How Many Government Agencies Does It Take To Teach Soldiers Arabic?
A pathetic case of Pentagon incompetence.
I've just read one of the funniest and saddest government documents I've run across in years. Published by the Pentagon (the source of most such things) under the title "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," it details the official plan for improving foreign-language skills among U.S. military personnel. The plan is meant to fill an urgent need. It was ordered by the deputy secretary of defense, administered by the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and coordinated with the service secretaries, combat commanders, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. And to read it is to see, with your own increasingly widening eyes, the Pentagon's (or is it the federal government's?) sheer inability to get anything done on time.
The document—only 19 pages, so take a look—traces, all too clearly, the project's shameful chronology. It got under way in November 2002—over a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—when the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness was directed to have the military departments review their requirements for language professionals (interpreters, translators, area specialists, and so forth). This review was a bust—or, in the document's more delicate language, it "resulted in narrowly scoped requirements based on current manning authorizations instead of … projected needs."
So, in August 2003—in other words, after another nine months—the undersecretary tried again, directing a formal review of the Defense Language Institute Foreign-Language Center. The resulting study "articulated the needs for qualitative improvement in language skills." What a surprise!
In September 2003—two years after the 9/11 attacks that made officials realize they didn't know enough about the rest of the world—the deputy undersecretary of defense for plans commissioned a study "assessing language needs."
For the first seven months of 2004, the deputy undersecretary assembled a "Defense Language Transformation Team," consisting of representatives from the services, the National Security Agency, and the Special Operations Command. ("Transformation" is widely known to be Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's chief obsession, so officials know that stamping the word on a document or program is the best way to grab attention.)
On May 10, 2004, the deputy secretary of defense ordered the military services, the JCS, the combat commands, the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to appoint "Senior Language Authorities," who will "assess language needs, track language assets, identify emerging policy requirements," and form a "Defense Foreign Language Steering Committee."
From June through August, 2004, the steering committee oversaw the development—and on Aug. 31, approved—the "Roadmap," and submitted it to the undersecretary of defense.
So, by the end of last summer, it had taken 21 months simply to draw up a 19-page plan.
It gets worse.
The plan lays out a series of "required actions" to improve language skills and incorporate expertise in languages and area studies in the military's programs for recruitment, promotion, and training. But look at the plan's dawdling deadlines.
For instance: "Publish a DoD Instruction providing guidance for language program management." The deadline: July 2005. That's 11 months—not to come up with a program, but to issue guidance for managing the program.
Or: "Develop a language readiness index" to "measure capabilities and identify gaps." Deadline: September 2005.
"Conduct a … screening of all military and civilian personnel for language skills," in order to establish a database. Deadline: December 2005.
"Ensure doctrine, policies, and planning-guidance reflect the need for language requirements in operational, contingency, and stabilization planning." Deadline: March 2006.
"To increase the pool of potential language personnel … ensure the automated Defense Language Aptitude Battery is available at appropriate locations … including recruiters, military entrance processing stations, ROTC staff, and Service Academy staffs, to identify recruits/cadets with language learning potential." Deadline: January 2007.
"Establish 'crash' or 'survival' courses for deploying forces." Deadline: September 2007.
"Develop and sustain a personnel information system that maintains accurate data on all DoD personnel skilled in foreign-language and regional expertise. Work closely to ensure stabilized data entry and management procedures." Deadline: September 2008.
And keep in mind: All of these tasks are simply to set up a management system for improving the military's language skills—not actually to begin improving the skills.
Some of these projects do involve slogging through the system, but is the muck so thick that it takes three years of slogging? As for the goals that are scheduled to be accomplished in the next year or two, it's hard to believe a small group of smart people couldn't get them done in a month or a week or, in some cases, a few hours.
In the three and a half years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States built a massive arsenal, equipped an equally massive fighting force, and declared victory in a worldwide war over imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
In the three and a half years after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the U.S. government funded dozens—if not hundreds—of Russian-language and Russian-studies departments not just within the military but in high schools and colleges all across America.
Now, three and a half years after Islamic fundamentalists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense is three months away from publishing an official "instruction" providing "guidance for language program management."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Donald Rumsfeld by Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.