February 18, 2007

Who Cares what Iraqis Think when You're the One with the Gun?

Last month Bill Poser highlighted the US government's attitude toward communication with Iraqis, as seen in the Iraq Study Group's report that only six (6!) of the 1000 employees of the US embassy in Iraq speak Arabic fluently. Another glimpse of this attitude, from a different perspective, is on p. 7 of the February 2007 issue of Anthropology News. This comes from an interview with an anthropologist, Justin Faulkner, who served with the US Army early in the current war in Iraq:

It's changed now, but our minimal language training focused on learning commands, with no attention to reciprocity or words conveying respect. I took the time to learn a little more Arabic and found the words that worked best were "don't be afraid, everybody's going to be OK."

Faulkner goes on to say that these words were especially useful when soldiers burst into people's homes in the middle of the night on house-to-house searches.

So what this presumably means is that the Army was training soldiers only in Arabic expressions like "Get up!", "Don't move!" and "Leave the house immediately!", and that Faulkner found that people reacted better when someone said something reassuring. Duh. And yet at least one person in the US, our Vice President, still doesn't seem to understand why our soldiers have not been welcomed in Iraq with open arms and bouquets of flowers.

Faulkner doesn't say how language training has changed since the first two years of this war. But it's probably too optimistic to hope for a serious effort to reduce the language barrier between US personnel and Iraqi citizens, given the pervasive and persistent view in our country, at all levels of society right up to and including Congress and the White House, that learning any language other than English is a foolish waste of time. (Yes, yes, I know there are notable exceptions in our government, at least in Congress. But they're a drop in the proverbial bucket. And no, I don't think that President Bush's alleged command of Spanish counts as an exception.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 18, 2007 12:11 PM