Spreading Violence is Much Easier than Bridging Cultural Gaps

Teach a man to shoot ...

Is a warm gun the universal translator?

W.J. Astore

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. military is fairly good at projecting power. Indeed, the military prides itself on “global reach, global power,” achieved through a worldwide system of bases and funded by enormous amounts of “defense” spending.  What the U.S. military is not so good at is understanding foreign cultures.  Often, it seems the number one goal of military interventions is selling weapons to armies in the countries in which the U.S. military intervenes, so-called foreign military sales or FMS for short.  This is true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now many countries in Africa, as Nick Turse has shown in several groundbreaking articles at TomDispatch.com.

The U.S. military is “can-do” when it comes to projecting power, and “can-do” when it comes to building host nation armies (of course, the reliability of those armies, such as the Afghan National Army, is often highly suspect, even after a decade of training and billions of dollars in weapons and related equipment).  But what the military always gives short-shrift to is cultural understanding.  Cultural gaps are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant (“Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”) or bridged in ways that ultimately reveal how little we know about the foreign peoples on the receiving end of American largesse.

I learned this firsthand about ten years ago when I was at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.  Of all things my lesson came as the result of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song.  While I was the Associate Provost at DLI, the school received an urgent request from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Yet, translating this feel-good song of tolerance into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lyrics posed problems of translation. What about that geeky American boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hailed from Middle Eastern countries, explained that in Iraq he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that American girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to have access to orthodontia. In an Iraqi cultural context, laughing at geeks with glasses or girls with braces just didn’t translate.

And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”?  Best not go there, we concluded.

I learned a lot from this experience. If we can’t translate seemingly harmless song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how do we expect to “translate” democracy?

It seems the military’s answer to this is to focus on what needs no translation: violence.  So the goal is to build host armies and police forces and to sell them weapons while building fortress-like American embassies (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or American bases (which are mini-fortresses) to watch over the benighted buggers of the world.

Some might say that warm guns serve as universal translators.  But a harsher conclusion is this: That we are indeed translating our culture overseas: a culture built less on tolerance than it is on violence.

15 thoughts on “Spreading Violence is Much Easier than Bridging Cultural Gaps

  1. It’s alarming that the American people haven’t caught on yet to the enormous failure of of our “democracy spreading”, “terrorist fighting ” military adventurism.
    Iraq is a virtual dictatorship again with only the Shia replacing the Sunni Muslims. Afghanistan is letting 13 year old girls be married and just waiting for the Americans to pull out or reduce their forces to further intensify the killing and inherent instability.
    Our military proxys in Egypt have deep sixed any near term hope of any kind of democracy growing in that country for years to come.
    The continued armament support we give them has shown Israel that they really don’t have to pay any attention to the Kabuki theater that Obama and Kerry have been conducting for the last year.
    And Syria is a human disaster beyond belief because we want it that way. A weakened Shia ruled Syria, our culture blind leaders feel ,will make the Saudi Sunni medieval rulers happy because it supposedly will also weaken their arch enemy Shia Iran.
    Now we have opted for violence in Central Europe with our phony demand to support a coup government because it is a real democracy. What part of the world haven’t we destabilized? Well we are trying to do it in Asia with Obama’s military “pivot” to the Pacific.
    Yes! Cultural blindness with the blind leading the deaf with guns pointed all around.

  2. “Don’t you know that happiness, yeah, is a warm gu-u-unnn, bang-bang shoot-shoot…” — The Beatles, 1968. Of course, “bridging cultural gaps” is not and never has been the mission of the US military. From the crushing of the Philippines independence movement in early 20th Century on it’s been about body counts. Cultural affairs are the job of the Dept. of State, which also harbors the CIA of course. Needless to say, the US’s track record in installing enlightened democracies abroad at gun point is a dismal, dismal failure. But does that stop their trying? Not as long as there are juicy contracts and dandy profits to be made. “Come on Wall Street, don’t move slow! Why, man, it’s war a-go-go! There’s plenty of money to be made, By supplyin’ the army with the tools of the trade!” — Country Joe McDonald & The Fish, c. 1968

  3. Remember when Jimmy Carter tried to make human rights the center of U.S. foreign policy? Small wonder he was a one-term president who was ridiculed for being naive. How dare he ask his daughter Amy how she felt about nuclear weapons and the end of the world? We must ask only hard-headed (and hard-hearted) men about the joys of “thinking about the unthinkable.”

    Well, now we can celebrate progress: from Jimmy Carter, the human rights president, to Barack Obama, assassin-in-chief. Thirty-five years after Carter, everyone can embrace a local killer drone!

  4. Like King Pyrrhus, the Fool of Hope, the U.S. military “can do” when it comes to logistics and “wining” unimportant tactical battles while squandering fantastic amounts of national treasure. It “can’t do,” of course, when it comes to winning wars, or even recognizing a war that truly needs fighting. In other words, from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan — each of them decades-long military debacles:

    “If they could have, they would have; but they didn’t, so they can’t.”

    Way past time to cut the Military Idolatry crap. The U.S. military plainly can’t do war, and as soon as the American people recognize this and forbid the U.S. military from having any more wars to play at and fumble, then and only then will the United States have any chance for a future worth living. As the Chinese say: “You don’t use good iron to make a nail and you don’t use a good man to make a soldier.” I doubt that many Americans could bring themselves to openly acknowledge this truth, but the fact that few Americans actually serve in the U.S. military rather indicates that the people believe it and live by it nonetheless. Military Idolatry still rules at the Hollywood box office and at a superficial, lip-service level in the U.S. corporate media, but it has only produced a single, rotten fruit: namely, failure and the refusal of most Americans to want any part of it for themselves or their families. As King Pyrrhus famously said about the battle he won while losing his army: “Another victory such as this and we are undone!” What even halfway sane person wants to die or live in maimed poverty just so that King Pyrrhus can chalk up another “victory.”

    So best get your ration of Victory Cigarettes, Victory Coffee, and Victory Gin while you can, fellow proles, because soon now you will hear loud proclamations about another great victory abroad that for some strange reason will leave you with an “increase” in all these commodities expressed in fewer units of measurement.

  5. A reminder to all of those too young to remember Korea.

    Like all of the military disasters we have chronicled above since Vietnam that we now claim victory, let’s look closely at Korea. Korea was another war of choice in which we walked away in defeat because of our political-military hubris.

    When the the grandiose General MacArthur took charge of our forces he decided that we could walk all over those little people up north in Korea. So he decided on a policy of overreach and extended his landings at Inchon, behind North Korean lines to march right to the Chinese border and maybe even overthrow the evil Chinese Communist government.

    Our troops got to the Chosin reservoir on the border and, lo and behold, that brought the Chinese army into the battle. They chased our poor, cold, outnumbered troops back to the 38th parallel and that’s where we are today. We lost so many men and prestige that President Truman stripped the grandiose General, revered by all the politicians who loved war and hated communism, of his command. So, friends, our history of post WW II defeats starts at the Chosin basin on the Chinese border of Korea down through all of those subsequent wars of choice.

    I am happy that South Korea is now a prosperous and fairly democratic country and having done a UN mission there to help them when they were still a “developing” country. I am pleased to possibly have helped a bit. And it didn’t cost any lives.

    • Thomas Friedman’s NY Times column of May 4 is interesting. He clearly labels the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as “unsuccessful wars.” (Though he clings to his crazy notion that, “done better,” the invasion of Iraq could’ve been a dandy success.) I don’t know what Friedman labels his own political world view; I suppose the rabid right calls him a liberal. He says the US chooses its fights based on “values” as well as interests. Stuff and nonsense, I say to the first part of his equation. On the laudable side, he calls again for “nation-building here at home” with a sane energy policy and attention to crumbling infrastructure. But there’s a Joker in his deck: replace personal and corporate income taxes with a carbon tax, prescribes Dr. Friedman. This would make for very complex regulation to avoid crucifying the lowest-income rungs of the ladder when they pull up to the gas pump. But above all–despite the appeal to GOP of throwing away the current Tax Code–such a notion is DOA on Capitol Hill as long as the US Congress is owned by the energy industry. Can the most optimistic among us really foresee a change to THAT situation???

      • I doubt it, Greg. Not when my students equate freedom with unbridled consumption of fossil fuels. And not when my college equates the future with fracking.

  6. The essay is right on target. When the 187th Airborne returned to its base in Japan from Korea in the fall of 1954, then Brigadier General Westmoreland gave us a speech in which he said we were in Japan now, and we should learn something about Japanese culture while we were here, but we shouldn’t go bamboo, “because when a man goes bamboo, I think it’s time he went home.”

    If Westmoreland had gone a little bamboo himself, he might have fared somewhat less badly in Vietnam. Then we have his famous observation that orientals don’t value human life as much as we do, the falsity of which “Hearts and Minds” revealed in a so of the family of a Vietnamese soldier wailing over his grave. And then, more recently we have all those picture of Korean parents agonizing over their children who died horrible deaths in the ferry disaster.

    On a lighter note, many Americans who served in Korea and Japan in the fifties have fond members of “China Night” an old Japanese tune from the thirties, but most of them seem to have the impression that its first line, “Shina no yoru,” meant “She ain’t got no shoes on.” O tempura, o mores!

    • Mr. Gallager–Please tell us more about this song, “China Night”! Is this the song that was a pop hit in the US some time in the ’60s under the title of “Sukiyaki” (or some food-related title)? “Shina no yoru” seems familiar. I’m guessing that, since you said it’s from the 1930s, it concerned the Japanese occupation of parts of China (Manchuria above all). Is that the case?

      • No. The real title of of “Sukiyaki” and the first line is “When I walk, I look up.” (Aruku to, ue o miru.) The lyrics of “Shina no yoru: are “Shina no yoru. / Shina no yoru./ Minato no akari / murasaki no yoo ni. / Noboru janku yume no fune. / Aah aah, wasurenai no kyoku no ne. / Shina no yoru. / Yume no yoru.

        (China night, China night. The harbor lights like purple. The junk on which we sail, a ship of dreams. Aah, aah, that unforgettable strain of music! China night. Night of dreams.) That’s how I remember it, anyway–and since I went bamboo myself, it’s a memory tied up with a girl. I’d be happy to sing it for you if I knew how to post it. In the meantime, you can hear it on Wikipedia.

        There’s movie named “Shina no Yoru” which is in fact set in Machuria. But like “Lily Marlene” it’s about love no war. Then Robert Mitchum sings it in a movie about the Korean war, whose title I’ve forgotten. But thanks for asking.

        I see I wrote “fond members” instead of “fond memories.”

      • Greg, I believe the title of “Sukiyaki” in Japanese goes something like “Hitori-botchi no yoru,” which means “alone in the evening.” I can never forget that line because it almost drove me mad one day at Miura-kaigan beach just south of Yokohama near Tokyo. When I extended my tour in Vietnam in July of 1971 (in order to get a six-month early-out from the U.S. Navy) I got a month-long R&R as an inducement. I spent it in Japan trying to subsist on one thousand dollars and my barely functional command of elementary Japanese. Anyway, at the beach they had these public loudspeakers which played only two songs over and over again for hours. One of them, “Hitori-botchi no yoru,” and the other a commercial for some shaving lotion called Mandom, featuring the voice of American actor Charles Bronson, saying only “Mandom: man, oh man.” To preserve my sanity, I had to go out into the ocean every so often and stick my head under the water just to get a moment or two free of those awful sounds that still reverberate within my memory today.

  7. Then there’s the song from Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Ikiru” (Living), The Gondola Song: “Fall in love, young maiden, for life is short . . . tomorrow never comes.”

  8. My WWII-generation mother once accused me of “going Asiatic” after I came home from Vietnam only to return to Taiwan as a foreign exchange student studying Chinese and Japanese. She simply couldn’t understand how I could have such bitter feelings about my experiences in one Asian country while having completely different and favorable feelings about other Asian countries. I understood her point of view because, before going to Vietnam, I couldn’t differentiate one Asian country from another either. And I never held anything against the Vietnamese people just because my government had sent me to their country to participate in a war upon them. But I encountered Chinese and Japanese people as civilians in their own countries in time of peace, while I encountered Vietnamese in their devastated country in time of war.

    More importantly, I had undergone a good deal of military training that rendered the Vietnamese somewhat less than human in my eyes. The officially “bad” Vietnamese — meaning the North Vietnamese and the “Viet Cong” guerrillas — wanted to kill me, so my instructors said. So I should kill them, if the situation called for it. The officially “good” Vietnamese, so I heard, didn’t care enough about their own freedom to fight for it and felt no gratitude for all the “sacrifices” we Americans had made on their behalf. In effect, this indoctrination made all Vietnamese — “bad” and “good” — equally unworthy and therefore less than “real” persons in the eyes of us ignorant young Americans. So we could treat them as we wished. And we did. I have no doubt but that the attitudes of ignorant young American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan today differ in no significant way from those that blinded my generation to the ruinous effects of our unwanted military presence in someone else’s country.

    The U.S. military, by its very nature, kills and destroys as a profession or business. And to kill other persons whom we do not otherwise know or understand, requires us first to de-humanize them. That makes killing and dispossessing large numbers of them easier. To learn a foreign language, on the other hand, requires us to think like the foreigner thinks, to understand what the foreigner understands, which makes him or her less of a foreigner to us and more sympathetic as a fellow human being. But the two conflicting types of training I underwent in my youth — military and language — set up in me a psychological dilemma in regard to the Vietnamese that I never experienced with Chinese, Japanese, or Thais. I would like to think that I’ve overcome this dilemma over many decades of reflecting upon it, but I can’t say for certain that I truly have. A certain amount of poison ingested early in youth can sicken one for a lifetime, even if one understands the nature and cause of the sickness.

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