Many Americans who have studied World War II are familiar with the Navajo code talkers recruited by the U.S. Marines during World War II in the Pacific theater to transmit information in Navajo, a language which the Japanese did not know and which their code breakers could not decipher. The story of the code talkers was popularized in the 2002 Hollywood drama “Windtalkers.” They deserve the attention: they were instrumental in communications in the run-up at Iwo Jima.
Less known, however, is the fact that the Navajo code talkers were not the first Native Americans used to pass military codes: During World War I, Choctaw speakers played the same function, often with real impact against the Germans.
The two World Wars were the 20th century. The challenges facing the United States in the 21st century will be just as challenging, even if not as direct and hopefully not as bloody. China’s rise might be nowhere near as dangerous as China beginning to sputter and then fall. Russia’s resurgence should be a lesson that diplomatic wishful thinking cannot trump reality. Then there’s the radical Islamist threat. The Islamic State is no longer just about Iraq and Syria. It or its affiliates are now present in the Sinai, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and they claim to be infiltrating even farther into the Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, language instruction in the United States remains moribund. That old joke — someone who speaks three languages is called “trilingual”; someone who speaks two languages is called “bilingual”; someone who speaks one language is called “American” — still applies. Sure, many universities run programs and receive millions of dollars in federal grants to support studies in languages like Arabic or Chinese that are critical to national security but, as Martin Kramer has shown repeatedly, such Title VI programs seldom result in fluency let alone even proficiency, and that universities regularly siphon such funds off into overhead or into often-irrelevant cultural or political programs.
But that’s only a fraction of a problem that is looming and which neither universities nor the broader U.S. government are prepared to address: There is little or no familiarity in the United States with various Siberian indigenous languages, some local tongues the Han Chinese haven’t stamped out, or many of the local or tribal language spoken in portions of Africa that have come under radical sway or soon may. The brilliant anthropologist and Somali expert Anna Simons has written about the “reverse windtalkers” phenomenon (her book The Sovereignty Solution should also be a must-read in these troubled times). Take Chad, for example: There are over 120 indigenous languages spoken in Chad, ranging from Bua (with less than 30,000 speakers) to Maba (with 120,000 speakers) and then a host of Chadic languages such as Tumak, Zaar, or Bole. Chad is just one example. Add Nigeria, northern Pakistan, or Indonesia to the mix, and the problem becomes daunting.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives might know not to speak on cell phones and, regardless of what is said, there is always a danger of allowing American analysts to pinpoint locations. But, the National Security Agency isn’t able to translate let alone analyze even a fraction of what it might gather, instead often relying on algorithms of analyzing ‘chatter.’ And, if among that chatter, there are Bua speakers passing words from leadership to terror cells, then they might be able essentially to give orders and pivot operations to deadly effect.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Sometimes, language study is hard work. During the height of the British Empire, British strategists identified young officers with linguistic potential and inserted them in areas where they had little choice but to learn local languages and dialects. Arabic 101 can no longer cut it, nor should marketability be the only determining factor. The U.S. military’s Foreign Area Officers might learn the big languages, but with frequent transfers and other career responsibilities, they can hardly focus on the minor languages. Nor is the Intelligence Community prepared. How unfortunate language expertise is dwindling, just when it might be needed to save lives and protect U.S. national security.