Leadership: November 9, 2004

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The U.S. Army is considering reviving a program that was used up until World War II; sending officers off the foreign countries to learn the language and culture. This is actually an ancient practice, used to provide military advisors who understood potential enemies, or allies. But after World War II, the custom fell into disuse. The U.S. Army Special Forces did continue to train all of its NCOs and officers in foreign languages and cultures, but rarely let their people go off and serve with headquarters staffs or non-Special Forces units. 

In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the regular army and marine combat units found themselves dependent on Special Forces units for insights on what the locals were thinking, and might be up to. The regular units had a few troops who came from Afghanistan or Iraq, but these were usually young guys who had become so Americanized that they had a thick American accent and were a little hazy on many of the cultural details of the old country of their childhood, or parents or grandparents. 

So the army is considering a long range solution, which involves identifying officers likely to make a career of the army, and offering them training in foreign languages and culture. Much of the training would take place overseas, often in the country in question. While the officers would often study overseas as civilians, they would not hide their employer, or why they were there. If possible, these officers would be introduced to members of the local military. Many nations might be hostile to this program, thus many officers assigned to learn Chinese, and about China, would take their overseas training in places like Taiwan or Singapore. 

Such a program would probably prove popular, but thousands of officers would have to be put through it to provide a sufficient number of people familiar with a culture to be useful in wartime. Cost will probably be the major issue, as each officer assigned would be away from their usual army duties for two or three years. That, plus the cost of tuition and travel, would mean a final cost of several hundred dollars per student. Send 5,000 officers through the program in the next ten years, and the total cost is over a billion dollars. But in Iraq, having a few hundred Arab speaking American officers would have made a noticeable difference. If you want success in the future, you have to plan, and pay, now. 

 


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