Mids examine cultures

Academy turns to languages, politics in hot spots

May 15, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

The U.S. Naval Academy has expanded its curriculum to focus on the history, politics and cultural nuances of the hot spots where midshipmen are likely to serve.

The new training, the first of its kind among military academies, aims to give young officers the context they need to avoid decisions that will alienate the people they might be protecting.

This emphasis reflects major policy changes in the Defense Department, which declared in a 2005 report that language and cultural understanding are as important as "critical weapon systems." Over the next five years, the department will spend hundreds of millions of dollars implementing the new policies that are in part a response to the nation's war on terrorism.

"There is a growing consensus in the Department of Defense that beyond war fighting, beyond going out and blowing up things and killing people, ... the military has to start thinking about stability operations - stabilizing an area in order that peaceful solutions, political solutions can be worked out," William Miller, the academy's academic dean and a retired Marine Corps colonel, said in an interview.

"We need to start thinking about preparing our officers to lead in that environment, and that's what we're doing," he said.

The Annapolis military college is beefing up its language programs, hiring instructors in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Russian, and sending more than 100 Mids to 13 countries for language immersion and semester exchanges at foreign military academies.

A broader view

Matt Lampert, an academy senior, said he was enjoying this new thinking. The former sniper in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, summed up his training as an enlisted Marine in two words: kill and destroy.

"I think we've recognized that is not the answer all the time," said Lampert, now 25 and graduating this month. "In many of these situations that we find ourselves in all over the world, if a young lieutenant or captain goes in ... and screws it up, it can have a huge impact on national security."

The school recently created a Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies to give context to individual departments' teaching of the politics, economy, language and history of that region. Other centers specializing in Asia, Latin America and Africa may follow.

The centers will parallel "regional studies" majors the academy will offer starting next spring for the Class of 2010.

Faculty members have begun offering anthropology, literature and history courses that focus on certain regions as well. These include teaching about the Crusades from the Arab perspective, or multicultural literature.

Clementine Fujimura, a specialist in Russian languages and cultures, began teaching the school's inaugural anthropology class this semester: Cultural Anthropology for Military Application.

When she pushed for such a class in previous years, she said, academy leaders would tell her, "This is an engineering school," "Navy officers do not need language and cultural training" or "They're on boats, they're on planes and in submarines."

"When I started, our midshipmen would graduate with very little knowledge of the rest of the world, and I think that was a problem," said Fujimura. "And finally, after 9/11, our department is undergoing major changes."

On a small scale, the military has long trained service members in regional knowledge and languages. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., trains most enlisted language specialists, and the Foreign Area Officer program develops less traditional skills, such as negotiating with Latin American farmers as part of the U.S. war on drugs.

But military officials have acknowledged that these programs have fallen short during recent conflicts in the Middle East. To prepare a more "expeditionary" force that can be deployed on short notice all over the world, officials say, language and cultural training will be critical.

According to Pentagon figures, less than 10 percent of military service members - 247,000 in all - have some foreign language proficiency. That includes 17,000 who can speak Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Hindi, Farsi (the official language of Iran) and Urdu (spoken in Pakistan and India). About 20,000 active duty and reserve service members have had their skill certified and receive "proficiency pay," including 7,249 proficient in Arabic.

New emphasis

To increase the ranks of speakers of such critical or "investment" languages, the Defense Department will step up language training at the service academies, raise the pay of service members with foreign language skills, establish a 1,000-member civilian language corps and require language training among junior officers and language fluency for advancement to admiral or general.

These plans have trickled into the academy gradually in the past academic year. Courses are now offered in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Arabic.

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