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WASHINGTON — A common scene from Iraq and Afghanistan: Armed and uniformed U.S. troops opposite a group of locals, not knowing what to say or how to say it, even through an interpreter.

Acknowledging that language and culture skills can’t be "surged" into the U.S. military, officers and congressmen on Wednesday debated how to best make them part of the military’s core skills.

"It’s one of the most critical things we need to get done correctly," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., during a hearing by the House Armed Service Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

"I believe we would have been in fewer wars and lost fewer young people if we had been more focused on this in the past," added Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.

During the hearing, senior military officials rattled off programs that their service branches — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — are using to build language and cultural skills within their ranks.

"We need Marines who are capable of navigating the human and cultural terrain," said Brig. Gen. Richard M. Lake, the Marine Corps’ director of intelligence.

Instead of coming at the expense of "core warfighting skills," as suggested by one of the presenters, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., said culture and language should be one of those skills.

"Make it so this is part of the job … part of signing that enlistment contract," Snyder said.

Gail H. McGinn, deputy undersecretary for defense for plans, said the Defense Department has encouraged U.S. schools and colleges to teach more languages than Spanish and the European languages.

"We have about 1,400 [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] locations where they teach languages," McGinn said. "But only a few teach languages that are of [immediate] interest to national security [such as Arabic and Farsi]."

Ingraining language and culture skills is easier said than done, according to experts interviewed by Stars and Stripes.

"[Troops] are learning from experience," said Keith Brown, a Brown University professor who has studied the Army’s efforts to build cultural sensitivity.

"The frustrating thing both for [the military] and for some scholars is that there are just still so many things standing in the way of effective communication between the military and academics.

"I can spend five years trying to figure something out," Brown said. "The military doesn’t have that kind of luxury."

Another hurdle is troops’ tendency to frequently change locations or even career specialties, according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"Language proficiency gets stale real fast when you don’t practice it," Biddle said. "[They need] jobs where they are consistently in the same part of the world where they’ll use that language and not [be sent] anywhere else."

A shift in military culture would face administrative and practical challenges, Biddle said.

"You don’t get 100 percent comprehension from graduate students at an Ivy League university," Biddle said.

"When you have a group of soldiers who have a lot of other things to worry about, they’re not going to get 100 percent comprehension from sitting through a one-hour lecture [on cultural awareness]."


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