Friday, June 4, 2010

Military exercises

When a friend and I were trekking in Nepal twenty years ago we found very few locals able to speak English, but every so often we would pass someone working in a field with whom we could chat fluently. Usually these were older men who had been Gurkhas – Nepalese soldiers who serve with the British or Indian army.

Under international law the Brigade of Gurkhas are an integral part of the British army, yet only in 2007 were their pensions raised to the value of those of their UK comrades; even now the Ministry of Defence appears to be trying to reduce its financial commitment through a policy of early retirement. But there is no shortage of support when it comes to strategies to promote military efficiency, and language is at the centre of these. The Gurkha Language Wing organises courses “to equip Gurkha soliders to operate alongside multinational forces,” including a 9-week English programme for new recruits.

Clearly it is crucial that participants in international training exercises and actual operations are able to understand each other, and the number of such collaborations is increasing. NATO has expanded beyond the group of 12 North Atlantic nations which formed it in 1947. Turkey has been a member since 1952, and the break-up of the Soviet Union led to Individual Partnership plans with several other Asian countries including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. In 2004 the latter created a military language institute in Almaty to train officers in French, German, Turkish, Chinese and above all English.

Military English is now a significant and growing business. In 2005 a series of coursebooks for teaching military peacekeepers was shortlisted for an Elton, the ELT world’s equivalent of an Oscar. UK-based Military English Language Training Ltd advertises itself as far away as India as a “combination of English language teachers and former military personnel” with experience from British, NATO and UN operations. It targets members of overseas armed forces expecting to take part in multinational operations and its website includes pages in Arabic. The British Council has been particularly active in this field, managing a programme of Peacekeeping English projects on behalf of the UK’s Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

But British military involvement in Asia is dwarfed by that of the United States, whose emergence by the end of the Second World War as a global military power was a major impetus behind the globalisation of English. In South Korea, for example, General Hodge set up an English military school in 1946 whose cadets included future president Park Chung Hee. The Korea Military Academy sought to adopt not only America’s military practices but also its doctrines and culture, with English language a key discipline. Today the Academy’s intensive English programmes target the whole cadet corps and aim “to cultivate officers capable of performing joint military operations with UN forces”. These include the four main annual exercises of the SK-US Combined Forces Command: Team Spirit, Ulchi Focus Lens, RSOI and Foal Eagle.

All the examples of military English mentioned above have been tools of powerful governments, but it should not be forgotten that English also has a small but significant role among Asia’s anti-government movements. Many of the ethnic-based forces fighting the Burmese government make extensive use of English to stay in contact with each other and the outside world. And when a faction of the Japanese Red Army hijacked a Japan Airlines flight in Dhaka in 1977 they refused to speak Japanese, even to the Japanese negotiator flown to Bangladesh. The tapes that survive from the incident reveal some of the communication problems that can occur when a well-educated but English-deficient group of hijackers try to convey threats about time limits and hostage executions to negotiators who either genuinely do not understand them or claim not to do so as a delaying tactic.

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