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To the Editor:

Recently, a friend of mine procured a subscription to MI magazine for me. I haven’t seen the magazine for years and am pleased to see the quality is even better than I remember.

Two articles in the January-March 1999 Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin struck me in particular. First, the issues Captain Robert Goodson raises in “Working on a Combined Staff in the ROK” with respect to cultural differences, language, and security issues were the same in 1979. Not one thing has changed except some terminology.

We have not been in the Republic of Korea for 49 years. Rather, we have been in Korea 49 times in one-year increments. It is not lost on our counterparts that from the moment we arrive in Korea we are already “short.” Until the U.S. Army is prepared to assign intelligence noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and officers to Korea for many years or even for an entire career, we will never solve the challenges of working with our ROK counterparts. Given the “up or out” environment in the U.S. Army today, I doubt we will ever see career assuagements. So “good job Captain Goodson,” but you could have written the same article in 1979. In fact, when Robert Goodson is a Colonel, he can submit it again to MIPB in 2009.

The other article that struck me was First Lieutenant Scott Hensley’s Quick Tips piece, “The Challenge of Language Training.” Again, the U.S. Army has done nothing to address language training in at least 25 years. Sure, there are all sorts of new programs, proficiency pay, and REDTRAIN opportunities, but the problems of linguists trained to perform anywhere near proficiency during live operations are still deplorable. And again, Lieutenant Hensley has written an article that was just as relevant in 1979.

What are the solutions for retaining language skills? I offer four suggestions.

First, linguistic skills should take priority over soldier skills. It is much easier to cram soldier skills into personnel in a very short period than it is to train them in a language.

It is clear that the Defense Language Institute (DLI) is not the answer unless the soldier upon graduation receives an immediate assignment from DLI to live operations. If DLI were the solution, our units would overflow with linguists. We should send linguists to school in the target nation. We have time to send soldiers to get college degrees, let us make the same time for our linguists. It would be cheaper than DLI too.

Third, lower the security clearance requirements in tactical units so that non-U.S.-born soldiers (native speakers) can fill slots that now require Top Secret clearance with special access. From personal experience in the ROK, I can tell you that when the crisis comes, the intelligence commander simply goes to his motor pool, pulls out the native linguists, regardless of their clearances, and puts them on listening positions anyway.

Finally, assign linguists to tactical units only when the unit deploys. Linguists should be working their target nations; they should be ready to deploy fully immersed in the language and nation when the tactical unit goes live. It is axiomatic that assigning linguists to tactical MI units in peacetime is a great way to lose hard-won language skills.

I really enjoyed MI Magazine, but it surely  was déjà vu!

Major John E. Birch, Jr.

(USAR, Retired)

Oak Brook, Illinois