San Diego In Special Forces, the ideal is that every soldier is fluent in one foreign language and able to limp along in two others. But in a standard infantry company it wouldn't be unusual for no one to speak the language of the "host country." So how do you get along?
Even for SF guys who do have those language skills, there are no guarantees that when an emergency arises, it will be where we have the greatest fluency. The Fifth Special Forces Group (Airborne), my old outfit in Vietnam, is now oriented toward the Middle East. Most members of the Fifth speak Arabic or Farsi. Fat lot of good that did them in Afghanistan, where most people speak Pushtun or Kazakh or something more obscure. It was not unusual in the rapid deployment to Afghanistan for an SF team to become "advisors" to, say, Northern Alliance troops who spoke, say, Kazakh, and have no one involved know a word of each other's language.
They were supposed to guide and control the deployment of these forces, and they were supposed to call in air support, i.e., sending tons of explosives and steel flying around at supersonic speeds, based on their "advisees" pointing and saying, "Talib, Talib!" or the more obscure, "Arab! Arab!" for the al-Qaeda terrorists.
Not as big a problem as one might think.
My friend, the late Larry Dring, was a Special Forces soldier par excellence, a true hero and legend in his own time. Larry finally succumbed, in 1983, to wounds he picked up during the Tet Offensive of 1968. He had pretty much singlehandedly saved the city of Pleiku and lost an entire company of Montagnards in the process. He also met his wife, an American missionary nurse, in the firefight. But that's a different story.
In 1981 Larry found himself in Beirut, at the press headquarters of the Lebanese Forces militia. Larry spoke Korean; a little Vietnamese; a little French; a bit of Rhadé, a Montagnard language; and a bit of Jarai, another Montagnard dialect. But he had no Arabic, and his French was pretty minimal. "No problem," he found himself telling Samir, one of the LF press officers. "All you need is 'hello,' 'good-bye,' 'please,' and 'thank you.' You can do the rest by gesture."
At the time Larry, who knew a bit about Psy Ops, was helping the LF with some propaganda leaflets. The artist they were working with was a deaf mute. "Okay," Samir said. "Ask this guy to dinner tonight at 6:00."
Larry pointed to the artist. He pointed to himself. He moved his arm in a circular gesture from the height of a tabletop to his mouth, holding his fingers as though he were holding a fork. Then he pointed at his watch, waved his forefinger in a circle around the watchface a couple of times, and stopped on six, then tapped the watch. This took about as much time as it took you to read the sentence "Larry pointed to the artist."
The artist nodded assent, and the dinner was on.
I have a friend, a young Special Forces officer, who has written a book called The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast, under the pseudonym A.G. Hawke, published by Paladin Press. It's primarily a workbook. The idea is that you get a phrase book and dictionary in the language you need to use, then make up sentences in English you expect to need, translate them yourself, using the phrase book and dictionary, then, if possible, get one of the locals to check your work. Then you memorize two or three or four of these a day. Very quickly you have a small, specialized vocabulary, and with that you start to play mix and match.
You'd be amazed how fast you become functional, if not eloquent.
When I was a young SF officer on Okinawa in the early '60s, we used a similar system, but the sentences were prepared for us. We had a one-month "survival" language program in several languages: Vietnamese and French for Vietnam; Thai; Tagalog for the Philippines; Malay. The sentences we learned were the same in each language. But they weren't the standard, "Where is the bathroom? How much is that?" of the usual phrase book.
"Il est blessé. Il a besoin de sang" was one useful little sentence. It means, "He is wounded. He needs blood." Another with the potential to be useful was "Il a un fusil!" or "He has a gun." My fave, however, for the sublime silliness of it, was, "Quand les routes sont inondées, vous devez voyagez en bateau," or "When the roads are flooded, you must travel by boat."
But the course proved very useful. Half our team learned it in Vietnamese and half in French. Oddly, those who had learned French fared better than those who had learned Vietnamese. Most of our Montagnards spoke only Jarai, and more of their leaders spoke French than spoke Vietnamese, or at least would admit to speaking Vietnamese.
I quickly found myself making up my own sentences from my little inventory of French words. "Ou est le chef du garde?" or "Where is the sergeant of the guard?" and "Premier groupe, suivez moi!" for "First squad, follow me."
A couple of things happened with the language, though, that I never really understood. At one point we were operating a small forward operational base, where we'd station one company and run patrols from there. At night we always had a guard detail on the perimeter, and the Americans stood two-hour watches, so one of us was always up. When it was my turn I'd check the perimeter, then try to figure out the most likely spot from which a sniper might shoot, or an attack be launched, and sit on that portion of the perimeter. One night, during my watch, a rabbit tripped one of the flares we had put out. One of the guards started shooting when the flare went up, and usually that's the signal for everybody else to join in. In seconds we were going to have a mad minute that would wake everybody up and do bad things to our ammunition inventory. "C'est un lapin! C'est un lapin!" I yelled, and everything quieted down. Here's the mystery. The French word for rabbit wasn't in that phrase book, and I had no memory of having learned it elsewhere. Buried memory? Am I the reincarnation of Louis XIV? Woo-oo-oo!
Another time, one of our patrols brought in an entire Jarai village with severe medical problems. One poor little girl had an awful skin disease. From her neck to her toes she looked like a french- fried onion ring. Our medics had to wrap her in bacitracin for six months to cure her.
These people not only did not know Vietnamese, they had never heard the word "Vietnam." They didn't know what soap was.
The patrol brought them into the compound in the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck. The driver let down the tailgate of the truck, and they just stood there, the men in loincloths, their legs dusty to the knees, the women barebreasted, wearing long, tight, shiny black skirts. At that point my Jarai was limited to "Hiam droi jian muon," or "Hi! How are you?" and "Ih djup hot moh?" or "Would you like a cigarette?" So I went with the French and nervously said things like, "Mes amis, por favor, departez le camion!" See, 'cause I got a bit rattled. They stood in the back of the truck and looked at me in wonderment, but they moved not an inch.
Ray Slattery, our senior demolitionist and supply sergeant, a man of great practicality, not to mention wit and savoir faire, approached the truck and said, "C'mon, babe, get off da muddafuggin' truck!" and they all hopped off and followed him to the tent area we had prepared for them.
Years later, I edited a magazine called Eagle, which was a kind of Soldier of Fortune clone. One of my writers was another Special Forces legend, Jim Perry, who had been the first commander of the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army's world-champion parachute team. Perry had been in Laos and Vietnam, as well as having served in Panama. I sent him to El Salvador. Before he left I asked him, "How's your Spanish?"
He replied, "When I ask for a beer, I get a beer. When I ask for a taco, I get a taco."
"Okay," I said. "You're good to go."