military be in this process of, essentially, attempting to "westernize" these outlier states and societies?

a. To stand with "friendly" governments and against population groups that oppose the westernization of their state and society? ("Building Partner Capacity.") Herein, this use of the U.S. military in a foreign land -- and for this specific purpose -- more likely to render a positive rather than a negative result?

b. To stand with "friendly" population groups and against governments that oppose westernization? ("Responsibility to Protect.") (Same follow-up question as item "a" above.)

Once we work our way through -- if not these questions -- then more appropriate ones, then and only then do we consider whether significant and enhanced language skills and capabilities will be needed for the U.S. military do its job.


The very next sentence after the one you quoted was this:

"Militaries have failed throughout history to keep up with demands of the contemporary battlefield, but seldom have they continued to fail after a decade of proof that commanders, soldiers, and civilians alike were suffering directly from that failure to transform."

That speaks to institutional failure to adapt to the fight. It speaks to a big military that doesn't know what hell it is doing. Ten years of lots of troops working in the same places and after ten years almost none of those troops can talk to the people who live in those places. That is not being zombiefied by "COIN", that is not doing what is needed to help with the fight and worse, not even being able to see what will help with the fight.

The article speaks to a deficiency in military culture that goes far beyond small war fighting. It is about an inability to see what kind of fight you are actually in and doing the things needed to win it.

I didn't see a "counterfactual" embedded in the article. I saw a plain statement that after 10 years, we have to hire grandmothers from Ann Arbor in order to talk to the people and that is not a good thing.


You and Colonel Outzen are both aiming at the wrong target. The issue is not the ability of the Army to 'transform' or its language skills. No question that valid requirement exists for some persons in the US government if we insist upon engaging in these futile and doomed nation building exercises. However, it does not apply to the Army. Gian is merely pointing out that the 'requirement' is bogus and is predicated on a false premise -- a premise we should discard.

Such operations and efforts are not the job of an Army which exists or certainly should to engage in combat operations when and where required. Language proficiency is not a necessary skill for that. The fact is that the "big military" knows precisely what it is doing.

The real problem is that ignorant civilians in policy positions are encouraged by well intentioned but equally ignorant civilians to repeatedly engage in such exercises in futility. Aiding in that failure are those in the Army who seek any mission, no matter how Quixotic or just plain wrong, in the mistaken belief that anything that justifies more money, people or equipment is good. Those in the Army and outside it who cling to the mantra that "The Army's job is to do what it's told..." are also a part of the problem and are responsible for a slew of unnecessary deaths, military and civilian, in a number of nations

If one misuses a tool, one should not blame the tool for failure...

The fact is that the "big military" knows precisely what it WANTS to do and seems to turn its nose up at anything else, as elucidated in the article. Those ignorant civilians are the masters of the military and they direct the effort, for good or for ill. When they direct the military to an effort that goes on for years and years, that is the environment. If the military doesn't adapt to that environment, that is incompetence.

This is what is. Such operations may not be the preferred job of the Army but that is the job they have been given, for ten years and they have not seen fit to adapt to do the job as well as it could have been done. To say that the civilians are stupid, we shouldn't do this, the strategy is wrong, those damn careerists etc etc is excuse making for not getting a fundamental that applies in wars big and small but especially to the recent ones.

Tools don't think. They are inert things. The military is composed of living breathing human beings who do think. They are servants of the nation. If servants refuse to effectively do the jobs given them, they are bad servants.

We can disagree on all that. Your last paragraph is an excellent encapsulation of the errors and ignorance. Take this part:

"Tools don't think. They are inert things. The military is composed of living breathing human beings who do think...

Those human beings together comprise an institution. Institutions also do not think but they unfortunately are not inert -- though the inherent bureaucracy makes them exceedingly difficult to change. Rightly or wrongly, it takes years.

Institutions generally can and will do what they are directed to do but if you design them for one task or set of tasks, do not give them tasks diametrically opposed and expect satisfactory performance, you're highly unlikely to get it...

The humans in an institution can and do think and they almost certainly will think about why that institution exists. If they arrive at a consensus on that reason -- and if the entity that ordains and sustains the institution supports that rationale -- then there is broad agreement on what the institution is to do. If someone in the entity has the power to do so and willfully diverts the institution to other tasks, they should not be dismayed if things don't work out the way desired. The humans in the institution have an innate sense of their primary function and they will hew to that. As they should.

Then there's this condescension:

"They are servants of the nation. If servants refuse to effectively do the jobs given them, they are bad servants."

As an aside, re: that attitude toward the hired help, sure glad I didn't have to work for anyone who espoused it. ;)

Police Officers are servants in that sense. We rarely ask them to put out fires or do road repairs. Few Departments would take to that at all well...

Aircraft pilots are servants. I doubt anyone who aided in your training or anyone who puts you in charge of an aircraft would ask you to not fly that plane from point A to point B but rather to taxi it the entire distance. If you were told to do that, you likely would not do it, nor should you. In an emergency or for some reason you could probably do so but it would not be an optimum use of your time or of the aircraft.

Servants, like others, will object to doing something that is not in their area of expertise -- or may simply point out that they can and will do it but that since it's not their thing, one cannot expect optimum performance. The Army has consistently told the policy makers that for most of my lifetime; for too much of the last 50 years, those folks have ignored that warning at the behest of folks who foolishly want to save the world.

So your allegory won't wash. Not only is it boiler plate for the interventionist community, it's a cop out for the incompetence of the politicians and policy makers who do not have the tool -- or institution -- to do what they seem to want to do (that does not even address the broader and far more important issue of the things they think they want to do...). That's their, the 'Bosses,' fault, not the 'servant's.' The servant in this case appears to be able to do its real job, it just can't do another quite different job well -- nor should it be able to do so as that will significantly and adversely affect the ability to do the primary tasks.

The problem, as is too often true, is not bad servants, it's dumb bosses...


The professional military as an institution has been tasked to work with and around Iraqis and Afghans for nine and eleven years respectively. They still depend in a large part on hiring grandmothers from Ann Arbor in order to talk to the people they are working with and around. That is lousy performance no matter how you slice it. That situation exists because the big military wants it to exist. The dumb civilians would give the money to get more language skills but it has never been asked for. That is the fault of the military.

Anybody who works for anybody else is a servant. If the servant does a bad job, they get fired and somebody else is hired who will do the job right. If you work in the private sector that is the world you live in. One of our problems is that when you get high enough in the gov or the military, that doesn't apply anymore. You can screw up year after year after year and people will make excuses for your lousy performance.

If a PD is told that they are going to be doing fires too, they had better learn to fight fires if they want keep their jobs. If they sit and sulk and refuse to learn, they should be gone. Since when do they get to refuse to do what is asked of them just because they don't feel like it?

If I work for an airplane operator I do what they want me to do if I want to keep my job. If that operator decides to ground all the airplanes, run 20 mule team wagons to move things and tell me I have to learn harness and tack if I want to keep my job; then I learn harness and tack to keep my job. I don't go off in a corner and pout and say I won't, I won't.

This isn't too much to ask. Geesh, we've been at odds with Iran for since the 70s and how many Farsi speakers are in uniform? They would have come in handy in Afghanistan. 11 years in Afghanistan and how many Pashto speakers are in uniform? This is basic stuff and the military refuses to do it.

You're right, it is the Boss's fault...for putting up with lousy servants.


You're just reiterating the same thing you wrote earlier:

"Those ignorant civilians are the masters of the military and they direct the effort, for good or for ill. When they direct the military to an effort that goes on for years and years, that is the environment. If the military doesn't adapt to that environment, that is incompetence."

Not necessarily. Could be that the environment is seen as a quite temporary aberration and they are not adapting because such adaptation would negate the ability to perform the full time, reason d'etre mission in a quite different environment. So it may not be incompetence but instead selective compliance... :)

(And don't tell me you've never engaged in that or in selective neglect -- same thing)

It is also apparent from your "good or for ill" that you do recognize possible errors on the part of those civilian masters. Goes back to what I wrote: "The problem, as is too often true, is not bad servants, it's dumb bosses..."

Two wrongs don't make a right, they say. OTOH...

"If you work in the private sector that is the world you live in. One of our problems is that when you get high enough in the gov or the military, that doesn't apply anymore."

Basically true -- and always an indicator of Boss-type error.

"You're right, it is the Boss's fault...for putting up with lousy servants."

That's partly true -- though probably not in the way you mean it.

Both those are sorta right -- but together, they make a wrong. Or, more correctly, you consistently come to the wrong conclusion because of them:

"This is basic stuff and the military refuses to do it."

That's the wrong conclusion at which you always arrive. First, it really isn't that 'basic' and more importantly the question you never address is why the military "refuses to do it." I think the "refuses" part is not totally correct but I can understand how it could seem to be that. Regardless, answering that why would you save a lot of heartburn and effort...


If the environment is seen as a temporary aberration, and that temporary aberration goes on for 11 years now and probably will extend to at least 13 years, I'd say they aren't very good judges of what will be temporary. Which leads us back to incompetence.

I'd also say that judging efforts to spread language competency will negate ability to perform reason for being missions is such poor judgment as to verge on being silly. And that leads us back to incompetence again.

Incompetence or selective compliance doesn't matter, they lead to the same place, not being able to communicate with the people you are fighting and working amongst, after 11 years.

It is basic that you be able to communicate with the people you are fighting and working amongst. That basic thing isn't getting done, and they have had 11 years to do it. It isn't getting done. Why matters not. Whether it is refusal, belief in the wisdom of their actions, feeling that they know better, rank stupidity or the belief that it will detract from quality gym time (I couldn't resist the smart aleck remark alert), it all leads to it not getting done. That is lousy performance.

It also occurs to me that if we had done some work to increase the number of Dari speakers in uniform, it may have done us some good since it seems we are going inexorably down the road to war with Farsi speakers. (I read they are closely related languages.)


You're young. No slam, just a statement of fact. So 13 years is a long time. The Army's 236+years old, 13 years is miniscule. The Army's already thinking hard and seriously about 2040. In 2000, it was concentrating on 2020. That may seem strange to you but the Army thinks long term and it know we can afford to lose lots of small wars but cannot afford to lose even one big one...

The Army's been to lots of wars, large and small. Afghanistan and Iraq were probably your first two; to the Army, they're just two more in a really long string. I was in or worked with the Army in several of those earlier wars. In none of them did the Army do a great job. Not one. Nor even a pretty good job in most. However, in all of them, it did an acceptable job within the parameters established by those civilian masters.

You may not agree on the acceptability of any one of those. Immaterial, the politicians have accepted it. All that doesn't point to incompetence -- though you can call it that if you wish -- it leads to a focus on things you aren't focused upon.

While I can and I have complained about the Army's lack of what is to me desirable mission focus, lack of good leadership and mediocre training and while I see some incompetent people and areas of incompetence, the Army per se isn't incompetent, it is as competent as its allowed to be.

As I said in another post in this thread, the Army does as lot of things that I think are borderline criminal and a bunch more that I do not see as very smart -- but it also does some things right and most things at least marginally well. That's more than one can say for most large organizations and certainly more than can be said for the governing classes, the foreign policy establishment and the Congress. As I also wrote, plenty of egg for everyone...

Efforts to spread language competency or language competency itself will not negate the ability to perform other missions but money spent on that is viewed as unnecessary for those missions -- so why spend it? You may disagree, that's your prerogative. I'm sure others will agree with you. I do not and still others will agree with me.

That's the trouble with democracies, they're messy and inconsistent. The Army has to wade through that on a daily basis. It will never satisfy everyone, you and I included, so it just tries to stick to the middle of the road and not get too good -- trust me, Congress does NOT want that, wouldn't stand for it -- or too bad. The Army knows the public doesn't want that. Nor does the Army want that.

I went to language school at Monterey for Farsi, in a bit over a year I learned how to speak, read and write -- at about a poor third grade level. If you think I was an effective communicator with my Iranian counterparts or even my neighbors, you'd be sadly mistaken. I may, after two years of fairly constant use, have gotten to about a fifth grade level, certainly no better. I also am quite sure that my skills would have improved given a combat situation and therefor constant exposure and pressure but doubt I'd have reached true competence in less than another three or four years under any circumstances.

I knew others who'd done the same thing, there or in other countries -- same experience; not really adequate for purpose. I returned to CONUS, didn't use it often at all and it's virtually all gone. The Army knows all that -- that's why it's unwilling to spend the money on something that is to it a transitory effort that will simply be replaced by another. One could literally have ramped up Dari and Pashto in 2003 -- but how many would have ended up in Iraq. They could have done Arabic -- two years for minimal competency to send a person over for a one year tour and they're out? Makes no sense.

I can also tell you from experience in other nations and other wars that language training would be of little to no help in understanding the culture. Interpreters are handy for translation but they are absolutely invaluable for their local knowledge -- you will never replicate that in US Troops. Never.

As a one time Farsi speaker, I very strongly doubt we are going down the road inexorably to war with Farsi speakers. Really hard to say where the next one will pop up. No doubt there'll be one; may be small, may be large and no way to tell but it's highly probable it will be in an unexpected locale. I spent 45 plus years training for or helping train people for a land war in Europe. Never went there other than to pass through on my way to places where I got to eat a lot of rice...

It's not lousy performance in the eyes of many, it may be in yours but that does not make it so. Some people will agree with you on some things but not others. In the next one, we can probably be fairly certain of one thing: The Army will not do a great job but it will do an acceptable to most job.

We teach our people all sorts of unnecessary skills. For years, we have encpouraged combat arms officers of all branches to think like rangers by training them to repel, to jump out of airplanes. to take the full Ranger School curriculum on raiding and patrolling. And we imagine that these are general combat skills, that somehow, this will make better armor and artillary officers, by making them tougher and more combat ready. In some sense, true, but what you often get are self-hating armor and artillery officers who snap into counterinsurgency roles as if they were all born to the bayonet. And is there no respect - no respect at all - in our army for any other cultural ethos. Much of what we do reflects what we become as a result of this cultural conditioning, administered at entry level and in the beginning stages of professional training. Language skills ? Who needs that ? What we really need are lean and mean soldiers who can run twelve miles in a full field pack. No one even questions whether this level of proficiency, the special skills that are never used at all - are unneeded. I had a former high school classmate who attended the Pakistani War College. The Army promptly posted him to Korea, wherefrom he retired. It was only after being recalled from retirement that the Army saw fit to recall him for service in Afghanistan. And he is no longer there.

This kind of wastefulness is endemic to a personnel system that still treats people as interchangeable parts, whose "objectivity" is based on a few simple core values - but ignores the full extent of our soldiers' potential and many of their aspirations as well. So, faced with a long-term struggle, that actually requires the institution to change long-standing practices, one finds deep resistance, and not merely from the
Old Guard (with whom and for whom I bear some sympathy). A democratic army that ignores the innate virtues of its citizens, while catering to other virtues to the point of vice is not destined for success.

You may have meant the genric, change resisters but if you meant the 1st Bn, 3d Infantry -- been there, done that and it is a monumental waste of time spaces and money IMO; the unit is one of those things that just 'is.' We need something like that but far smaller.

With reference to the rest of your Post, all true. Not only do we waste a tremendous amount of time and money on such foolishness but in so doing, we are forced to leaven much training to accommodate the 'necessity' for everyone to have a 'fair chance' at completing the course. We dumb them down and relax standards to a less than optimum level all too often...

On the last of my four tours in Korea, the Division prided itself on virtually everyone running four miles in about 30 minutes. Two notable things about that; an astute Newsweek writer (they used to have those...) noted that if he were a North Korean bent on attacking the South, He'd do it around 0600 on a weekday morning when the entire US division was out on the roads north of Seoul unarmed and in running attire.

While the Division was proud of its running ability, it did not mention that those same troops were virtually incapable of climbing Korean hills day in and day out with a Rucksack. Talk about misplaced training priority.

There's a very sad and embarrassing video on You Tube nowadays that shows a Helmet Cam video taken by a SAW gunner in Afghanistan who has perfected the fifty round burst -- unaimed. It also shows what happens when you overheat a really light belt fed weapon. He spends the last minute or so repeatedly attempting -- unsuccessfully -- to treat failures to feed.

That deeply flawed and dangerous Personnel system you cite is in part an Army problem. It is also a Congressionally induced problem as the requirement to produce Round pegs that can be placed in any hole of whatever shape is at their behest. It is also a societal problem as the Army comes from a society with skewed values and which is quite risk averse.

All that acknowledged, there is still no excuse for attempting to use the GPF in roles for which they are wildly unsuited -- and the same 'leaders' who condone the mediocre training, the flawed personnel system are also guilty of supporting that misuse to enhance budget, equipping, flag and space issues. They are attempting to be good Stewards and guard the institution. The institution has been around for approaching 237 years. It has picked up some great attributes in that time and it has picked up some bad habits as well. It is quite elephantine and difficult to change. Incredibly, almost unbelievably difficult -- and it can be done only over time because the bureaucracy waits out the Shy Meyers, Pete Schoonovers and even the John Wickhams. It lets them tinker, then leave -- and it reasserts conformity and business as usual. That fact means that any enduring and effective change will likely only come if we are faced with an existential situation (World War II was not one. Close but not quite) or a Congress that gets a whole lot smarter than most in my overlong recollection...

There's a lot of egg for many faces -- and more and better language training and / or skills will be yet another example of wasteful training that does more to encourages continued misuse of the force than it will serve to meet a true strategic or defense need.