Lingua Franca

Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. — Genesis 11:7

The U.S. military deploys with some of the mightiest weaponry, technically advanced communications systems, innovative vehicles, and best-trained personnel of any nation in the world. This arsenal of weapons, equipment, and warriors has served it well, especially since the beginning of a century that has seen U.S. forces deploy to scores of countries. These deployments include peacekeeping operations, combat missions, humanitarian relief work, postings to permanent bases outside the U.S., and port calls to friendly host nations. The list of countries where U.S. forces have roamed reads like the final exam from a geography bee: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Djibouti, East Timor, Georgia, Haiti, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kosovo, Lebanon, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Thailand, to name just a few.

In this globe-spanning presence, there is one critical absence in the arsenal of equipment and skills of deployed units: the ability to speak with the locals. The languages spoken in the places where U.S. forces have served in the last decade include Arabic, Amharic, Creole French, Dari, Dinka (yes, that’s a real language), Farsi, Pashto, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swahili, and Tagalog, among others, each with various dialects. A typical Marine platoon might have a bevy of northeastern brogues, southern drawls, or midwestern twangs, but it’s all English. And that’s why we need people like the three men in this photo with me, and their colleagues.

These were just a few of the dedicated professionals who helped 1/5 succeed in Nawa. Each platoon had at least one interpreter serving alongside its Marines throughout the district. They were drawn to the work, which they knew would be performed in austere and dangerous conditions, for some of the same reasons that the rest of our team was drawn to join the Marine Corps: national pride, desire for adventure, or economic necessity.

Like Marines, the cadre of interpreters serving with the battalion came in all shapes and sizes. One was a former bodybuilder with a physique like an NFL linebacker. Others bore the signs of excess exposure to time and gravity, with thinner hair and paunchier bellies than their younger counterparts. Some of the younger ones hoped to earn enough money to go to school in Europe or the U.S., while others looked like college professors, with their sleek silver hair and bifocals. I suspect these elder ones may have been augmenting their retirement income. In every case, however, they were an essential bridge between the Marines and the residents of Nawa. They wore our uniform in a combat zone, and despite not having gone through boot camp or officer candidate school, they took on the confident strut one would expect of a Marine.

Effective COIN operations depend on winning over the trust of the local population. Without our interpreters, this could never have happened. As one Army officer noted, “Your interpreter is more important than your weapon.” Our interpreters enabled Marines to navigate the nuances of Afghan culture and colloquialisms. Oftentimes, they would deftly interrupt when Marines became too passionate or aggressive while speaking to an Afghan, suggesting alternative phrases to ones that, if translated verbatim, could have cracked already-strained relations.

The interpreters became the voice and ears of the battalion and gained as much trust among the local population as did the Marines. In fact, it was common for locals to come to a patrol base and ask to speak to one of the interpreters rather than to a Marine to pass along some critical bit of information. Sometimes, that information related to the location of an IED or a weapons cache. In this sense, our interpreters were as valuable an asset as any high-tech equipment we had, and it could be argued that they saved as many lives as our mine detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. They endured the same hardships as the Marines they stood beside, all the while taking on the emotionally and mentally draining task of constantly thinking and speaking in two different languages in real time.

Many factors play into fighting and winning wars in the twenty-first century. The right weapons and warriors are just a few. With a gun and a radio, you can fight a war. With a Hank, a Yah-ya, a Wally, or a Chris, you can command hundreds of Afghan soldiers, have a teatime conversation with a tribal leader, or understand what makes a local farmer tick. And you can win a war.