Language As A Weapon
Two years on, DLI expects to grow for terror war.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Soldiers dream in Dari up at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). In Afghanistan, a third of the population, or about five million people, mostly in the north, speak Dari. In Monterey, a tiny fraction of the 3,200 troops studying foreign languages are learning Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian Farsi. But as they learn more, the language of various Afghan tribes-and some Taliban-burrows deeper and deeper in their minds.
During a break in class recently one young soldier said he had a dream in Dari that was set in a classroom, with a teacher and a supervisor who came in and changed homework assignments. One soldier conjugates Dari verbs in his sleep. Another was out one night-in real life-trying to speak to some young ladies in Spanish, only to slip quickly and unknowingly into Dari. They thought he was crazy.
"I paid for gas [in a dream] in Dari once," says one from a class of 10 during the morning session, Sept. 8.
Just the night before, and in the week marking the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush made a major speech about the terror war, calling on the world to do everything it can. Abroad, he''s asking for troops and cooperation. Here, he''s asking Congress for $87 billion to fund the fight, of which $66 billion will go toward military and intelligence operations.
Of course the costs aren''t strictly monetary. According to reports out this week, some 433 Americans have died in the two years since Sept. 11, 2001 in what the government calls the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. The list includes military who have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines, as well as civilian casualties in Israel, Indonesia and elsewhere. Bush said in his Sunday evening address, "The heaviest burdens in our war on terror fall, as always, on the men and women of our armed forces and intelligence services."
For the 20- and 30-somethings who rotate through the DLI, that means learning languages new to Americans, languages like Dari, Pashto and Kurdish. Dari, for example, has almost nothing in common with English, and there are almost no Dari words in usage in America-except, as one linguist trainee offered, "bazaar." Dari does have ancient Indo-European roots in common with English, and, as one soldier said, there are a few familiar, if grim, parallels. "If you know some Latin there are similar words. For example ''to die.'' In Dari, mordan is to die."
Two years ago, most of the nation was caught unaware by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. In a sense, the DLI was too.
The DLI''s new commandant, a Russian-speaking colonel from New Jersey named Michael Simone, visited the DLI that summer, not knowing he would soon return to stay. In that summer trip in 2001, he was surprised to find how open the Presidio of Monterey was to the public. He''d spent the previous 14 years overseas where, because of the threat of attack or sabotage, US bases are under tighter protection, just as the Presidio was closed to the public quickly after Sept. 11.
But the DLI was caught off-guard for another reason.
Soon after the attacks, intelligence experts drew a circle around Afghanistan and the parts of Central Asia where troops could be expected to go to hunt Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They discovered that there were 13 obscure languages spoken on the ground within that circle. The US was essentially deaf and mute to the local tongue on its next battleground.
That is changing. In what is now called the GWOT Task Force at DLI, a small group of soldiers and airmen are training to be linguists and interpreters in Dari, Georgian, Kurdish, Pashto and Uzbek. Unlike DLI''s larger schools for Korean, Spanish and Russian, the GWOT head count remains limited for now. And although there are no students yet, the DLI has also brought in instructors and is designing courses for Armenian, Chechen, Hindi and Punjabi.
Heading up the task force is Maj. Dave Tatman, a DLI graduate and foreign area officer for China. He spent the last six months in Kuwait planning what he called "phase four" of the invasion of Iraq. The campaign is now in phase four.
"This is the part where everyone say there''s no plan. I helped write the ''no plan''," he says. Although he concedes there have been some oversights, Tatman says, "It takes time"
Back from Kuwait, he now oversees the DLI''s growing GWOT task force, a state-of-the-art language and linguistics center. Almost entirely built from scratch, the GWOT center had to find competent instructors in the heretofore neglected languages, then hunt down textbooks and formulate courses. To make matters a bit more complicated, military students'' needs are different than those of the typical learner.
As Tatman put it, "We don''t have to talk about ''trimming mullah''s beard'' or ''picking cherries in spring time.''"
Besides the languages themselves, also brand new is a fully computerized teaching system that links digitized blackboards in each classroom with student laptops with a massive database. In one air-conditioned room in the center sits what''s called a "server suite," holding four terabytes of audio information, the equivalent of 5,714 80-minute, 700 mega-byte compact discs. The system is only six weeks old. The servers alone cost $200,000. Back-up systems worth another $300,000 will be installed soon. That does not include laptops issued to the GWOT students, or the interactive, digitized teaching apparatus in the classrooms, which cost $10,000 a copy.
"That''s where we''re at, and growing," Tatman says. "We''re going to be teaching Pashto for a while just like we''ll be teaching Dari for a while."
Besides using the system to teach American trainees, the staff at the GWOT spent some 1,300 hours translating and replicating an Army combat manual, known as the Ranger Handbook, into Dari, for use in molding an Afghan Army. An American commander in Afghanistan requested it. Those at the GWOT are not overly concerned about the handbook falling into enemy hands since various terrorist groups have been found to have the easily obtained US printed manuals stashed in their caves with ammunition and weapons.
Mahmood Taba Tabai, PhD, is the dean of the GWOT center. He looks to the overall mission and technological advances in Monterey as initiatives that will be of benefit to the world through broader communication and interaction.
"As long as you talk, you are working for peace," he says.
The GWOT center is not the only thing growing at the DLI. A new 176-bed dormitory is now under construction, and classroom space is being expanded. Additional students have pushed advanced level classes over to converted classrooms in the Silas B. Hayes Hospital on Fort Ord.
Because of the way orders are scheduled, they can''t say for sure, but DLI commanders believe the facility''s increased importance in the terror war means it can only grow.
Col. Simone, says that with the GWOT center and other needs, all signs point up.
"We think it will increase in size, but that''s speculation on our part here at the DLI," Col. Simone said in a recent interview. "We can always find room here."
With increasing need in the US military and intelligence agencies for linguists of all kinds, Simone says in a vast organization like the Department of Defense, it''s not as simple as changing a job description. In an era when overseas commitments have the military, and the Army especially, stretched to its limits, finding the bodies is increasingly difficult.
"You''ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul, no matter what the increase," he says.
Simone, who is 50, worked for a large part of his career in Europe, where, during the Cold War, DLI-trained linguists spent a lot of time eavesdropping on Soviet troop movements. Times have changed, and it''s now a given that those learning Arabic and Middle Eastern languages will find themselves with units in the streets of Iraq or the hills of Afghanistan.
"No matter what skills someone has learned here, operations of the last few years show they can be yanked very quickly into a real-world, no-kidding situation," Simone says. "We don''t have room for linguists who stay in air conditioned places and translate documents and do analysis."
One DLI student learning Dari will surely get that lesson in spades-and he can''t wait. Although his last name was withheld for security reasons, Private First Class Hamed is 19, grew up in northern Virginia, and his parents are from Kabul. He still has an uncle there somewhere. Hamed joined the Army right after graduating from high school in 2000. He''s now in his eleventh week of Dari studies, and he knows he''ll soon set foot in his ancestral home. Though peace is ever more scarce with recent heavy fighting, his family is ecstatic he''s going to Afghanistan.
"They''re all pumped up and proud of me," he says. "It''s an unreal feeling and I''m not even there yet."
It''s due to the circumstances of what the Army calls GWOT that PFC Hamed will end up back in Afghanistan via DLI, and not to attend a peaceful family reunion or through a college exchange program. But as the first two years since Sept. 11, 2001 have proven, the nation''s ability to communicate in previously unheard-of languages is of utmost importance.
Col. Simone tells the students at DLI never to think that because they''re linguists they''re somehow different than the grunts, because for the linguist their language is their weapon. As someone who thought and maybe dreamed in Russian for years when the Soviet Union was the enemy, Simone recognizes the importance of the DLI''s evolving mission.
"We think it''s vitally critical. We at the DLI don''t think there''s any alternative to us," he says.