Strategic Insights: Lost in Translation

  • August 17, 2017
  • Dr M Chris Mason

In a change from the Vietnam War—where the U.S. military trained at least 45,000 deploying service members to speak Vietnamese and probably twice that number—for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from some remotely-based intelligence specialists doing classified work, the U.S. military trained almost no deploying personnel to speak either Arabic or Pashto fluently. Instead, it relied on interpreters or “terps” as the troops called them. This policy was an unmitigated failure and an important cause of the U.S. inability to get traction at the operational level of war in both countries. All of the thousands and thousands of day-to-day tactical engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that involved communicating with someone who did not speak English were intended to combine together and attain an operational objective, but they were all essentially gobbledygook.