« Fame, Achilles and Tr… | Home | Were You Scared? »

Language Skills vs Fighting Skill

An article in Psychology Today (somehow it showed up downrange and I read this while I was leaving Afghanistan) asked psychologists if they had no restrictions--ethical, practical or physical--what experiment would they perform? I quickly thought about this premise and military theory. So, if I could perform a counter-insurgency experiment, what would it look like?

I would start with two light infantry battalions. The battalions would be the exact same in every way, and differ only in the quality of their soldiers. Battalion A would be the ideal infantry battalion: perfect Army Physical Fitness scores, all soldiers able to ruck march for 12 miles at 13 minute miles, all expert marksman with their M4s and assigned weapons, all wearing Expert Infantry Badges. Battalion B would be average in traditional army metrics; but, every soldier in this battalion would speak the local language (Either Pashtun, Dari or Arabic). Battalion A and Battalion B would then deploy to the same control area of operation. (Ideally, in some sort of parallel universe. This is why the experiment is impossible.)
That’s the experiment. As every scientist has a bias, I have mine. Who do I think would win this counter-insurgency fight? Battalion B, hands down.

Battalion A would dominate all its lethal fire fights but would have to fight throughout their deployment. While they would kill insurgents, they could never connect with the population. They would never truly build support for the government or separate insurgents from the population.

Battalion B would not dominate the fight initially, but they would excel in this hypothetical experiment. Imagine it. As soon as they arrive, they start addressing issues at the local level. Locals would have never seen a US force so involved in their AO. They could connect with the leaders, and then the entire population. They would learn what US tactics are unpopular, and then could choose to discard them. While insurgent forces would win early victories against the less able US force, their support among the population would dwindle and they would be forced to move elsewhere. Or, they could give up arms and rejoin society.

Of course, after I wrote the scenario, I realized Battalion B is essentially an Afghanistan National Army battalion--tactically poor but culturally awesome. However, the differences between an ANA battalion and Battalion B are critical. The Aghanistan National Army soldiers lack the characteristics that give the U.S. Army its strength. The largest issue with most host nation soldiers is incredibly high desertion rates. Second to that is massive corruption of Afghanistan National Security Forces (They make KBR look like the Red Cross). Because of this, US battalions have a status as “honest brokers” in resolving local issues--imagine if they spoke Pashtun or Arabic.

It might seem confusing why the US Army couldn’t perform this experiment in one of its two ongoing wars. It could try, but you could never truly control the external variables. As I wrote in "Will the Surge Work?", an area of operations can change dramatically in only twelve miles and or twelve months of time.

What are we to take from this crazy thought experiment? Well if you agree that Battalion B would perform better in Afghanistan, then you need to support training and resources to get our battalions as close to that as possible. Currently, the Army makes no deliberate effort to improve the language training at the maneuver battalion level. We talk a good game about counter-insurgency as a military, let’s step up on language training.

If you have a counter-insurgency experiment you wish you could perform, please share it below.

seven comments

Excellent observations. I would challenge though that the resources are in fact already provided by the Army though DLI to actually to do such training en masse. The real frustration is making the (perhaps not so) difficult decision to spend the limited training time on non-traditional tasks. It would somewhat extraordinary, for example, if LTC McFarlane sat First Rock in a classroom learning Pashto for weeks while LTC Butler took 2-503 to Monte Romano for a range density. I have an unfortunate lack of confidence that this could ever happen.

Regardless, you are certain to get rapidly diminishing returns from training each additional rifleman in a language and you could never build fluency with our rotation rates. Fundamentally, we are not truly fighting as counter-insurgents, but rather we are conducting Foreign Internal Defense in support of the Afghan government. In light of this, perhaps a better and more realistic exercise would be to train our advisory teams in intensive Dari. Such a plan would allow for more personal and effective mentoring across the Afghan National Army structure. This would promote better use of the cultural and intelligence strengths of the ANA while helping them overcome their tactical weaknesses. Keep up the great writing.

Bamberg, Germany

I would say “It depends.”

A determined opposition with support among the people, but confined to a small AO would be defeated quickly by (a) and never by (b).

Last night I watched McNamara’s “Fog of War”. A recurring theme in the film was “learn how your enemy sees you”. The goal is not to find a weakness, but how to better understand the mutual conflict at hand such that a resolution can be achieved. McNamara further explains how this dynamic succeeded in the Cuban missile crisis, and utterly failed during the Vietnam War.

Ultimately, if our resources on the ground better understood the literal language of the insurgency, they would better understand the symbolic language as well.

Though I agree with @nd about the feasibility of maintaining a fluent battalion, I think there is a lot to be said about military preparedness from a cultural / anthropological perspective (especially before entering into an armed conflict).

I think the United States is at a disadvantage linguistically because of it cultural topography whereas European nations inherit a diversity of tongues. I would definitely support an expansion of language / world history / cultural training within our armed forces, even more so during peace time.

@Nick- True, I pushed this example to the extreme by making one Battalion entirely language focused while the other is entirely combat focused. However, while DLI does exist as an option, how many maneuver commanders or leaders have actually attended the program? I am trying to emphasize our lack of linguistic skills, a theme I will return to in the future.

@Sven- Yes, the scenario does matter. But when it comes to lethal engagements with the enemy, the Language-skilled battalion will work on much more accurate intelligence than the fighting skilled battalion. It is not that Battalion B is an awful fighting force, just not the most effective one.

@rehan- Excellent reference to The Fog of War. You are correct too that by learning the specific language of a place you begin to understand their cultural. While many disagree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis, it seems oddly compelling. I just finished the Crisis of Islam and it describes the clash very clearly between Islam and the West.

@Michael C I agree, we have terrible linguistic and cultural skills as a whole in the Army. What’s worse we don’t even make an effort to properly use the skills we have. My Platoon in Afghanistan had 11 linguists; 1x Georgian, 3x Russian, 2x Arabic and 5x French; all (almost) completely useless in Afghanistan. The Army made no effort to provide our Brigade with the trained Army linguists to perform our mission and my predecessor made no effort to retrain the Platoon in at least basic Pashto. I’m sure there were Brigades in Iraq that could have used the Arabic linguists and my Georgian soldier was one of only 4 or 5 in the entire Army with his level of proficiency. Criminal, in my opinion.

DLI provides free mobile training teams that will provide a program of instruction in Pashto for a variety of audiences. All the unit needs to do is free the white space in the training calendar and make the commitment to have the soldiers attend.

What I really want to see though is an encouragement of a personal effort to learn the language of the country to which a unit is scheduled to deploy. As a profession, we must promote personal language development just as we promote individual physical training. On of the cooks in my Battalion is learning Pashto on his own and places sticky notes in Pashto all around the DFAC, great initiative. I personally spend many hours a week on my own continuing to learn Pashto as well as maintaining my proficiency in Mandarin and Spanish. With limited time and resources, the Army can only do so much to train at the soldier level. The right incentives and command emphasis to learn a language need to be in place to truly make a long term difference.


My father, at one time, was fluent in nine languages. He learned French in high school. In Vietnam, he was special forces; mike force. He worked closely with indiginous cultures of the area that were marginalized or persecuted because they were minorities. These same culture groups tradionally fought along side western forces in hopes of liberation.

In his time in Vietnam (and other countries where military operations were performed during that particular war) he found it imparative to learn the language of the people he was training and fighting along-side. This meant learning Vietnamese of course, but also Karen, Mountainyard, Thai, and dialects of Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.

Trust was of course a major factor. Respect another. He lived amongst these cultures for extended periods. Fought with them. Lost with them. It is of course difficult to convince a tribal elder that freedom for his people through combat is better than North Vietnamese forces pirating their food stuffs if you cannot find a translator. It’s embarassing and arrogant. But also, when you are in a unit composed primarily of mountainyards and a handful of Green Berets on a training patrol, it’s difficult to keep your forces organized in an ambush scenario if your translator takes one to the lung.

Since Vietnam, he continued his service for the military in a more diplomatic capacity assisting foreign nations in a medical advisory capacity. And while he did not speak fluently every language of the areas he was deployed, he had enough respect for his hosts to learn the basic phrases.

Understandably, every soldier cannot be fluent in the language of the area in which they are deployed. However, failing to have an operational understanding of the language of your area is like failing to know it’s geography. It’s tough get where you need to be (methaphorically and literally).

It is an interesting discussion, but I am not sure I agree with the premise. Don’t get me wrong, being able to communicate with the host country is a plus, but I would not trade that for elan.

Take Vietnam for example. You already had plenty of battle hardened, if dispirited Bravo Battalions in the form of ARVN forces. They spoke the language, could be trained, well armed, and led with varying degrees of effectiveness, but I would have traded them all battalion for battalion with non-Vietnamese speaking, all volunteer, crack, ROK Marines. Vietcong documents show that ROK forces were feared and effective.

There are plenty of modern conflict models to show that elite forces do well in imposing the controlling nation’s political will on foreign soil. The Ghurkhas come to mind as mountain warfare experts. The Waffen SS did pretty well conquering foreign lands. And there are plenty more.

I can also think of other models to present. In 1992 a mercenary group of South Africans called Executive Outcomes fought UNITA rebels and forced them to a cease fire in Angola. When Executive Outcomes left and B Battalion UN forces took over the fighting resumed. Who knows how many English speaking South Africans spoke Portuguese? Who knows how many of them spoke Krio when they repeated their success in destroying an insurgency in Sierra Leone a few years later? What Executive Outcomes did provide was highly trained and professional warriors, and that I add, that were not so tightly bound by archaic, often crippling restrictions on engagement and other niceties that we have imposed on ourselves, as if we are still engaged with conscripted men who are on the opposing side for no other reason than a random act of geographical chance.

All that said, can it hurt to teach deploying units the language and customs of the AO? No, but it is an unnecessary expense with a dubious payout. In my opinion, for what little it is worth, a complete overhaul of the rules of war and the just war theory we burden ourselves with is in order. Which is not to say I am advocating a lack of discrimination and restraint, just the opposite. We need a clarification and simplification of the rules. And they must be weighted in the favor of our innocent soldiers over the lives of others.

It would be an interesting experiment.

Thanks for your service.