The Travails of Occupying People Who Are Too Dumb To Speak English
Posted Dec 4, 2003

The Travails of Occupying People Who Are Too Dumb To Speak English

By Greg Weiher


I was watching footage of American troops conducting raids on Iraqi houses in Baqouba on England’s ITV, which is carried on the News World International cable channel (you’d never see coverage like this on American corporate television, of course). The soldiers kicked in the gate of one house, pointed their guns in the faces of the family inside, herded the wife and children into a cowering group off in one corner, grabbed the father, forced him to the ground, then held him down with a foot on his neck. I have no idea if the man was a foreign insurgent, a fedayeen, a plumber, an innocent, or Satan himself, but the look on his face made two things very clear: he was terrified, and he didn’t speak English.

It was obvious that in his state of terror – the same state that his children and wife were in – he would have tried to do anything the American troops wanted, if only he could understand what they were saying.

For their part, the troops evidently took the family’s lack of comprehension as resistance. Hence the screaming and brutality. They also resorted to the first tactic of the culturally and linguistically ignorant when someone doesn’t respond – scream louder. Strangely, the increase in volume, the use of insults, and the rough tactics did not help the Iraqis to understand English any better.

This is only one of an increasing number of indications that the American occupation forces are losing the hearts and minds of Iraqis in large part because they don’t have an inkling how to communicate with them. In the last several days, since the bombing of the Red Cross headquarters and the police stations throughout Baghdad, voices have been raised to encourage a change in tactics. Exactly six months after the occupation began, these voices counsel either adding more Americans who speak Arabic to the occupation forces, or incorporating Iraqis into the effort to restore security. The thinking behind this suggestion is that Arabic speakers, being familiar with the culture, will be more able to identify foreign insurgents, as well as less likely to needlessly create enemies by offending local sensibilities. Duh.

The idea that one is likely to be more successful in international relations if one understands the language and culture of the people one deals with is hardly new. “The Ugly American”, the 1958 best seller, introduced this well-worn phrase into the American vocabulary. It described the manifold small ways in which Americans were bested by their cold-war competitors in Southeast Asia simply by failing to understand the aspirations, the sensibilities, and the language of the people they were trying to influence. That year again was 1958, as in forty-five years ago. I know that the American foreign policy and national security establishment is not ignorant of this lesson.

In 1970, when I was in the Navy, I myself attended the Defense Language Institute, West Coast, in Monterey, California. I received training in Mandarin Chinese for forty-seven weeks through a total immersion program, speaking Chinese for over six hours a day, five days a week. At three such schools on the east and west coasts, in addition to Mandarin, there was a very large contingent of service people studying Vietnamese, Russian, and also – can you believe it – Arabic. Our teachers were all native speakers from the target countries, and they educated us in culture and customs as well as language. One of the officers in my class went on to receive extensive education in Chinese history, and became an Army area specialist. That year again was 1970, as in thirty-four years ago.

And yet, stories filter back that indicate that the people who are involved in this occupation, from the grunts to the grandees, don’t have a clue. For instance, the press reports that when President Bush recently attended the APEC meeting in southeast Asia, he and his advisors were incredulous to find that the Muslim attendees actually did see the United States’ war against terrorism as a war against Islam. Go figure.

Also, a recent standoff was provoked between Iraqi police, Iraqi civilians, and American troops when a young Iraqi woman working at a ministry refused to allow a sniffer-dog to inspect her purse. Muslims regard dogs as dirty, so from the young woman’s point of view, that was bad enough – but her purse also held a copy of the Holy Q’uran. A Muslim won’t even touch the Q’uran without washing his hands, so bringing a dog anywhere near it would be sufficient grounds to break out the assault rifles.

The interesting thing is that the neo-cons who are behind this war – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Bolton, Abrams, Podhoretz – are supposed to be the right’s best and brightest. (If you have any doubts, just ask one of them.) So, given that, here’s the question that I just can’ t answer: if you’re going to occupy an Arab country, how much of a genius does it take to figure you might want to take along some people who can speak Arabic?

Greg Weiher is a political scientist at the University of Houston, a freelance writer, and a Navy veteran. This article is copyright by Greg Weiher, originally published by Permission is granted to forward this or to place it on a website as long as the article is included intact, including this statement.