Intelligence: November 10, 2002


U.S. troops are being prepared to use local interpreters if there is an invasion of Iraq. This will be unavoidable if there is a war. There is a severe shortage of uniformed and Department of Defense civilian Arabic translators, and it is expected that there will be a lot of pro-American, English speaking Iraqis willing to work as translators. From past experience in these situations, a number of procedures have been developed to use these linguists effectively.

When possible, the translators are formally hired, and an Arab speaking soldier is used to question the applicant to try and discover any potential problems (loyalty, honesty, awareness of what he's getting into and so on.) There are some very anti-American, and pro al Qaeda Iraqis who speak English and you want to avoid hiring a spy. Iraq has also suffered three decades of tyranny, when a lot of people have had to survive by regularly lying, cheating and stealing. You want your new translator to understand that he has to play by American rules while he's on the payroll. This is why you want an Arab speaking soldier or Department of Defense civilian to explain this touchy stuff in his native language, to avoid any misunderstanding or unintended insults. There are also religious and ethnic differences in Iraq that could make things dangerous for an Iraqi translator going into the wrong neighborhood. So you have to find out if your applicant can deal with that. 

In the initial stages of the war, combat commanders will sometimes have to accept the offer of translation services from an Iraqi he encounters during a battle. A lot of civilian casualties can be avoided if you have a translator along when you run into, say, some Iraqi secret police barricaded inside a building and ready to fight. They might even be using Iraqi civilians as human shields. An Iraqi translator can provide an opportunity to defuse this situation and get the secret policemen to surrender. These guys have probably been told by their superiors that the Americans will not be taking any of them alive, or perhaps the secret police are afraid that local Iraqis will kill them if they come out in the open. There are a lot of Iraqi civilians looking for payback after so many years of abuse in a police state. 

Combat commanders will have to use their judgment when taking on an Iraqi translator under these conditions. But even here, there are guidelines to make using these translators easier. First, keep these unscreened translators unarmed, and away from loose weapons. You are not sure whose side he is on. Assign him an armed escort, to protect him from hostile Iraqis, and American soldiers from the translator if he proves to be hostile. Also tell the translator immediately that he must translate exactly what he hears (whether it's into English or Arabic.) Insist that he ask for clarification if he's not sure. In many cultures, translators in these situations are reluctant to admit they don't understand something. Make sure, as much as possible, that your newfound translator understands that inaccuracy can get people killed and that it is the mark of a wise man (at least to Americans) to ask questions. 

The new translator must also be made to understand that he is getting himself into a dangerous situation. Most Iraqis have served in the army and your new translator will probably understand the need to keep down when the shooting starts and to only move when his American escort tells him to. The translator should also be given a quick briefing on how the unit he is with is armed and organized, and operates. American troops will already have been briefed on how the Iraqi army is organized, and urged to learn some basic Arabic phrases ("Surrender and you will not be harmed," "put your weapon down and your hands up," "are their any armed men in the building," "move this way," and so on.)

American troops are also taught to be careful what they say to local translators. Avoid slang, idioms ("so help me," "get a move on," "bust a cap on his ass") and speak in simple terms. Most translators will not be fluent English speakers, and many will be better at understanding spoken and written English than in speaking it because of lack of practice. American commanders also have to understand that serious negotiations, even under combat conditions, involve a lot more small talk and "getting to know you," when you are dealing with Arabs. Good manners go a long way, especially if you are trying to talk some Iraqi soldiers into surrendering, or helping you in taking care of some hostile Saddam loyalists. But it's also important that your translator understand the importance of making other Iraqis understand that Americans have to do things their way when there is fighting to be done. The translator should never be allowed to operate on his own, even if he insists that this might be beneficial. The American commander should talk directly to any non English speaking Iraqis, without turning to the translator and prefacing his remarks with things like "tell him I said." Just let the translator translate, and only ask for additional comments on the translation when necessary. 

Translators picked up during combat operations should be interviewed by Arabic speaking soldiers as soon as possible so they can be approved and put on the payroll. This will raise other problems, as your translator will instantly become a wealthier man and be tempted to use his connections with the Americans to help with other business dealings (getting goods, legal or otherwise, past checkpoints, selling consumer goods and souvenirs to soldiers, getting jobs for relatives and friends.) Commanders must make sure the translator understands what is permissible and what is not. 

Right behind the combat units (or right with them in some cases) there will be Special Forces and civil affairs troops who will be dealing with Iraqi civilians on a regular basis. These specialists will probably want to talk to your translator to check him out, and maybe hire him away if he's a skilled administrator or technical expert. This should not be a problem, as there are many thousands of Iraqis who speak English and most of those will be looking for work. The civil affairs troops will be there to get the economy going and taking care of the civilians. They will also be providing more translators for combat units that still need them.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close