Re: Times Change

1

Isn't the main problem that you can't perform an intelligent, nuanced interrogation if you don't speak Arabic? While I'm sure these WWII guys spoke some German and the Germans spoke some English, I'm not even sure what our interrogators are hoping to get out of these situations. There isn't the personnel with the linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to do intense verbal interviews.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 11:54 AM
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You can't do any kind of interrogation if you don't speak Arabic, though.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 11:55 AM
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Right, but I figure they must at least have translators there or something. Otherwise, what the fuck is the point of trying to get them to talk? Even if they do have staff to translate, the people trained to elicit information are not able to make a direct emotional connection with the detainee.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 11:58 AM
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We mainly rely on translators, yes.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:10 PM
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1: Can I say once again that this makes no goddamnit sense at all. How, six freaking years after the gov't lost its mind over 9/11, and decided middle eastern terrorism was the most important thing in the world, and about five years since we decided to go to war in Iraq, can we still be short of translators into Arabic? Jesus Christ, I suck at languages and I could be taught functional Arabic in a year or so, I'd bet.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:14 PM
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The deeper issue is probably believing the enemy to be your equal. Yes, we had more people back then who spoke German, I guess -- but what is the underlying reason for that? Despite the fact that the Middle East is hugely important to us for economic reasons and has for decades been at or near the center of our foreign policy, we could really give a fuck. The lack of Arabic speakers is a symptom, not a cause.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:15 PM
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The American tradition of not-torturing goes back aways.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:17 PM
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5: LB, alif sikii (sorry, if I didn't spell her name right) said that the formal Arabic taught in schools is spoken by almost nobody. There are so many dialects of Arabic that it might be very hard to get qualified work.

She said that even though she speaks Arabic, there are a lot of translation jobs that she's just not competent to do.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:18 PM
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There is, now, a slow increase in Middle Eastern Studies departments, usually only in graduate programs, and about twenty fucking years too late. But Arabic, despite being an incredibly useful language, along with Chinese and Korean, are simply not being staffed at the high school or undergraduate level. You don't learn Arabic while young; you're not going to learn Arabic. It's a damn hard language (giving me deep respect for Alif Sikiin). We're fucked.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:19 PM
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Modern Standard Arabic is actually spoken by literally no one (at least as a native language), but there's no reason you couldn't teach the dialects, and indeed there are some programs that do.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:20 PM
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But hey! We all speak the International Language of Pain and Sexual Humiliation!


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:20 PM
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5 - I'd bet not.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:20 PM
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During the Iran hostage crisis Portland State closed down its Middle East Studies Center and quit teaching the Middle Eastern Languages. If it had been maintained and developed it would have been one of the few draws on a mediocre campus.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:22 PM
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I tried to learn Arabic as an undergraduate, as soon as the next fall semester after 9/11 began. I thought maybe there would be a big push to teach people like me Arabic in a useful and systematic way and I could be recruited to perform some sort of non-torture-related foreign affairs function. But no, it was the same class that it had always been, teaching us to speak out loud in the formal written form of the language, no conversational stuff at all beyond what you'd learn in the first ten pages of a phrasebook, and professors drawn from the ranks of random people around the university who happened to be native speakers. After four semesters...I know the alphabet real well and I appreciate the beauty of the system by which a word is a combination of the 3-consonant root and the rules for word formation...but that's it.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:26 PM
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12: Fine, two years. But we've had more than two years.

(And yes, talking about speaking 'Arabic' is like talking about speaking 'Chinese', kind of, but you know, we could push for classes in all the various dialects, as well as other relevant Middle Eastern languages. It's a big country -- I bet we've got enough native speakers of anything here to hire as teachers.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:28 PM
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In fact, I think part of the problem in Iraq is that the spoken dialect most commonly taught is Egyptian Arabic (which I think is as close to a baseline spoke Arabic as there is), rather than Iraqi Arabic. I have a friend, a historian of the Crusades, who was fleetingly considering trying to do some translation work for the government after 9/11 (I believe his reading comprehension is quite good but his spoken Arabic is crap); I can see if he knows what gets taught by the State Department and the DLI.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:30 PM
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C'mon, you can't have translators there. They're all fags.


Posted by: cerebrocrat | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:32 PM
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But the problem is, we're entrenched in a system of violent torture of Muslims. What American Muslim wants to enter into a career famous for kicking the shit out of Muslims, throwing Korans in the toilet, and waving menstrual pads in front of faces? If I were a young person now wanting to learn Arabic to help create dialog instead of torture, would I trust that's what the government would allow me to do? It's a disgusting system that attracts increasingly disgusting people.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:33 PM
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which I think is as close to a baseline spoke Arabic as there is

Levantine, too. Both for geographic and historical reasons.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:37 PM
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Also, Iraqi Arabic is quite divergent from other dialects and heavily influenced by Persian. This means you really need to get Iraqis rather than other Arabs to teach it well.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:38 PM
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AWB's right about the problem with all this, though.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:38 PM
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That there are many varieties of Arabic is no excuse. We've had a good five years to focus on educating people in Iraqi Arabic specifically, with bupkis to show for it.

Also, I don't doubt the general assessment linked in 12, but I wish the difficult-o-meter weren't trotted out so often, because it scares people off. Aptitude varies, as do teaching methods; for what it's worth, I found that achieving basic proficiency was much easier in Japanese than in French.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:39 PM
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15: Looks like they teach Modern Standard Arabic.


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:42 PM
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Der. Maybe I should actually click on links.


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:45 PM
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Look at the first comment at Wettam's, though, about "Islamoids," and the self-confident assertion that other methods were used at other points in the war. Repellent as it is put that way, and much as his contemporary analogy is wrong, he might be right about WWII in a larger sense, as not necessarily being distinguished by a higher standard throughout and not always by our side.


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:55 PM
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Why don't we first make the Iraqis learn English? Then we wouldn't need to worry with the translation issue.

Also, what the hell does this mean (from the article):

They couldn't have imagined that groundbreaking secrets in rocketry, microwave technology and submarine tactics were being peeled apart right on the grounds that are now a popular picnic area where moonbounces mushroom every weekend.

"[W]here moonbounces mushroom every weekend"?


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:56 PM
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Those inflatable castle thingies are moonbounces, aren't they?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:58 PM
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Moonbounce Mushroom would be a pretty good band name, if you were on enough drugs.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 12:59 PM
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Ah, yes, I think you're right. I'd never heard that term before.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:00 PM
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The deeper issue is probably believing the enemy to be your equal.

This gets it exactly right. What percentage of Americans at the beginning of WWII had German ancestry?

I'd be interested to see if veterans of the Pacfic end of things reported the same experiences.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:05 PM
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The language teaching thing was more or less solved in WWII. The British [and I assume other nations too] had highly successful language schools that used intensive and newly devised methods to teach languages to high level to non-speakers, quickly.

If the will was there, it could be done. It hasn't been done because everyone involved at the decision making level is a fucking dumbass.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:08 PM
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If the will was there, it could be done. It hasn't been done because everyone involved at the decision making level is a fucking dumbass.

Exactly fucking right.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:12 PM
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If the will was there, it could be done. It hasn't been done because everyone involved at the decision making level is a fucking dumbass.

This is the sort of point at which I wonder if the people in our government actually believe that somehow privatizing everything will make the government work better, instead of the more logical explanation that they want to profit from bribery and monopolistic rent-seeking and see "free-market economics" as a fig leaf to justify such things.

I mean...they do see some value in actually getting information from "detainees", right? Maybe not, maybe this "war" isn't important enough to make it worthwhile to know how to accomplish anything.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:14 PM
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It amazes me how language training in WWII often sought to make the speaker undistinguishable from a native, even teaching local accents, and how to imitate those accents when speaking English. Do we have any Arabic speakers in the military who could serve as spies?


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:25 PM
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undistiguishable s/b indistinguishable

I am going to quit drinking, yes I am.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:25 PM
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AWB's point in 18 is a good one--it may be too late now to do this right. But god damn, it's so easy to list the things that should have been done after 9/11 instead of the fucking dumbass things that were done.


Posted by: mrh | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:27 PM
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They aren't torturing because they can't understand Arabic. They're torturing to find out if there's a ticking time bomb.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:32 PM
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My 3 cleared Arabic interpreters come from Egypt, India, and Bosnia, respectively. None has any trouble conversing with Yemenis. I suppose the Yemeni's could play stump the chump with some local euphemisms, and maybe exaggerated dialect, but where people want to understand each other, it has thus far been readily possible.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:37 PM
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39

I'm an Arabic speaker who used to want to work for the US government. As I see it, there's a fundamental structural problem preventing the government from retaining large numbers of qualified Arabic speakers:

It's impossible to become useful in Arabic without spending significant time in an Arab country. It's very difficult and unpleasant (and often impossible), however, to get a security clearance after living in an Arab country. In fact, in order to easily get clearance after living in an Arab country. If you're the kind of narcissistic asshole who can live in a place for a year without making any friends, well, then you're kind of narcissistic asshole who goes to work for the national security apparatus of the US government.

(This is one reason there's a disproportionate number of Mormons in the foreign policy/national security community: Mormons spend long periods of time abroad on missions, and thus generally get fairly decent at the local language, but they remain detached from the local community and are just squeaky clean in general. I'm not aware of any LDS missions in the Arab world, though, so there's not many Mormon Arabic speakers.)

Here's the thing, though: The government is right to be suspicious of good Arabic speakers who've lived in the Arab world. In my experience, there's a very strong correlation between competence in Arabic (and knowledge of the region more generally) and hostility towards US foreign policy. You see, if you live in an Arab country and speak good Arabic, you start thinking of Arabs as people; if you start thinking of Arabs as people, you start to think that maybe we shouldn't be blowing so many of them up.

If the US government really wants to attract good Arabists, it needs to stop treating the Arab world like our version of the Warsaw Pact. But then, of course, it wouldn't need so many Arabists.


Posted by: Earl Gray | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:38 PM
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39: Ah yes, the foreign relations Catch-22. You can only understand foreign relations if you've been abroad a lot, but you can only get work in foreign relations if you haven't.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:44 PM
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I worked with a Sudanese guy & a Jordanian guy; no major trouble talking to Iraqis. Of course, they were trained linguists, not just guys I met, & I assume it would take > 2 years for your typical English speaker to get where they were.

I've also had someone tell me that he picked up Ancient Greek easily in school & taught himself Hebrew on his own, but Arabic was much much harder. But I think training is possible, & helpful, even if it leaves you short of native-speaker fluency, & it's ridiculous how little emphasis there's been on it.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:47 PM
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What's so hard about Arabic? Is it a phonetic thing, that Americans have trouble distinguishing or reproducing important sounds, or something conceptual?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:48 PM
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Academia moves very slowly and is a fundamentally conservative engine. Generations pass before we catch up with situations on the ground, or political and cultural relevance. Bureaucracy quickly stymies us, and we'll take any opportunity to table a decision for years. It isn't surprising at all to me that there are like no Arabic instructors at most colleges.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:50 PM
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he might be right about WWII in a larger sense, as not necessarily being distinguished by a higher standard throughout and not always by our side.

There were definately some kraut-torturing going on. Also the usual incidents of shooting prisoners out of hand. Neither activity was common, or official (or unofficial) policy on the part of the Anglo-Americans or the Germans, since both sides had signed treaties banning that sort of thing, and had good reason to keep it up.

The German-Russian part of the war featured mass-murder, prisoner murder/death by neglect and torture on both side as general policy.

Japanese policy was fairly nasty (towards Americans and occupied nations) but not nearly as nasty as policy in the German-Russian conflict. Americans in that region tended to be less forgiving of prisoners.

And that Chris Ford dude is wrong; German POW camps in the United States often turned into little islands of Nazism, which led to an American policy of breaking up large POW camps and isolating hard-core Nazis from other German prisoners.

max
['Now that was completely successful.']


Posted by: max | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:52 PM
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42 -- I would distinguish between the skills needed to understand someone not seeking to be understood -- or commuicate with an unwilling listener -- and engaging in mutually voluntary conversation. For the former, one's going to have to have all kinds of cultural literacy, to get the nuance. In the latter, one can smile, and say, 'I'm not sure I'm getting what you're trying to tell me' and go from there. Thus, Katherine and I are having an easier time than the interrogators.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 1:55 PM
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39 is so, so true.

Just as the U.S. could draw on anti-communist emigrees from the East Bloc during the Cold War, there used to be a decent-sized recruiting pool of children-of-immigrant Arabic speakers who were alienated from the incumbent regimes in that part of the world (Lebanese Christians, Iraqi Shi'a, etc.). But now that the whole region is unified in hating us, it's getting harder to play that trick.


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 2:21 PM
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So, should I be signing Sally and Newt up for the Khalil Ghibran High School when they get old enough?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 2:25 PM
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31:IIRC, George Marshall started general planning for occupations around 1931, and had a manual around 1937. 1938-41 he began to get more specific, and when the war(s) started, immediately moved something like 5000 soldiers into language schools. These 5000 moved to England in 1943, where they started working with maps and individual village info, and training others. On VoE day, Marshall had 20k on their way to a German village or neighborhood they knew better than their own back home.

PS:via Pat Lang, Arnold de Borchgrave describes the withdrawal from Iraq. We will be in Iraq at least seven more years. 1+ of Bush, 1 to decide & plan withdrawal, 5+ to move the men & 100k+ vehicles etc out. There should be hundreds of people in Iraq right now studing the local language.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 2:28 PM
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The KGHS thing is a perfect example of why we fucking suck at dealing with Arab nations. There are about 9,000 ways to depict an interest in Arabic language, culture, politics, religion, and history as the infiltration of terrorists, or anti-semitism, that we're almost totally ignorant of the culture we're trying to "save" from totalitarianism and then anarchy. Every expression of interest is treason.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 2:32 PM
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There are more details about George Marshall & the occupation of Germany available in two posts by sistersaralou at Next Hurrah. Just search at the blog for his name.

The implications, the reasons GM started developing a massive occupation strategy around 1930 are pretty fascinating. IIRC, he did travel Europe, I think with Keynes or somebody in the Versailles conference period. Eastern Europe 1915-25 was a terrific lesson in what happens when gov'ts fall in modern times.

Did Marshall know the US was going to become an empire? Marshall certainly wasn't your chauvinist neo-con type imperialist, just a genius of a technocrat.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 2:44 PM
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Easy answer. THe prisoners were white, caucasian. lets asked the assholes who guarded Japanese POW's whether or not they "layed hands on 'em". Everyone is a hero of their own story.


Posted by: r | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:06 PM
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So very sad. Israel/AIPAC are barely a factor, except very indirectly. The oil is only the 2nd most important factor. It is about the oil money.
How many mutli-nationals are moving their headquarters to Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE? Iraq is just Gulf War One continued...

...aw, never mind.

I just wish we had a Marshall and an FDR around, and a different kind of country, one that felt the responsibilities of Empire.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:15 PM
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the assholes who guarded Japanese POW's

You care to back up that statement? And perhaps put it in the context of the 1/3 mortality rate of U.S. POWs in Japanese hands, while you're at it?


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:21 PM
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And perhaps put it in the context of the 1/3 mortality rate of U.S. POWs in Japanese hands, while you're at it?

Surely this is irrelevant to whether or not Americans guarding Japanese POWs were assholes (a matter on which I take no position at this time)?


Posted by: mrh | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:28 PM
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Yeah. R needs to back up that sort of thing if he's going to say it, but the treatment the Japanese handed out to American POWs can't possibly be a justification for ill-treatment going in the other direction.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:30 PM
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Here's an op-ed written by someone who was a U.S. Army language officer during the occupation of Japan, and wrote a book on Japanese POWs:

Wartime interrogations are complex, subtle procedures requiring much preparation and patience to comprehend the POW mind-set. In World War II, Japanese soldiers had been indoctrinated to kill themselves rather then surrender, and Japanese POWs racked with self-humiliation expected to be brutally mistreated and probably killed by their captors. When they were well fed, clothed and nursed back to health by caring medics, they often repaid such kindness with the information sought by the interrogators. Occasionally we learned about the timing of an impending attack or the range of the guns on Japanese battleships.

Obviously one source isn't authoritative, and I'm sure we maltreated Japanese POWs in at least some circumstances, but this suggests that treatment of POWs wasn't all that different in the Pacific Theater than it was elsewhere.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 3:35 PM
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What's so hard about Arabic?

Slate tried to answer.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 4:32 PM
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It's interesting to see how the Post writer is invested in not acknowledging that torture has been official U.S. policy.

"We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess.

Torture? What torture? The reporter only acknowledges that the U.S. uses "controversial techniques."

The media have become so weird about this. The reporter didn't question this guy on his use of the word "torture" because everyone knows it's an accurate word. But the reporter must refrain from using the word, or even describing the actual techniques - simulated drowning, head-slapping and exposure to extreme cold etc. - that the U.S. uses.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 4:41 PM
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39 is so right. My Arabic isn't great, but I have enough of a foundation and structural understanding that I could become almost-native in probably a year of intensive study. On the other hand, I have no fucking desire to work for the American government, and even if I did, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't take me.


Posted by: m. leblanc | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 4:41 PM
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The government's Defense Language Institute in Monterey is an outstanding place to learn languages. The miltary may need more Arabic speakers, but they have more than a few from this school.

The reason for the philosophical difference is less because of the lack of skilled rather than the discipline of the skilled. This administration loathes the diplomatic process so it doesn't recruit speakers from the diplomatic corp sources. So most of the speakers are military-trained, using an approach that reflects the commander-in-chief's belief in torture.


Posted by: terpbball | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 4:52 PM
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We did deliberately kill a couple of hundred thousand Japanese civilians through firebombing and nuking cities. That's not such a nice thing to do.

I think the difference between WWII (including Pacific front) and today is that it was the official policy of the U.S. government not to torture. There has probably always been freelance shooting of prisoners in war. But what the official policy mandates makes a huge difference in an obedient hierarchy like the military.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 5:02 PM
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If the will was there, it could be done. It hasn't been done because everyone involved at the decision making level is a fucking dumbass.

I ain't buying this two year time curve either. The Mormons have been doing it forever. Not much in the middle east, but they're sending a lot of guys to Russia, Korea, Taiwan, etc., and it's sure as hell not taking them two years of classes to do it.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 7:07 PM
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but the treatment the Japanese handed out to American POWs can't possibly be a justification for ill-treatment going in the other direction

I didn't mean to imply otherwise. The point I was making is that R's slanderous accusation is particularly galling in light of the strong temptation that must have existed to return like for like.

Now I recognize that there was a lot of racist propaganda directed at the Japanese in WWII, and the paucity of Japanese taken prisoner is probably not 100% explained by the reluctance of Japanese soldiers and sailors to surrender. But once they were in American custody, Japanese POWs had it good by comparison with any other combattant nation.

BTW, I have previously mentioned that my mother had some famous prisoners in her charge. One of them was Tokyo Rose, who, though not technically a POW (she was arrested and convicted of treason after the war), falls into that approximate moral category.


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 7:18 PM
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Last year I tried to buy a decent Arabic-English dictionary. Five years after Sept. 11, I thought there would be a glut of good and not-so-good ones, and I'd have to sift through. Instead I went through Amazon, Powell's, Alibris, etc. and found almost nothing. One clear leader in the field, published in the 1960s, quite expensive, and rarely available used. A few phrasebooks.

I briefly wondered if the military had better ones it was keeping for itself, but even if that's true I was appalled at the lack of options. Talk about market failure.

(I was buying Vienamese, Urdu, and other languages at the same time. All of them were available, to varying degrees.)


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 7:30 PM
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In case no one else said this, and not to question any of the specific individuals or units in the article, but don't fall into the trap of believing the vets of a different era were any more heroic or saintly than the soldiers fighting today. There are angels and devils in every age, every war. For a history assignment in high school, I interviewed a WWII vet who'd served in the South Pacific. He told me off the record of some of the inexcusable acts committed against enemy prisoners of war.

Your ultimate point -- that this sort of inhumanity is not justified by "necessity" -- is a good one. And indeed, I feel confident that there are examples even in today's armed forces to support this, men and women who do their job, do it well, and do it with their integrity intact.


Posted by: Sarah Ferguson | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 8:20 PM
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The Mormons have been doing it forever.

Come on, dude. Mormon missionaries are basically isolated from normal contact and follow a rigidly controlled script. The vocabulary swathes they're forbidden to learn describe like half of the human experience. I've known returned missionaries who couldn't read a newspaper in their mission language but could talk quite fluently, need be, about fracking Nephi and Lemuel.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 8:43 PM
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Most of the guys I've known come back conversationally fluent in the language of the country they went to. At as I recall, LB recounted that in Samoa that the Mormons at least showed up with a basic ability to communicate. And like nattarGcM said, militaries have done similar things in the past.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 10- 7-07 8:50 PM
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re: 67

Yeah, I watched a television documentary about the British forces language schools during WWII. It was pretty clear that they were taking ordinary soldiers who tested with a moderate (or better) aptitude for languages and turning them into extremely competent near-native speakers of the target languages in very short periods of time.

Reading that Slate article on Arabic, I'm not buying that it's super freaky hard in a way that other languages are not. Harder than French, yes. So hard that people can't be trained to a reasonable level of competence quite quickly? Not so sure.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 12:41 AM
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It is the lack of languages more than anything else which convinced me that the American empire was doomed. Successful empires always have a multilingual administative class; there are fragments of kitchen hindustani in my family's idiolect 60 years after 1947. This isn't an argument for the relative benevolence of British rule, just for its relative efficiency. Even the fucking KGB learned German.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 2:07 AM
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re: 69

Yeah, my grandfather, a working class guy from Glasgow, spoke several Indian languages with a high degree of facility as a result of military service in India [he was a career soldier in the Signals, and, although he was an NCO, not an officer, he still got bonuses for the language skills].


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 2:53 AM
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It wouldn't be much use if only the officers spoke furrin. Getting the NCOs to do it is the real mark of seriousness.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 3:38 AM
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re: 71

Yeah. I remember hearing that he got a bonus in his weekly pay packet for each language/dialect he acquired competence in. How large that bonus was, I don't know, but not insubstantial, I believe.

Your point about the US empire's lack of linguistic skills is interesting. It's more than just linguistic skills too, it's a total lack of interest in the culture of the occupied nation at any level. Quite an interesting phenomenon. I wonder if there's much precedent for it?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 3:54 AM
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It's not hard to think of previous empires which placed no formal value on skills in their subject languages. The Romans would have regarded formal education in any language besides Greek and Latin as inconceivable, but they contrived to assimilate the elites in most of their provinces reasonably successfully nonetheless.

Which isn't to say there weren't Romans with language skills - the dramatist Plautus included a speech in competent Punic in one of his larf-a-minute rip-offs of Menander, and presumably the NCO class in the provinces picked up fairly fluent Gaulish, Dacian, whatever. But the officers were schooled in the trivium and quadrivium and then turned loose on the unfortunate army on short commissions which involved them moving around the empire every two or three years.

There's no evidence of any local edicts ever being issued in local languages. They were in Latin (in the west) or Greek, and if you were a monoglot Moesian, sucked to be you.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 4:48 AM
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re 69: On the other hand, bits of India were under British control from the mid-1700s onward. God forbid that the American occupation in Iraq last anything like 200 years, but that multilingual class that you mention had plenty of time to grow.

re 39, 40: Squeaky clean equals easy clearance has shortcomings that are well known. Overruling 'security' concerns and general CYA is a lot to ask of any bureaucracy. On the other hand, I've known a reasonable number of US diplomats, and the vast majority of them had some form of experience abroad before joining. I'm sure there's more scrutiny for people whose experience is in Arab countries, but I think that's a reasonable proposition.

Two big things account for a significant amount of our difficulties in general. First, the relative amount of resources going to foreign affairs at DoD and anywhere else, particularly State. Foreign rulers see Pentagon people with continuity, money and command; then they see State people rotated out, scrabbling for every dollar and with little authority. They draw their own conclusions about who's serious within the US government. This is a long-running and structural problem that will be hard to fix.

Second is the present top leadership. Clinton-Obama would immediately present a very different America to the world compared with Bush-Cheney. The political appointees would be different down the line, and bureaucracies that placate power would begin to work a bit in a good direction. January 2009 cannot get here fast enough.

re 72: I'm sure that there are people with significant knowledge of Iraq's history and culture within the US government. The political leadership doesn't care what these people think, and the results show.


Posted by: Doug | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 5:03 AM
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My dad still draws a bonus for each language he's mastered up to the civil service exam standard.

Ttam@68 refers to the Joint Services School for Linguists; this ran from the beginning of WW2 up to the end of conscription. They basically gave everybody who was drafted an aptitude test, and combed-out the top 1 per cent on the verbal-reasoning section of the test after basic training. Then they were shipped to JSSL, assigned to a language, and put through immersion teaching - no English! - on a curriculum designed to give you the ability to communicate first, before digging into the grammar.

They were encouraged in the later stage of the course to immerse themselves in the culture in question; the Russian course were especially keen.

Interestingly, a LOT of good writers were JSSL graduates (Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn, off the top of my head, but an anthology would be an interesting project).


Posted by: Alex | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 7:29 AM
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re: 75

That's it. I couldn't remember the name of it [the JSSL].


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 8:24 AM
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I don't know if there are enough people around on this chat, but earlier in the blog, there was a question of dialects. In China, there are many Mandarin dialects and a distinctly different language in Cantonese.

In my experience, I was able to communicate with a vast majority of people with standard Mandarin. I figure that Chinese need to learn standard Mandarin to be able to speak across the dialects/languages. Is that not the case with Arabic?


Posted by: terpbball | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 8:33 AM
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When I worked in a restaurant with a bunch of Arabs back in college, they could talk to each other using classical Arabic, but when (e.g.) the Moroccans were talking to one another, the Lebanese guy wouldn't catch most of the conversation.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 8:36 AM
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good anecdotal evidence. thanks.


Posted by: terpbball | Link to this comment | 10- 8-07 11:05 AM
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