Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Translate

Monday, July 28th, 2008

So if you’ve been watching HBO’s phenomenal series Generation Kill (and man, how great was last night’s episode?), you’ll note the problems the 1st Recon Battalion has with its Iraqi translator. The character who represents reporter Evan Wright expresses some surprise to learn that “translator” was singular–as in, the lead battalion going into Iraq only had one. And the translator isn’t even a member of the military. He’s an Arab they’ve hired who steals from Iraqis, is rather unreliable (they have to postpone the invasion due to his tardiness), and he seems prone to “translating” what the Iraqis are saying into grand gestures of praise and thanks for the American liberators. Which of course doesn’t do much good when the Marines need to know what the Iraqis are actually saying.

It leaves you wondering, how the hell could there be no one in the entire military be fluent in Arabic? As it turns out, there were plenty of people who could speak Arabic–probably nowhere near enough, but certainly enough that we could have outfitted our initial invading battalions with more than one.

What happened? Well, thanks to Congress, the military kicked many of them out. Because they’re gay. Worse, even after all of this came out, and after it became known that the troops in Iraq were having communications problems with the Iraqis because of the language barrier, the purges continued. As of May of last year, we’d booted some 58 Arab linguists because they violated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

(An unrelated question is why so homosexuals in the military end up becoming linguists–or why so many military linguists get outted. And please, no “cunning linguist” jokes. I’m trying to make a point, here, dammit.)

All of which brings me to this completely ridiculous story about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearings on Capitol Hill last week. The “star” of the hearing was barking homophobe Elaine Donnelly, who…well…just read on.

Donnelly treated the panel to an extraordinary exhibition of rage. She warned of “transgenders in the military.” She warned that lesbians would take pictures of people in the shower. She spoke ominously of gays spreading “HIV positivity” through the ranks.

“We’re talking about real consequences for real people,” Donnelly proclaimed. Her written statement added warnings about “inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community,” the prospects of “forcible sodomy” and “exotic forms of sexual expression,” and the case of “a group of black lesbians who decided to gang-assault” a fellow soldier.

At the witness table with Donnelly, retired Navy Capt. Joan Darrah, a lesbian, rolled her eyes in disbelief. Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, a gay man who was wounded in Iraq, looked as if he would explode.

Inadvertently, Donnelly achieved the opposite of her intended effect. Though there’s no expectation that Congress will repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow gays to serve openly in the military, the display had the effect of increasing bipartisan sympathy for the cause.

[...]

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), a veteran of the war in Iraq, called Donnelly’s words “an insult to me and many of the soldiers” by saying they “aren’t professional enough to serve openly with gay troops while successfully completing their military mission.”

Retorted Donnelly: “What would you say to Cynthia Yost, the woman on a training exercise assaulted by a group of lesbians?”

The case Donnelly was referring to allegedly happened in 1974.

Oddly enough, Donnelly’s non-profit is called the Center for Military Readiness.

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30 Responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Translate”

  1. #1 |  nicole | 

    Re: the unrelated question. I was a linguistics major in college and at the time there was one straight guy in my program. He’s out now. (There weren’t many men in my program to begin with, but seriously, not a single straight one. And more than one male prof was also gay.)

    On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure why this carries over to the military. A few of the “linguists” in question are actually linguists, but the vast majority are just language specialists trained at the Defense Language Institute. Super specialized and super valuable, yes, but I don’t know why the press always refers to them as “linguists”—and the phrase “Arabic linguists” makes very little sense in the context of actual linguistics.

  2. #2 |  chance | 

    In the barracks the showers have stalls, and in the field you are way too tired to care about sex with the joes or janes next to you, and they haven’t had a shower in weeks -not too sexy.

    The biggest problems with gays in the military will be homophobes attacking them (like PV2 Winchell in the 101st) and fraternization. The first problem will dissipate in time, and the second isn’t a new problem, nor exclusively a sexual one, nor a particularly big one.

  3. #3 |  Edintally | 

    Nicole, any idea why gay men gravitate (if they do) to languages?

    Repub/Conserv. women are scary. It’s unnerving to hear or read vicious bile spewing from a woman’s lips (that might be sexist but still true). No wonder we keep hearing stories of Repub. men getting caught with prostitutes or other men (maybe it’s genetic for most but repub. men are pushed into it :) j/k)

  4. #4 |  words twice | 

    “An unrelated question is why so homosexuals in the military end up becoming linguists–or why so many military linguists get outted.”

    I served, and I did also perform interpreter duties on occasion. The lack of skilled interpreters and translators has been a problem for many years and has nothing to do with “don’t ask, don’t tell”. I suspect that many interpreters “outed” themselves to avoid serving.

    Frankly, this attempt to link the policy with lessened readiness is pretty weak. Americans in general are not exactly famous for their mastery of foreign languages, and the military is no exception.

    I personally could care less what people do on their off time. But I do think that the current policy serves more to dissuade obnoxious activism than as a sinister, bigoted persecution of homosexuals.

  5. #5 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    So Elaine Donnelly would rather boot qualified linguists that might improve the effectiveness of the armed forces in mid-east battle zones than deal with thought of “scary” gay folks on the battle field. Tell me Mrs. Donnelly, why do you hate America? Heh heh, I had to do it! Regarding Edin’s comment, I think the scary nature of the uber-conservative woman may have something to do with the phenomenon of the oppressed trying to impress their opressors by being frighteningly authoritarian. Case study #2: Alan Keyes.

  6. #6 |  The Brown Acid | 

    Anyone know where I can stream episodes of Generation Kill? I won’t be near American television for another 2 weeks and I’d like to check the series out.

  7. #7 |  nicole | 

    Edintally, it’s hard for me to say other than to resort to anecdote, I’m not sure if it would even be possible to get statistics on something like this. In addition to linguistics I did a lot of coursework in German and Italian and both of those were also weighted toward females and gay males, but the entire arts faculty was (social sciences plus humanities). At least at my school, straight men really did do engineering or hard sciences or business (many women did too, but virtually all the heterosexual males were segregated into these faculties). It sounds ridiculous and stereotypical, but anyone who spent any time as a single girl in the social sciences or humanities noticed it—oh, and I only graduated three years ago, so this wasn’t really back in the day or anything.

    My guess with the military, though, has always been that gay men seem more likely to choose further extremely high-level education—they are more likely to have finished college to begin with, I’m sure—over more physical assignments.

  8. #8 |  ktc2 | 

    I aced the DLAB and was asked to joint MI for translator but my past was . . . too colorful for the clearance. I’m not gay, and really don’t care who is/isn’t. I served as a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist instead (lol, can’t translate no clearance but hey you can work with nukes, bugs and gas!).

  9. #9 |  tjbbpgob | 

    I don’t know anything about linguist (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but I have had personal experience with a translator in the V.N. war. Ours claimed to be a former soldier when the French were in-country and to have fought for them. I wasn’t sure. On a mission in Happy Valley in 1965 he and I went into a vc bunker in a village that was full of piasters and intelligence type paperwork. While I got out the paperwork he was busy stuffing his pockets with the money. We had to take it away from him and send him back to the rear as he was useless in his role.

  10. #10 |  Former Army | 

    Nicole: The word linguist has always been defined as one who studies languages. It has been in use since the 17th century. The term linguistics has only been around since the mid-19th. Prior to that philology was understood to be the scientific study of languages. Those who worked in the field would more accurately have been called philologists, not linguists. The military use of the term is more historically correct.

  11. #11 |  Former Army | 

    words twice maintains: ‘I served, and I did also perform interpreter duties on occasion. The lack of skilled interpreters and translators has been a problem for many years and has nothing to do with “don’t ask, don’t tell”.’

    Booting trained linguists because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” very definitely has something to do with the shortage of trained linguists. Here is an example. Gas is in short supply. If I burn a bunch of perfectly good barrels of gas because some stupid regulation dictates that I must do so, that stupid regulation is now contributing to the shortage of gas. Does it make sense to you now, or is logic in short supply on your planet?

    words twice speculates: ‘I suspect that many interpreters “outed” themselves to avoid serving.’

    I was at DLI when many of those linguists were outed and knew most of them at least in passing. A few were in my platoon. The reason so many were “outed” is because many of them were busted during an early morning health and welfare inspection that occurred over a weekend. Following that, a few more officially outed themselves because they no longer felt welcome. So far as I know, few to none outed themselves to avoid serving. Keep your bullshit speculation to yourself.

  12. #12 |  Les | 

    I personally could care less what people do on their off time. But I do think that the current policy serves more to dissuade obnoxious activism than as a sinister, bigoted persecution of homosexuals.

    If you support keeping homosexuals out of the military, then the first sentence above is blatantly false. Whether or not it’s purposefully dishonest is a question you should ask yourself.

    The second sentence is intellectual nonsense, as any philosophy which assumes negative behavior based on an individual’s group, is, by definition, bigoted. “Obnoxious activism?” Please.

  13. #13 |  old | 

    My guess is that as long as there has been organized armies there have been gays in those armies. Personally, I the only thing I would give a damn about my comrades was if they could do their job, or not.

  14. #14 |  ParatrooperJJ | 

    Blood supply.

  15. #15 |  chance | 

    What about the blood supply?

  16. #16 |  VaBear | 

    Para and Chance:

    According to the American Red Cross, if you admit to being a homosexual you are permanently disqualified from donating, even if you have NEVER tested positive for any STD.

    I am a homosexual, but I never tell them that!

  17. #17 |  nicole | 

    VaBear: Is that true for all homosexuals, or only men who have sex with men? I too am permanently disqualified by the Red Cross due to time spent in Europe; I imagine soldiers stationed in Germany for more than six months would be as well.

  18. #18 |  The Other Jeff | 

    I talked to an officer who recently finished his language training and was heading for Iraq. His new language? Russian. He said he knew someone who’d learned Arabic and was being posted to one of the former-Soviet Stans.

  19. #19 |  One Fine Jay » When the mouth becomes mirror to the soul | 

    [...] followed a link from Radley Balko to a WaPo article about DADT that featured the ravings of one Elaine Donnelly. (Her written [...]

  20. #20 |  Erin | 

    My experience in the linguistic discipline has also anecdotally revealed a preponderance of gay men. I don’t have any insight as to why homosexuals would gravitate to the field of linguistics, but my classmates have hypothesized about the ‘other’ness that people who study linguistics generally come in with–many folks who become linguists (in the academic rather than military sense) have had experience living somewhere they do not speak the native language, where they may feel like they don’t belong. Perhaps there is a parallel in this feeling of not belonging and the one homosexuals have in a hetero world.

    @ Former Army:
    A word sense that is older than another is not “more right” than the younger sense. It’s just necessary to understand the right sense in the right context, which Nicole may have forgotten. :) (And of course I sympathize with this frustration over there being two kinds of linguists, as it is my profession, but it’s the same as there being two kinds of coders in my office (computer programmer or medical specialist) or multiple kinds of skaters in the park (wheels on a board or wheels on the feet).)

  21. #21 |  roy | 

    There have been many male-on-female rapes in the military as well. By Donnelly’s reasoning, we shouldn’t allow straight soldiers either. We’ll have to go to war with eunuchs.

  22. #22 |  ParatrooperJJ | 

    HIV is passed mainly thru anal sex. Why would the military want to increase its exposure by allowing the most common risk group to join? Keep in mind that direct blood transfusions are a common occurance every day in combat.

  23. #23 |  Former Army | 

    Erin: Whoops. I should have simply said the military usage is correct as opposed to “more” correct.

    Paratrooper: The military ALREADY allows gays to join, so long as they keep quiet about it and deny their lifestyle. It has never been an issue of anal sex (which many heterosexuals enjoy) or STDs (which many heterosexuals have) or “blood transfusions in combat” (that’s a first). It has always been about the perceived homophobia of the military, and the “fact” that serving with gays would supposedly affect the morale and cohesion of the Army’s mostly straight units. My experience has been that this false in at least the military intelligence/linguist community. We all knew those “outed” soldiers were gay anyway, but nobody cared. Nobody’s morale seemed to be affected because we had to share the occasional shower or tent, and nobody was worried about getting a blood transfusion from an AIDS-infected gay soldier, especially given that the entire military is forced to test yearly. The military should at the very least do as they do with female soldiers and allow gays to openly serve in non-combat roles.

  24. #24 |  aubryknight | 

    Sorry, but if you have never served, you really cannot understand this issue.
    Let me ask a question for all you who think this is not going to be a problem. If it is no problem for me to crap, shower, shave, eat, sleep and be naked in an intamit setting with a gay male, why is it a problem for me to do it with a women?
    A logical solution would be to do away with all gender issues in the military and treat everyone the same! No mens and womens showers, barracks or bathrooms, every one gets there head shaved and stands around half dressed whenever orderd. Seems simple enough to me.

  25. #25 |  aubryknight | 

    We may also want to relize that combat arms units are much different from other military units. I remember seeing other uniits that were like a 9-5 job with non of the continual basic training bullshit as in the infantry.

  26. #26 |  Former Army | 

    “Sorry, but if you have never served, you really cannot understand this issue.”

    I have served. The issue is not with homosexuals but with a bunch of homophobic narcissists who consider themselves so attractive that they think those gay boys just won’t be able to restrain themselves.

    “Let me ask a question for all you who think this is not going to be a problem. If it is no problem for me to crap, shower, shave, eat, sleep and be naked in an intamit (sic) setting with a gay male, why is it a problem for me to do it with a women (sic)?”

    Nobody is asking you to date these men. If you ever find yourself naked in an “intamit” setting with a gay man, don’t blame policy. Additionally, I fail to see the intimacy involved in crapping and shaving. I’m assuming you’re single.

    “A logical solution would be to do away with all gender issues in the military and treat everyone the same! No mens and womens showers, barracks or bathrooms, every one gets there (sic) head shaved and stands around half dressed whenever orderd (sic). Seems simple enough to me.”

    Somehow I doubt it is gay servicemen sexually assaulting 1 in 3 servicewomen. Gay soldiers normally have no problem keeping their hands to themselves.

    “We may also want to relize (sic) that combat arms units are much different from other military units. I remember seeing other uniits (sic) that were like a 9-5 job with non (sic) of the continual basic training bullshit as in the infantry.”

    I definitely detect at least on big difference…

  27. #27 |  old | 

    #24 | aubryknight | July 29th, 2008 at 8:56 pm
    Sorry, but if you have never served, you really cannot understand this issue.
    Let me ask a question for all you who think this is not going to be a problem. If it is no problem for me to crap, shower, shave, eat, sleep and be naked in an intamit setting with a gay male, why is it a problem for me to do it with a women?…

    Actually, the odds are you probably have done one of those things with a gay male depending on your age, and how many locker room type situations you have been in.

  28. #28 |  old | 

    Also, if you have watched Generation Kill listen to the language the characters use with one another.

  29. #29 |  AirForce Linguist | 

    I went through DLI and a lot of my friends were gay or bi-sexual (also not allowed under don’t ask, don’t tell). And all through my active duty time I had gay friends, some of whom (mostly women) were kicked out because of this policy.

    Some of you may even remember the story from 1999 or 2000 that hit national news of the homosexual “witch hunts” that occured there. Members of the Air Force leadship chain all but ordered their “trusted” student leaders to “find the gays, I won’t have gays in my Air Force” and that’s what they did. The student leaders had very close and intimate access to all of us via inspections, formations, etc and everyone knew who was straight and who wasn’t. These “leaders” then would go back to their higher ups and say “Soandso is gay, and here’s the proof.”

    To answer Radley’s “unrelated question,” DLI is as close to a college/high school atmosphere as one is going to find in the military. It tends to be a bit more laid back due to the length of training. Most military training in less than 6 months, not counting basic training. At DLI, you go to class 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for up to 63 weeks, depending on your language. For example, I was there from November 1998 until June of 2000.

    Yes, you still have a lot of “military stuff” to take care of, but it’s not like other training schools, and nothing at all like basic training. You have a lot more time on your hands to think about stuff, to get pissed at people, and get revenge. Most of my friends that got kicked out under “dont’ ask, don’t tell” or just plain got in trouble for underage drinking were victims of another person ratting them out.

    Out there (at least on the Air Force side) that was how you got ahead. You kissed mondo ass and you ratted people out.

    So…the immaturity of the community plays a big role in the number of linguists that get outted and booted, at least in my experience.

  30. #30 |  words twice | 

    “Booting trained linguists because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” very definitely has something to do with the shortage of trained linguists.”

    I understand. How big of an impact did this make? What percentage of total qualified personnel is this?

    “The reason so many were “outed” is because many of them were busted during an early morning health and welfare inspection that occurred over a weekend.”

    So, they were literally caught in the act?

    I am sure you can find homophobia, just like you can find racism if you look. If units or organizations are organizing inspections purely to root out homosexuals, that would be a violation of the “don’t ask” portion of the policy, I would imagine (I’m not familiar with the precise wording of it). I believe that the policy was adopted as an attempt for Bill Clinton to compromise and dissuade militant activism without excluding homosexuals entirely.

    “Following that, a few more officially outed themselves because they no longer felt welcome.”

    Then at least some of them outed themselves to avoid serving. Their motive is irrelevant. I knew a guy who was kicked out for failing a drug test and also saw guys intentionally failing drug tests to get out of the military (why? I don’t know and don’t care). The military’s policies are very clear.

    “Ian Finkenbinder, an Army Arabic linguist who graduated from the Defense Language Institute in 2002, was discharged from the military last month after announcing to his superiors that he’s gay.”

    So, he outed himself. Like the drug users, he knew about the policy long before he got there. It wasn’t anything new or secret. He became indignant because his friends were discharged.

    I’m not saying I necessarily agree with the policy, per se. But I do understand the rationale (flawed or not) behind it. I truly don’t care what people do in their personal life as long as it stays there. However, I suspect there are a lot of people who are not satisfied with indifference, they want acceptance, which is a totally different thing.

    “Norming” is a type of activism and people like Finkenbinder and others do this as a way to call attention to a policy that they consider unfair. We are discussing it, after all.

    Another aspect to this is that while there are units where the job is very 9 to 5, many deployed units are not like that at all. There really is no such thing as “personal time”. Clearly, the current policy is not ideal, but getting yourself kicked out on purpose seems pretty lame to me.

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