More Language and Culture, Fewer Guns

The U.S. Army educates its military and civilian workers to understand and respect diverse ethnic cultures. It makes an effective fighting force from people of diverse backgrounds by valuing the strengths and experience of all and uniting them in the Army's culture.Apropos our value of foreign languages discussion earlier, Andrew Krepinevich, a highly regarded military analyst, says the Pentagon needs to commit far more resources to just that.

“If the experience of the last seventeen years tells us anything, it is that we are likely to continue to find our armed forces deployed… in operations among the indigenous populations, rather than around them,” he argues. “This in turn suggests that the military must be prepared to operate ‘among the people’ much more than in the past. Language training and cultural awareness will therefore be critical enabling capabilities.” In a stand-off war, you might be able to afford to understanding the enemy you’re bombing from on high. But when that enemy is mixed in with the people you’re trying to secure, you can’t afford to be monolingual and culturally deaf.

Therefore, Krepinvech suggests, we should reduce “the military’s continuing relatively high emphasis on conventional operations… in order to support language and cultural training, as well as other ‘soft’ skills that are particularly useful in irregular warfare.”

I’m a much less renowned military analyst than Krepinevich and I’ve been saying this since 1992.

UPDATE:  Bernard Finel counters that maybe we’d be better off not engaging in the kind of conflicts that need these skill sets to begin with:

What we forgot since the Vietnam War was not so much how to wage counter-insurgency, but rather the tremendous costs and small benefits that accrue from engaging in these sorts of conflicts at all.

I fully agree. The problem, though, which I reconciled myself to in the 1990s, was that we’re going to do it anyway. Because we define our interests globally, we seemingly can’t not intervene in crises that either have a plausible security domino effect (Republicans, mostly) or offend our humanitarian sensibilities (Democrats, especially, but also neocons and “national greatness” Republicans).

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. vnjagvet says:

    And I since I was in Vietnam in 1967-1968, James.

    There were two problems that were painfully obvious to me then:

    One was that we two military commands in country which had conflicting objectives:

    MACV whose job was to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people;

    AirForce/Navy/USARV/Marines whose job was to kill as many of the enemy and those who harbored them as they could.

    The other problem was that the combat gang had absolutely no idea whatever how to communicate with the Vietnamese people on our side so as to isolate the “bad” vietnamese; they didn’t much care either.

    Petraeus seems to have cured the first problem.

    The second one still exists forty years later. I guess we are slow learners.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The military is not the diplomatic corps. The only job of the military is to break things and kill people. There are no nice wars. We are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with a military depleated by the Clinton administration. While an all volunteer military service may be a good idea in some ways, it can lead to short handedness with dealing with conflict. We have gotten good enough that we lose very few KIA’s anymore. That being compared former wars.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Let’s see a show of hands:

    How many Americans here speak some French?
    German? (me)

    It appears that the old adage that Americans are always prepared to fight the previous war might be optimistic.

  4. sam says:

    MACV whose job was to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people;

    AirForce/Navy/USARV/Marines whose job was to kill as many of the enemy and those who harbored them as they could.

    You’re quite wrong about this. The Marines, at least, knew the value of Civic Action, as it was called.

    The most effective strategy for opposing communism in wars of this type was of a dual nature. The destructive phase would address the conventional force threat, while the constructive phase was concerned with the political, economic, social, and ideological aspects of the struggle.

    The Marines understood this duality best. According to British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, “Of all the United States forces [in Vietnam] the Marine Corps alone made a serious attempt to achieve permanent and lasting results in their tactical area of responsibility by seeking to protect the rural population.” 2 This appreciation of the value of pacification was part of the historical baggage that the Marines brought with them to Vietnam.

    Fn 2:

    Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam, (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986): 172.

    In fact:

    Marine civic action included the provision of medical care for Vietnamese civilians. US Navy doctors and corpsmen working with the Marines provided over four million medical treatments and trained about 9,000 Vietnamese nationals in nursing-type skills. Marine helicopters and land vehicles evacuated 19,000 sick or injured civilians to civilian and US military treatment facilities. Marines assisted the Vietnamese in the construction of schools and additional classrooms. Thirteen million meals were provided to refugees, and over 400,000 pounds of clothing were distributed by Marines. Other aspects of civic action in the Marine area of responsibility included the construction of wells, bridge building, repair of irrigation facilities, animal husbandry projects and agricultural seed purchases, and the distribution of carpentry and blacksmith tools to the civilian population. 28

    Fn 28. MajGen J. M. Platt, “Military Civic Action,” in Marine Corps Gazette 54, 9 (September, 1970): 24-25.

    Above material drawn from

    Civic Action: The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam, Parts I and II, Peter Brush, Library Science, University of Kentucky

    Google “Civic Action: The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam, Part I”

  5. mike says:

    Ragshaft – the “clinton depleted the military” line is a bit old – how long has it been since his office – if you want to talk about a president who has run the military in the ground, there is one much more recent in time.

  6. vnjagvet says:

    I stand corrected, sam. Apparently they learned something after I left. When I was travelling around I Corps after Tet (to and from Camp Carroll and other Artillery units on the DMZ) they were not in a real good mood.

    Semper Fi.

  7. sam says:

    No prob, vnjagvet. If you go and read the articles, you’ll see the Marines were finally thwarted in their pacification strategy by Westmoreland and the Army brass:

    In the test of wills between Westmoreland and [Marine General Victor] Krulak, the Army general possessed a formidable weapon–a general’s fourth star. Westmoreland was popular with the press, the public, and especially with President Johnson. Eventually the Marines gave up their attempts to more widely implement their pacification strategy and fell in line with the Army.

    Krulak was the prime mover for the Marine’s Civic Action strategy. The Corps had abandoned it, under pressure, long before Tet. And you are right, for after the abandonment, it was I Corps, Khe Sanh, and Hue…damn little pacification in those places.

  8. John Burgess says:

    PD Shaw: I speak French, Arabic, and rusty Turkish and Thai. Working on Polish and Portuguese. Might get to Spanish yet.

    Yes, ground troops need to have at least some language skills. As military are world-wide deployable, though, they clearly can’t be asked to have all languages at all times.

    When there’s a major, extended operation, then more can be done to teach the pertinent language, I think. It’s not just the military attaches that need the local language. Perhaps cadres of troops trained up in languages likely to be useful will be the best shot the military gets.

    But immigrants with language skills are finding themselves in high demand these days, starting with Intell jobs.

  9. RW Rogers says:

    The Defense Language Institute has been doing that for almost 70 years now and appears to be offering instruction in about 25 languages. As I understand it, they do a pretty good job, too. Perhaps more people should be sent there.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    How many Americans here speak some French?
    German? (me)

    French, yes. German, yes. Russian, yes.

    Rusty Chinese. Several classical languages.

    John, once you’ve got a solid handle on one Slavic language you should be able to cope with the bunch. Except Czech. For some reason Czech throws me.

  11. Wayne says:

    There is also a time constraint to deal with. The language school that they generally send someone to after the Q course is six months and it only teaches the fundamentals of one language. A soldier spends a good deal of time at different military courses. There must be time lift for unit training and cohesion. This is especially difficult for Enlisted since many are there for a relative short time.