In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. military is fairly good at projecting power. Indeed, the military prides itself on “global reach, global power,” achieved through a worldwide system of bases and funded by enormous amounts of “defense” spending. What the U.S. military is not so good at is understanding foreign cultures. Often, it seems the number one goal of military interventions is selling weapons to armies in the countries in which the U.S. military intervenes, so-called foreign military sales or FMS for short. This is true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now many countries in Africa, as Nick Turse has shown in several groundbreaking articles at TomDispatch.com.
The U.S. military is “can-do” when it comes to projecting power, and “can-do” when it comes to building host nation armies (of course, the reliability of those armies, such as the Afghan National Army, is often highly suspect, even after a decade of training and billions of dollars in weapons and related equipment). But what the military always gives short-shrift to is cultural understanding. Cultural gaps are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant (“Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”) or bridged in ways that ultimately reveal how little we know about the foreign peoples on the receiving end of American largesse.
I learned this firsthand about ten years ago when I was at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Of all things my lesson came as the result of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song. While I was the Associate Provost at DLI, the school received an urgent request from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.
Yet, translating this feel-good song of tolerance into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lyrics posed problems of translation. What about that geeky American boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hailed from Middle Eastern countries, explained that in Iraq he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that American girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to have access to orthodontia. In an Iraqi cultural context, laughing at geeks with glasses or girls with braces just didn’t translate.
And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”? Best not go there, we concluded.
I learned a lot from this experience. If we can’t translate seemingly harmless song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how do we expect to “translate” democracy?
It seems the military’s answer to this is to focus on what needs no translation: violence. So the goal is to build host armies and police forces and to sell them weapons while building fortress-like American embassies (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or American bases (which are mini-fortresses) to watch over the benighted buggers of the world.
Some might say that warm guns serve as universal translators. But a harsher conclusion is this: That we are indeed translating our culture overseas: a culture built less on tolerance than it is on violence.