Wednesday, February 07, 2007

blue chakra deficiencies: my unstructured musings about language and war

Yesterday was a late practice. Not midnight – somewhere around 9-ish. It ended up being an hour long gentle feel-good-and-breathe kinda thing. Just about fell asleep. Had to stay up another half an hour to wake up Duck for the 11 o’clock pit stop, so I ignored the growing pile of laundry to fold, flopped down on the couch, wrapped myself up in the down-filled throw that has somehow lasted three years now, and turned on the TV.

CSPAN: General Pace and Robert Gates answering questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If I have to hear one more person say, “It’s in the Iraqis’ hands now. They have to make progress, set benchmarks, follow-through...” if I have to hear that one more time I may have to induce projectile vomiting in order to truly express my disgust at the utter hypocrisy and lack of awareness of our polticial leaders – Republicans and Democrats both.

Another 20,000 troops. Pace had a good point when he said that so much of what’s really needed in Iraq isn’t what the military does terribly well. Reconstruction, diplomacy, project management – you know, all the stuff that should have been happening from day one (except, let’s be honest, there shouldn’t have been a day one to begin with.) So Pace is suggesting that perhaps some of those 20,000 be replaced with (or bolstered by, I couldn’t really get a grasp on the vagaries of the proposal) civilians with the skills to handle these tasks. Outsourcing, doncha know. Offer military-style benefits and insurance so that when – er, sorry, if they are killed in service to their country, their families have some financial security.

But have you noticed, or is it just me? Nothing in all these suggestions and proposals has been said about the language problem. I’ve heard people bring up the equally shameful issue of inadequate equipment for the troops, but so far I haven’t seen anyone jumping up and down about the fact that our troops in Iraq can’t communicate with Iraqis.

How in the sam hell are we supposed to manage anything if we can’t communicate with each other?

There’s a civil war in Iraq. A significant part of the population of Baghdad is deeply invested in the need to blow people up. It does not appear to me that the Iraqi government is capable of producing a diplomatic policy that could ever break this cycle. Because, hey, let’s face it, just about everyone’s on one side or the other, unless of course you’re a Kurd, in which case you’re staying the fuck out of Baghdad if you’ve got half a brain.

So we’re sending more troops and more guns, but what’s desperately needed is weeks and months and years of careful, respectful communication and negotiation. Iraqis can’t do this. They’re too close to it. They’re emotionally involved – to say the least. When you and everyone you know has lost someone to a bomb or an abduction or an unexplained disappearance, it’s hard to remain objective.

But we could. We could maybe manage the one thing that’s been so sorely lacking in this entire debacle – we could help people get through to each other.

Except we don’t have enough Arabic-speaking Americans over there to even begin to touch this problem. I heard a year or so ago that a homosexual translator was discharged, and the implication at the time was, “Hey, look at these assholes, they’re getting rid of people we desperately need due to their sexuality.” I don’t disagree, but I have a hard time believing that this is a situation that happened a lot. I doubt there are enough Arabic-speaking members of our armed forces to make this recur frequently. Although it does speak to someone’s incompetence to let even one valuable translator go.

General Wesley Clark wrote recently that “U.S. troops so far have lacked the language skills, cultural awareness, and political legitimacy to ensure that areas ‘cleared’ can be ‘held.’” [hattip to Minstrel Boy, also a firm supporter of Wesley Clark.]

I’ve been saying for weeks that if Dubya wants to send another 20,000, fine, do it. But you’d best make sure that 10,000 of those troops speak Arabic. And what are the chances of that?

Here's the story that makes me shake my head hopelessly:

"Fear of Bias Keeps U.S. Muslims out of military."

Our military has indeed been courting the Muslim population in America, with the intent to bring in more troops who speak the language and who might have a slightly more appropriate background to help improve operations. The Marines built a new Muslim prayer center at Quantico. Now West Point has one too. The Air Force commissioned a Muslim chaplain. Great, lovely. Except it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

Wonder why?

It was noted in this Reuters article that after 9/11, there was a lot of distrust and suspicion about Muslims floating around. That noxious cloud has not dispersed. It still stinks to high heaven. Examples? OK. No problem.

Late last year on his prime-time commentary show, Glenn Beck interviewed newly-elected representative Keith Ellison. He said, “What I feel like saying to you is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'” And that’s the least of the verbal stench he likes to add to the cloud.

So if Glenn Beck, who is on the air for hours a day, either via radio or CNN, is spouting his fearful and semi-hysterical ravings, it lends a certain amount of credibility to that fear and intolerance. People watch Bill O’Reilly, too, and seem to think that he sticks to the facts. But these two aren’t reporters. Their shows are commentary, not news, and if they screw up a fact or two, they’re not obliged to go back and correct them. But they have prime-time slots on news networks. It can be confusing. A viewer can watch and adopt some of the attitudes for his own, thinking that perhaps fear and intolerance are OK to give in to. And perhaps acting out of those attitudes.

What if you’re Muslim and happen to be channel-surfing one night – you see Keith Ellison on the tube and you think, you know, how cool is that, right? First Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. Excellent. So you keep watching, and you see that Ellison’s being bashed on a national news network for his religious practices and beliefs.

Would that make you want to go right out and join the military? Or would it make you want to shut up completely about your spiritual beliefs, no matter how peaceful and nonviolent you are as a person?

Intolerance is not helping. Fear is repelling the very people we need the most in Iraq.

Used to be Glenn Beck was an annoyance to me. Now I struggle against active antipathy (a.k.a. the urge to find a large rock and throw it through the TV screen.) And people say that liberals are a danger to the country, hurting the cause of freedom and democracy. Piffle.

I am often reminded of an anecdote that I read a while ago – I think it was Riverbend who wrote it, but really it could have come from anywhere. It was about a house that was being searched – very late at night – by an American patrol squad, with one Iraqi translator.

There was a lot of chaos. There was a lot of tension, and a lot of shouting. It seemed to me that a single misstep, a single itchy trigger finger, thrown knife, or lobbed loogy might have resulted in the death of the entire family. Because no one speaks the language, and what may have been "Don't shoot!" may have been interpreted as something completely different.

There was a Star Trek Next Generation episode (“Loud As A Whisper”), where the Enterprise is escorting a highly effective negotiator to a planet decimated by civil war. (I'm gonna spoil it here, by the way.) This negotiator can neither hear nor speak; he communicates by the use of three very special translators who have direct telepathic communication to him – a sort of Grecian Chorus. But they get blown up early in the episode. To attempt the negotiation, the mediator has to teach the two parties sign language in order to communicate. Through this learning process, the two representatives come to realize that they share more than they thought, and begin to take the first steps towards peace.

If we want to help Iraqis (which is not necessarily the case if you're in the executive branch of the United States government today) we have to speak the language. We’ve destroyed their country and blown their lives apart. Learning the language, however difficult and alien it might seem, is the least we can do. And maybe, in the course of learning their language, we might learn something about them, too.

1 comment:

james said...

Hear, hear!!! You are spot on!!

The communication problem has looong been and issue with me too. Glad to know someone else you noticed this point.

Not to mention that we knew NOTHING of their religious and societal culture before going in there. I have even heard that Bush didn't even know the difference between Shia and Sunni!!!

Yeah,...HELLO!!! Kind of important information to know before blowing up one of the most (at the time) advanced countries in the region!!

As for Glen Beck...he is troglodyte scum. The kind of scum that sticks to a good man's loafer as Bill Murray said in the movie, "The Man Who Knew to Little" (great movie by the way).

Being Muslim is apparently the new "black." (as is being gay). People feel like it is O.K. to bash them and lump them all into the same camp as the terrorists because of 9/11. Anything to justify ignorance and intellectual laziness.

It's disgusting to know that probably millions of people in this country feel this bigotry and racism. I'm f'ing tired of these Americans who see the world in black and white and ignore the reality of the shades of grey!!

I feel so ashamed sometimes to be an "American."