Army tells gay translators, don't tell, or don't translate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 26 13:51:50 UTC 2007

25 May 2007 01:23 PM

Army tells gay translators, don't tell, or don't translate

debaron at

Edited By: debaron at

 According to the Houston Chronicle, the U.S. army has kicked out as many
as 58 Arabic translators recently because they were gay.  40 members of
the House of Representatives want to know why, when the army is so short
on troops that its issuing what it calls moral waivers that allow
convicted felons, drug users, and those who fail to meet the armys
educational standards all to join up, it can afford to dismiss soldiers
with language skills that are actually critical for pursuing the war on
terror. In a separate story, Rep. Barney Frank (D, MA) cited a report that
in the past decade the army released 322 soldiers with critical foreign
language skills because of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  And as
long ago as 2002, CBS News reported that that army dismissed 9 gay
translators, six of whom were specializing in Arabic at the Defense
Language Institute in Monterey, the military's prestigious language
training center.

The Don't ask, don't tell law, passed in 1994, allows gays to serve in the
military if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage
in homosexual acts.  The law forbids commanders from asking about a
soldiers sex life (don't ask), but requires those openly acknowledging
their sexual orientation to be discharged (thats the don't tell part).
The GAO, the accountability branch of the federal government, reports that
so far 11,000 soldiers have been outed and ousted, and a UC Santa Barbara
study found that it cost more than $363.8 million to train and replace
them. Questioned by New York Rep. Gary Ackerman about this waste of human
talent and taxpayer dollars, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, appearing
before Congress to seek more funds to train Arabists, claimed to know
nothing about it.  Ackerman then asked whether the State Department also
had a ban on gay linguists, and Rice said they did not.  But she didn't ask
to see any resumes, and despite the severe shortage of proficient Arabic
speakers in the security and diplomatic services, those translators
dismissed from the Monterey program and other army units for acknowledging
their sexual orientation are not being scooped up for other government
jobs, either.

No one doubts that the military needs soldiers speaking critical
languages, and no one doubts that these languages are hard to learn.
After 9/11, enrollments in the nations Arabic programs skyrocketed, but
many students, finding the learning curve too steep, dropped out after a
course or two.  Even those who persisted were still far from fluent either
in the classical, literary Arabic used in print or in the many intricate
dialects of the language used to conduct day to day business -- including
the business of terror -- in Arabophone countries.  One Pentagon official
estimates that it could take twenty years to train enough trustworthy
Arabists for the nations defense.  In 2002, only 70% of the 500 soldiers
enrolled in the Monterey Arabic program actually passed their
certification (its not clear whether the six dismissed for being gay are
included in that figure). Not only is it difficult for the military to
train compulsively monolingual Americans to speak Arabic, its also tough
for the Pentagon to find Arab American soldiers for that job: American
troops speaking Arabic as their first language often cant pass the
security clearance.  And even if they do, they may be regarded with
suspicion by their superiors.  Since 2001, several heritage-language
translators with top security ratings have been arrested on suspicion of
espionage, though, to date, there have been no translators convicted.

As for those Iraqi Arab-speakers attached to the American occupation
forces, they are frequently assassinated by their countrymen for
consorting with the enemy.  Translation is risky business in a war zone,
and it should also come as no surprise that many Iraqis don't trust anyone
who speaks English. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sees no irony in the
fact that the military finds convicted felons and illiterates less morally
problematic than well-educated homosexuals without so much as a parking
ticket on their records who might actually be able to understand what the
enemy is talking about (not to mention what our Iraqi allies are really
saying).  Gates insists that in drumming out the translators, the army is
simply following the law, a law which he has no intention of reviewing.

And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at this latest military catch 22: the
army needs a few good translators, and when it finds them, it gets rid of
them.  Its just a version of the bigger American monolingual catch 22:

Americans, whatever their origins, don't study foreign languages all that
much -- we don't even study our heritage languages.  We are a nation forged
from many ethnicities, and while Teddy Roosevelt once warned that the
United States could become a polyglot boarding house, we have become
instead a monolingual nation, one that doesn't trust speakers of any
language except English.

So, as long as the rest of the world speaks other languages, well need
translators.  And as long as our enemies continue to plot against us in
languages we find inaccessible, like Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, the
military will need translators as much as it needs bullets.  But depending
on translators only emphasizes our helplessness, and sharpens our fear
that translators, masters of two languages, speak with forked tongues.


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