The exchange of ideas can be a wonderful and fascinating process. It can also be very painstaking and frustrating. In training the new Iraqi Army, getting the message across is a very long and cumbersome process. I spend most of my time training the Senior Officers of the General Staff of the 6th Infantry Division. I am usually training men who are not only older than me, but of higher rank. In this war, every soldier has to be a little bit of a diplomat sometimes. I am now one most of the time.
Back when I was with my Infantry Battalion, I dealt with Iraqis out on the streets from once to several times a week, but on average, most of my time was spent dealing with the soldiers of the battalion and pouring over data trying to extract actionable intelligence. Back then, I also more often dealt with people from a position of trying to extract information, so the flow of ideas, was strictly one-way. I was in receive mode, and my local Iraqi interpreters who had been doing the same thing in the same sector for two years, had become seasoned professionals, at knowing what I was trying to learn, helping me frame my questions appropriately, and translating the answers in the most efficient way possible given the line of questioning.
Now I am training Iraqi Colonels on the basics of American Military planning, tactics and leadership. I am also using different interpreters. They are all American citizen civilians, who are here one a one year contract with Titan Corporation. Most of them are Iraqi expatriates who have lived in the US for many years, although one or two might be originally from Lebanon or Egypt. Not only are they citizens but they have passed a security background check that is not required of the local Iraqi interpreters and are therefore given assignments such as this of a more sensitive nature. While their english is better than most American-born college students nowadays, and their Iraqi Arabic is excellent, as civilians they do not speak military jargon very well. As I struggle to learn the small amount of arabic that I have, they struggle to translate two languages into "militar-ese."
The process of communicating as a teacher rather than an inquisitor-diplomat is much more challenging. What would be a 2 minute converation between two english-speaking military officers or a 15 minute coversation working in an infantry unit through a local interpreter, becomes a 45 minute coversation going from english to arabic and back again through a civilian interpeter. The process goes something like this:
American Officer tries to translate American militar-ese into english to his interpreter.
Interpreter translates the english translation into Iraqi arabic.
Iraqi Officer tries to translate the Iraqi arabic into Iraqi militar-ese.
This process is obviously not complete with only one volley, as each turn provokes questions and clarifications that are not only linguistic, but cultural. The Iraqi military also has it's own way of doing things that is a whole other subject unto itself for another post. The bottom line is that nothing in this process that the US military finds itself engaged in here is easy. A two-page document translated from english into arabic still required a 90 minute conversation with one of the Staff Colonels here before he understood it, and it was already in his language. I need to spend less time sleeping and more time studying arabic...