The few. The culturally aware. The Language Corps

If only Americans hadn't viewed Iraq as a "science project." If only we took a more "culture-centric" view of warfare. A retired general's lament before Congress.

Published April 27, 2007 9:38PM (EDT)

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on "Defense Department language technology and training and cultural awareness." Testifying before the committee were two DoD undersecretaries and a retired major general, Robert Scales Jr.

A military historian and ubiquitous pundit, Scales has a dour view of where matters currently stand in Iraq. But it all could have been so much different, if only the military had been more language proficient and "culturally aware."

"I think we can all agree that most of our shortcomings in the recent wars have been human and not technological, Scales told the committee. "And the list is long; cultural awareness, the ability to influence and shape opinions, soldier conduct, information operations -- the list goes on."

Changing this state of affairs, said Scales, is "going to require a real transformation in how the Department of Defense views war, that we move from a technocentric view of warfare to a cultural-centric view of warfare, and that the human, behavioral, cognitive, and cultural aspects of warfare become as much a part of our lexicon, our research and development, our training and education, as learning how to operate machines is today."

"I really believe that we need an agency, a sort of social-science corollary to something like the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, who can bring together not just the language part of cultural awareness, but the social, scientific, and the cognitive and the behavioral aspects of it as well."

Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary for "plans," had her own proposal, a "Language Corps" that would improve the military's "ability to surge to support operational requirements." It would also help, she noted, if the country beefed up language instruction for everyone. "At the Defense Language Institute, we bring in high school graduates who may never have spoken a foreign language, and teach them to be fairly proficient in Arabic in 63 weeks. We could do much better if they came to us already having studied any language."

But come on -- this is the United States, home of the high tech and land of the smart bomb. Before the testimony began, the DoD displayed all its latest translation gadgets to the admiring senators. Surely technology can still save us, can't it?

Alas, according to Andre Van Tilborg, deputy undersecretary for science and technology, "cultural awareness science and technology is still in its infancy."

Scales finished by noting that the U.S. fumbled its early successes in Iraq, "because of our penchant to find technological solutions, as I said, to human problems ... I suggest that the lesson from Iraq is, we should have started earlier to apply human sciences to solve the human problem ... We Americans view war as a science project, and we tend to find technological solutions."

Scales sounds like a sensible man. And who would dare argue that the U.S. military couldn't benefit from vastly improved language skills and increased "cultural awareness?" I, for one, am delighted that since 9/11 the DoD has vastly expanded its budget for language training.

But the war in Iraq is not being lost because the soldiers don't speak Arabic. The lesson from Iraq is that we should never have invaded the country on trumped-up false pretenses. Acknowledging that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction and no link between Saddam Hussein and the bombing of the World Trade Center towers -- now that would have been true cultural awareness.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Iraq Iraq War Middle East