Languages and war

Author: Hilary Footitt


'Foreign Affairs are no longer really foreign. What happens elsewhere increasingly affects us at home' (Jack Straw). This paper argues that there is a (so far) hidden languages history in international events. Using material on wars and occupation from 1943 up to Iraq today, the paper examines how foreign languages have been (and are being) represented in international conflict situations, looking at such questions as: how are participants in a conflict prepared linguistically? What importance do languages have in the process of occupation/regime change? What role do interpreters/translators have 'on the ground'? The paper concludes that the ways in which languages are represented in conflicts are key to our understanding of international relations today, and have important public policy implications.

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Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (108Kb)


I realise that a paper called 'Languages and War' probably doesn't fit in terribly well with the relentlessly positive ethos of International, but that is the paper I'm going to give, I'm afraid.

I think international relations, politics, are more central to us today than ever before, not least because it is evident that what happens outside the UK has a direct effect on what happens within the country. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw said, "foreign affairs are no longer really foreign. What happens elsewhere increasing affects us at home." I think that for those of us who are linguists, it often seems to be an unproblematic given that languages are axiomatically of key importance to international relations, that no matter what the international situation, languages must be a sort of neutral given. However, if you look at what the practitioners, those involved in foreign politics, actually say, foreign languages are in fact virtually invisible. The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations has no entry at all for languages, foreign languages, translating or interpreting, and one of the newest and most popular Anglophone international relations textbooks has similarly no mention of foreign languages.

Perhaps some of this problem, this failure to include languages in the analysis of international relations, could conceivably be our own fault. A tradition of analysis which tends to position languages as unproblematic, as obvious, means we may not see it as necessary to examine each specific context in international relations and see the speaking of languages within them as profoundly influenced by the sort of factors - the kind of economic, political and military factors - which condition all the other ways in which we relate internationally to other countries - to see languages, if you like, as part of the politics of international relations.

I want in this admittedly rather experimental paper to see how the place given to languages in international relations can be dramatically affected by the specific context in which they operate. And for this paper I am going to take an extreme example of international relations, which is war, largely because this is part of a much bigger project that I am beginning called 'Languages at War: the languages history of 20 th century wars and occupations.' And I'm going today to look very briefly at three very different war situations. I'm going to look at the 1944 liberation of Europe; I'm going to look at 1945-1946, the invasion and early occupation of Germany; and then finally March/April 2003 which were the very first stages of the Iraq war. So if I could take 1944 first, the liberation of Europe.

Europe in 1944, with the exception of Germany, was seen by the Allies as a war of liberation. Anglo-American troops would enter territory in which the civilian population would be friendly and well-disposed to them. They did not expect to be in the countries for very long, they were passing through on their way to the invasion and occupation of Germany. The Allied objective would therefore be to cement friendships in the short-term and in preparation for post war alliances. The subtext of much of the planning for the liberation of Europe was an implicit fear that once in these allied-friendly countries, the British and American soldiers, far from acting as good ambassadors, would actually end up behaving a good deal worse than the Germans had done. In the guides prepared for the British, Canadian and American troops, soldiers were warned about their behaviour. If they were going to France for example, "Don't drink yourself silly. If you get the chance to drink wine, learn to take it.The failure of some British troops to do so was the one point made against our men in France in 1939-1940, and again in North Africa." Allied command was faced with the fact that their soldiers would be entering a huge array of countries, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania. The language context of European liberation was thus thousands of men entering and passing through countries which were, or were to become, allies, with the nightmare scenario of possibly embarrassing bad behaviour - it's kind of like a travelling World Cup hooliganism scenario. In this situation, foreign languages were considered to be an important part of creating a good ambassador image. Clear efforts were made before the landings in Europe to prepare soldiers for what they would find linguistically. Concerted use was made of the radio and of the magazines and newspapers that the soldiers received for free. Thus, before the D-Day landings, the American Forces Network in Britain ran a series of brief French lessons, from 11.50am - 12, repeating the same phrases each day in the week over six weeks. The phrases for the coming week were printed beforehand in the American troop magazine Yank The first three weeks' phrases were the expected 'good day', the 'where are?' questions, and the 'I don't understand, speak slowly please'. Weeks four and five were rather more military - 'where is the nearest aircraft landing area?' - and the final week, headed 'Here Are The Ones You've Been Waiting For', featured 'do you want a cigarette?', 'I am/am not married', and ominously, 'my wife doesn't understand me.'

In addition, from September 1944 to May 1945, the American troop newspaper 'Stars and Stripes' ran a daily French phrase on the front page, next to its banner title, and even a Russian phrase for five days in May 1945. The British and Americans also included a section on the foreign language in the pocket guides that they produced for their soldiers for each country they were to enter. Early on, the War Office had prepared vocabulary lists in German, Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian and Greek. The foreign office, believe it or not, set up a Vocabulary Sub-Committee to sort out exactly how the language side of preparing troops for liberation should be handled. There was some discussion about whether they should issue a separate phrase book, but in the end it was agreed to have a standard vocabulary in each pocket booklet, so that there was one for each country, together with the standard system - which was Hugo's - for phonetics.

What I think was particularly interesting about all this linguistic preparatory effort was the actual positioning of languages, the ways in which foreign languages were represented, and I want to make just four points about this.

Firstly, foreign language was seen as being part of the natural fighting experience of the Allies. The Americans reminded their soldiers that the allied fighting forces were themselves polyglot. At Cassino, Yank magazine correspondent noted that "the soldiers were evidently of several different nationalities because we heard voices crying out warning in French and English, and sometimes in Italian." At Eastern command, GIs in Russia were depicted as communicating with their Russian colleagues. "The GIs have picked up some Russian in exchange for their American slang, and have given the words their own jive twist." Of course many American troops themselves came from immigrant backgrounds where the languages in question were or would have been spoken, and this natural advantage was treated in a generally positive way. The soldiers' guide to Italy explained that, "if you an American of Italian origin, you will be sure of a warm welcome anywhere."

The second point that I want to make is that language acquisition was represented to the soldier as a doable, obtainable skill. For example, "it is quite easy to learn to read Danish, but much more difficult to pronounce it. However, if you use the word and phrase list below, by speaking extremely slowly you should be able to make yourself understood." Norwegian: "Norwegian is not a very difficult language for English speaking people to pick up." Even a language like Serbo-Croat was placed in this realm of the linguistically possible. "Serbo-Croat is not easy for us, but in its favour, and unlike English, it is pronounced just as it is written, so once you have mastered the sounds made by the individual letters it is easy to read. "

My third point: with this positive positioning of foreign languages went an encouragement to become what I think we would call an 'aware language learner', one who capitalises on what they see in the foreign country. In Romania, for example, "use your eyes and ears. You will pick up a lot by reading notices in the streets and shops and headlines in newspapers." Even in war-torn Normandy, the American troop newspaper Stars and Stripes told their fighting men that they could learn linguistically from the physical landscape of the country and from what they saw from the ground. The newspaper suggested they should note the église, the mairie and then a, "sample list of the signs you see over the French shops in any town where you happen to be".

And fourthly, the representation of the expected troop-foreigner relationship was one of linguistic co-operation and courtesy. In France, " it is never very easy to make yourself understood at first in a foreign language and it may be even less easy to understand a Frenchman's reply. If you find someone who knows a little English, speak very slowly and distinctly. If you are trying to understand French, get the speaker to say the words slowly, or if it would help, to write down the words clearly." In Romania, the soldiers were told to ask questions which were likely to aid, rather than hinder, communication. "Never ask a question which requires a long answer." Several guides warned the men against shouting loudly in English. "Don't shout when you're talking to a Dane, this won't help them to understand."

So, just to summarise briefly: in the context of war as a passing relationship, with Allies whose good opinion was important to the winning of the war and to the building of future alliances in post-war Europe, foreign languages were part of the good ambassador image - so they were, in some measure at least, planned in. They were presented as a natural feature of a polyglot force and as a doable, accessible skill, which could be further developed on the ground. A linguistically co-operative approach stood as proxy for the friendly and civilized intentions of the incoming armies.

I'm going to move now to my second case study which is the invasion and occupation of Germany 1945-1946. Now here obviously the context was entirely different. The Allies were fighting a war of invasion with an enemy that they suspected might carry on fighting clandestinely even when they appeared to be beaten. In this context it was important to ensure that soldiers went on identifying the enemy as the enemy, and kept as large a distance as possible between themselves and the German civilian. Whereas the subtext in the preparation for troops for the liberation of Europe had been that they might end up behaving a good deal worse than the Germans had, the subtext of preparations for troops to enter Germany was that the soldiers, seeing how decimated Germany actually was, might find themselves moved to compassion by the sorry state of the country and its civilians. Troops were therefore told that the Germans were alien to them, "don't be taken in by surface resemblances between the Germans and ourselves, underneath we are very different." The policy was to keep a clear physical distance between the German people and the Allied troops, it was called 'non-fraternisation.' Troops were to live in segregated quarters. Activities which might conceivably bring American or British personnel into the same personal space as that of Germans were to be explicitly prohibited. "The following must be prohibited: visiting German homes, drinking with Germans, shaking hands with them, accompanying Germans on the streets." So seriously was this policy of non-fraternisation initially taken, that the army issued a memorandum detailing how soldiers should be punished for possible breaches. Infringements classified as minor included: ogling of women and girls, shaking hands with Germans, and small gifts to Germans, including children, for example a piece of chocolate. In the documents I have seen the Foreign Office has written over this, "what a load of rubbish!"

This particular context of non-fraternisation, of enforced distance, had some important implications for languages. Linguistically the policy manifested itself in 'an English first and English above all' approach. By ordinance, the official language of the military government was planned to be English. There was, however, some uncertainty as to how this dominance of English was to operate in every day practice. Did the policy mean that English had to be used in every single situation? As one senior officer pointed out, "theoretically it may be extremely desirable to speak one's own language to inhabitants, and put the onus of understanding what is intended on them. Practically, though, the results of such a course would be delays and confusion." In any case, German was positioned as the language of last resort for the troops. The soldiers were explicitly told, "English is taught in all German secondary schools, so that many Germans have at least a smattering of English. In the depths of the country or in working class districts you may have to speak German, if you cannot get through with the language of signs." Unlike the languages of the rest of Europe, the linguistic preparation given to troops before they reached Germany was perfunctory. In comparison with the really quite sustained Allied attempts to teach their soldiers French, there was only one radio week teaching German, which Yank magazine trailed as 'combat German'. Rather than the personal relationships vocabulary which had certainly been included in the French lessons, the German taught on the radio and in the troop newspaper largely consisted of orders: "stand up, come here, shut up, surrender, wash my clothes, report tomorrow morning". Rather than linguistic co-operation, the soldiers were told that the important thing was to maintain a power relationship with German civilians. "It won't make much difference how we speak Deutsch - our accent may be lousy, our words may be wrong, our grammar may stink, but the German WILL understand."

Whereas speaking other languages as part of your immigrant heritage had been treated positively for the liberation of Europe, German bi-lingualism was perceived with suspicion. In a long two-page article in the troop magazine Yank, headlined 'they thought he was a Kraut', the soldiers were told the nightmare story of a wounded GI who was mistaken for a German, and spent 31 days as an American prisoner of war. Key in this narrative was the fact that the GI had unwisely started talking in German to a German medic helping out in the ward. So speaking German too well might possibly land you with severe identity problems.

In this situation of invasion, the foreign language was presented as irrelevant- English would dominate; as needed hardly at all and then only in combat, rather than civilian situations; and as potentially causing problems to the Anglophone speaker if he unfortunately spoke it too well.

The Allies were of course not only invading but also occupying Germany, and this naturally meant that they had to prepare a cadre of personnel who would take on the actual running of the country. Language experience was theoretically part of the required profile for such officers, but this had to be balanced with perceived military effectiveness and with specialist knowledge of a required area like labour, law or public works. In practice I think it would be fair to say that languages came a rather poor third in these recruitment stakes. The official historian of British Civil Affairs pointed out in retrospect that, "linguistic experts tended to be poor risks from a security point of view, and were frequently not persons who could gain the confidence of soldiers. The conclusion was early reached that it is better to have a really good man who is not a linguist, rather than a doubtful man who possesses outstanding linguistic qualifications." In some cases there was a type of suspicion about the sort of person who was likely to be good at languages. Thus the men who had been trained at the Cambridge Intelligence School, were seen as long-haired intellectuals who are the, "kind that study languages and other studies of intelligence interest and travel extensively." In practice the actual place of languages in some of the training programmes for the occupation of Germany for this cadre of personnel was tenuous. In the US, the curriculum at the Civil Affairs School at Charlottesville, Virginia, paid negligible attention to language instruction. As one commentator suggested, trainees who'd entered with only a smattering of knowledge of German history, politics, economics, social institutions and psychology, left with not a great deal more. The stress was on military governmental problems and solutions, and the tendency of the curriculum was to take a broad, generic approach which implied that occupying Burma or occupying Bulgaria would actually be much the same. But I would say that supporting the American Civil Affairs training programme was a network of American universities and they tended to have a great deal more language instruction - the programme at Yale had something like 75% of the course as language. In the British model too, languages were included from the beginning, with one sixth of a nine week course being for language instruction, the aim being to provide, "an elementary course in German for all students, designed to give a vocabulary of 800-1,000 words and phrases in common use in Germany." On the whole, however, languages were not explicitly integrated into the main teaching mode, which was syndicate based exercises, where students were given preparatory material and then set an on-the-ground problem to solve. One course, for example, set students to practise a role play a first interview with a German official, but there was really no mention in the role play of the active use of the foreign language.

Whilst undoubtedly language tuition was present to variable degrees in the preparation for those who were going to rule Germany, once in the country, the situation - and I'm talking 1945-1946 - was less one of direct communication between Allied officers and German civilians, and more one of communication via the medium of interpreters. The position of interpreters and translators in Germany - particularly in the early days of occupation - was crucial, a fact that appeared to gave them a power resented by many. Interpreters were often perceived as - and of course often were - marginal people. They might be recent immigrants to the USA; they might be refugees returning to Germany with the Allies, never fully integrated into Anglo-Saxon society, and now of course totally outside the Germany society to which they had returned. The mixture of the importance of their position - without them things could hardly be got moving again - and the uncertainty about their origins and background, served to make the space occupied by translators and interpreters an inherently unstable and uneasy one. British army officers observed that the message itself that interpreters communicated might well be contaminated: "Good interpreters are rare, and often translate in such a way as to stress what they personally desire." In this scenario, feedback on language training for Allied personnel began to suggest that the aim of language tuition should now be to enable Anglophone officers to keep some kind of check and control over the potentially usurping power of the linguistically capable interpreter.

In these first years of occupation, at least until the onset of the Cold War, the physical gap between Anglo-Saxon occupiers and German occupied was rigorously maintained. The French had taken the decision, and it was partly a financial one, to billet soldiers with German families, and they adopted a more overtly cultural approach, assigning French language teachers to all the secondary schools in their zone. The Americans and British on the other hand lived quite separately, in their own segregated barracks and headquarters, and the linguistic gap between them mirrored this physical divide. As one commentator put it, they were, "little islands apart, unable to communicate with the Germans." Estimates suggested that not more than 5% of American military officers in Germany had, "sufficient knowledge to understand the German officials with whom they had to deal, to read the German newspapers and reports, and to carry out the simplest conversation in German." When in 1949, in the much-changed Cold War context, the British established a policy of requiring German fluency for their Control Commission personnel, it was still apparently necessary to urge Britons to, "use German where possible in dealing with both private and official contacts."

So to summarise briefly, as far as the occupation of Germany was concerned, preparing linguistically for the occupation certainly showed an intention to include languages, coupled with some major difficulties in actually integrating the language into the curricula, and, I think, an apparent sub textual suspicion about the type of people who are good at languages. In practice there was considerable reliance on interpreters, with a suspicion about the provenance and intentions of these intermediate people. And living in close proximity with foreigners in an occupation situation did not appear to change linguistic attitudes over a long period, so cultural exchange pre Cold-War was positioned largely as a one-way street.

And if I've got time I'd like to deal with my final case study, which is briefer.

My final case study is the first part of the war in Iraq, March-April 2003. Operation 'Shock and Awe', the invasion of Iraq, was part of what was termed in military circles, 'the doctrine of rapid dominance'. This doctrine had been formulated originally to address the implications of a reduced US army and a situation in which Information Technology was increasingly integrated into warfare. Its key tenets were superior technology, precision engagement and information dominance. In terms of the invasion of Iraq this suggested a technologically highly sophisticated, short sharp operation where technology would largely replace face-to-face combat. Troops would not see much of the enemy or civilian. The vantage point would be in the air, or a position distant from the enemy and only bridged by rocket launchers. The language history of the early months of invasion was positioned in the same way. Language problems were largely treated as technology soluble. Sophisticated information transfer could be used. Thus, part of operation 'Shock and Awe' was the dropping of more than 40 million Arabic leaflets over Iraq. The Coalition used mobile phones to send text messages to Iraqi commanders, exhorting them not to fight. Where civilians might be encountered, technology could provide a push-button solution. Phraselaters were to be used by units on the ground. These are those rapid multilingual support units which were developed by MIT and which had already been trialled in Afghanistan. They have about 1,000 phrases that the speaker would use in normal specific tasks like, be quiet, drop the gun, hands up, and the unit projects phrases through a built-in speaker, but it can be hooked up to loudspeakers as well. It very soon became clear that technology alone would not do the linguistic trick. Events moved fast, pushing troops into situations of close contact with Iraqi civilians almost immediately, and here they were clearly linguistically unprepared.

Fergal Keane, BBC Special Correspondent, pointed out, that just 24 hours after the fall of Saddam in Baghdad, people watched American troops at check points looking very frightened a great deal of the time, "unable in most cases that I came across" - this is Fergal Keane - "to speak the local language, because they did not have interpreters with them". In effect, the technology soluble approach to language, which might have worked in a rapid dominance war, was to prove highly problematic as the troops moved in record time from a war to a peacekeeping situation. By April 2003 in a matter of weeks, there was a serious incident in Al-Falluja, when ,according to Iraqi protesters, US military fired on them without provocation, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70. The officer in charge told the subsequent Human Rights Watch investigation that he had tried to build up good relations with the community, inviting locals in and sending out patrols on foot, but that, "he was limited by a lack of translators."

So to summarise then, a war fought under the doctrine of rapid dominance positioned language issues as technology soluble, as ultimately not about face-to-face encounter, and obviously as we know, as the war changed to peacekeeping, the limitations of the language model used in the early weeks in Iraq were as clearly exposed as the limitations of the doctrine of rapid dominance.


And I'd like very briefly now to move to my conclusion. I believe that these three case studies suggest two things. One, that there is a so far largely hidden languages history in international events, and that it is a history which is recoverable with research. And secondly, and much more importantly, that the ways in which we represent foreign languages in international relations are strongly conditioned by the specific political, economic and military contexts of these relationships. Languages are not therefore an unproblematic, neutral given, a 'good thing' that we don't really need to discuss or analyse. They are indisputably, in my view, part of the politics of international relations, whether that's war and conflict, whether that's international aid efforts - with the Tsunami - whether that's international development, whether that's international climate change. In doing my ongoing research on languages and the Iraq war, I had an interview with a senior British officer who had just returned from Iraq. He had clearly been struck, as never before, by the linguistic implications of a war which was changing its shape and its aims before his very eyes. "Do you have people at universities who study that sort of thing?" he asked rather desperately. "Is that what being a linguist is?" You see, I actually think it is. I think we need, as linguists, to be crossing a few frontiers of our own, and arguing that languages are part of any analysis of international relations: that there is a different and specific language dimension in any international event. Integrating languages into these debates is a complex affair. It is not a matter of saying 'languages equal peace', or 'languages help you to be nicer to foreigners.' Languages are part of international politics, and I think the sooner we say that, the sooner we will find I suspect that foreign languages are publicly more valued and that public rhetoric about them will change. And frankly, if we aren't going to cross these borders and say this, whoever else is going to do it?