Language As A Tactic

Despite its title this short paper is not concerned with Psychological Operations, deception or even prescriptive advice on how to write a better set of military orders. It is about how best to choose which language to use when peace turns to crisis and ultimately war. It is written in the medium of English but the use of the English Language in future warfare may not always be the best choice for those now forced to use it on operations and exercises in peacetime.
The Power of Words
The ability to communicate with allies, neutrals and adversaries is an essential capability for any military force. Words themselves can have a unique power. This concept is not new. Almost 2000 years ago it was written “the word of God is … sharper than any two-edged sword.” Not two hundred years ago the playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the memorable line “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Whether it is hearing the fear-instilling battle cry of an approaching enemy or the carefully chosen words of a senior officer negotiating a surrender under a flag of truce, words in warfare can have massive import. The interpretation (or misinterpretation) of language in the form of written or spoken orders can, does and will lead to deaths among the enemy as well as friends and innocents. The human dimension of war should not be ignored whatever technological innovation may be introduced by the next revolution in military affairs. In order to understand (and exploit) this human dimension it is necessary to appreciate an adversary’s culture. The written and spoken word and its accurate interpretation is a tremendously important aspect of any culture.
Bulwer- Lytton’s words were written for his characterisation of Cardinal Richelieu, whose power as a French statesman arguably has only been eclipsed since by the Emperor Napoleon. His speech in its entirety gives the full strategic flavour of how important words can be when employed by those with influence.
“True, this! Beneath the rule of men entirely great the pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
the arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! — but taking sorcery from the master-hand
to paralyse the Caesars, and to strike the loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!”

The language of diplomacy has and will continue to affect the security of nations. President James Monroe was to change the face of the Americas during his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress in 1823. Later termed the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ his intent was to free the newly independent colonies of Latin America from European intervention and avoid situations which could make the new world a battleground for the old world powers, probably so that a youthful United States could exert its own influence undisturbed. Words used unwisely can have unintended secondary effects. Monroe’s policy, subsequently reinforced by successive generations of US politicians, created deep resentment among Latin American nations for its overt interventionism and perceived imperialism. Monroe’s words would ultimately come to affect the fate of the Republic of Texas, France’s failure to hold Mexico and the future of other nations as far afield as Hawaii and the Philippines.

From the Articles of War to the small print on credit card and smart phone contracts; from the simultaneous interpretation of a foreign language in the United Nations to the translation of a commercial contract between multinational enterprises, in the modern world every individual’s daily activities are restricted by literacy, bound by language, handcuffed by words. In democracies military personnel answer to their Commander in Chief. The reality is that they all put their faith, often blindly, in the quality and execution of the language of diplomacy, frequently tempered by politicians, whose statements may generally be considered to be protecting the national interest.

Words employed strategically have a power all of their own. Wars have been waged and nations overwhelmed by the power of words. Where does this leave the military and how do militaries use words and language to fight and win whether in peace enforcement operations, low-scale conflicts or all-out war? Good communications are essential for the success of any military campaign. A message might be delivered by carrier pigeon or satellite, intercepted physically or electronically but the success of the message depends on its safe, unadulterated receipt. This paper is not concerned with the technical methods of transmission and receipt in modern warfare but how the language used in a message can be used to improve Operational Security (OPSEC) which in turn will promote some military advantage or increase the likelihood of attaining a desired operational effect.
Geographical constraints and the pace of human migration led to cultures developing their own languages and dialects. Ask a Roman what a Sicilian is saying and he will have some difficulty in spite of the fact that both are Italian nationals. As first regional and latterly global trade and commerce flourished, they became a key impetus to overcome the barrier of language. Without a common language, cooperation is necessarily limited and profitable enterprises are hindered. Conquest, empire building and economic exploitation spread common languages across continents. The Romans, expert in all three, introduced Latin to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Spanish is now the first language of almost all of South and Central America, not to mention millions of Hispanics in the USA. The development of international and regional groupings as well as multi-ethnic societies artificially created by the aforesaid empire building and exploitation has led to recognition of inter- and intra-national ‘official’ languages, for how else other than through language can people interact to work cooperatively in order to accomplish mutual objectives? In India, English has been retained for official use for the convenience of the 60% of the population who are non- Hindi speakers. Although less than a quarter of Canadians are of French origin, Canada has been officially bilingual since 1969, with French, the original language of diplomacy, now having equal status to English.
A nation that can intercept, de-encrypt, accurately interpret, re-transmit and exploit communications without an enemy’s knowledge and in a timely manner should have an outstanding opportunity to create conditions for its military to conduct successful manoeuvre warfare. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the allied exploitation of enciphered German messages employing Enigma machines and code-breaking capabilities. The intelligence extracted from this source, codenamed “Ultra” was a substantial aid to the war effort and defeat of the submarine threat in the North Atlantic Ocean. Dr David Kahn has described that rather than the Enigma machines’ technical weaknesses, it was procedural flaws, laziness in encipherment procedures and operator mistakes as well as the British forces capture of key tables and hardware which led to Germany’s defeat.
To be clearly understood by friends and allies is perhaps as important as being able to exploit the enemy’s communications. The effect of so-called ‘blue on blue’ engagements can be devastating to the trust existing between allies at the tactical level on the ground while subsequent reporting by mass media channels may have strategic implications. The UK Guardian described the “mounting toll” of UK military deaths at the hands of US forces in some detail in a 2007 article. The results of poor communications in an environment with live ammunition are often fatal but as the Guardian acknowledged “friendly fire incidents are not new. According to Geoffrey Regan, the British author of Backfire, which chronicles the history of friendly fire, it was first recorded as long ago as the Peloponnesian war in the fourth century BC.”
Geoffrey Regan has also written extensively about history’s greatest naval blunders. Misunderstood communications may be to blame for some disasters but others, such as the sinking of HMS Victoria by HMS Camperdown in 1893 or HMS Nottingham’s 2002 ‘rediscovery’ of a rock (charted and named after it had previously accounted for an ex-RN brig named Wolf) off the coast of New South Wales named are simply the result of negligence.
The results of military neglect are not always only confined to the physical sphere. National security is the bread and butter business of governments, security services and their armed forces. In his summary of the Roman military Vegetius recognised that the best way to remain at peace is to prepare for war: ‘Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum’. After a prolonged period of peace, governments and militaries can become complacent. Language skills, when not employed by a native speaker, are very perishable. Native speakers are fully-conversant with the language and usually the culture and history of a country. To use languages to their advantage a military must first define which languages remain important for their objectives, which are reducing in importance and which ones may become important in the short or longer term. The latter has to be an educated estimate based on history, regional tensions and alliances. It will include some crystal ball gazing, relying to a degree on a defence organisation’s knowledge of the future political will and intent of one’s own politicians as well as those of potential adversaries and the available language skills of allies. Military language training and the exploitation of languages therefore requires some considerable foresight in its policy and planning. For most nations they are further constrained by a limited budget.
In Australia, the 2009 Defence White Paper (drafted with one eye on the “Asia Pacific Century”) when considering how to support land operations in a complex environment stated that “Defence will also broaden the delivery of foreign language training through new regionally-based training facilities and the Melbourne campus of the Defence Force School of Languages.” The Australian Defence School of Languages had been teaching foreign languages since 1944 when, unsurprisingly, Japanese was the initial focus. Gradually, as priorities emerged, more languages were introduced: at first Russian, Chinese, Indonesian and Thai. The school’s website states that “the courses of choice are determined by Defence, concentrating on areas of Australian operational deployment, postings to international staff colleges, diplomatic postings or international materiel suppliers.”
The ability to exploit knowledge of a language is a skillset that mainly rests within the intelligence community. For the military this entails training and employing technical or ‘Cryptologic Linguists’. These specialists work in the field of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). In general terms they “identify foreign communications from an assigned geographic area and categorize signals by activity type; analyze foreign communications for information to support mission reporting requirements; recognize changes in transmission modes and tipping the appropriate analytical or intercept authority; providing translation expertise to analysts.” The interception and exploitation of electromagnetic emissions has seen supporting technologies develop apace in recent years. To those of us brought up in an age when SIGINT was rarely referred to openly and would be discussed only by those with appropriate security clearances and a need to know, the post Edward Snowden/Bradley Manning world seems almost post-apocalyptic. Today detailed job descriptions for military cryptologic linguists are readily available on the internet. In the author’s view this provides a wealth of information for hostile intelligence analysts. Of course such openness may also provide welcome guidance for nations just beginning to develop sophisticated communications intelligence capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, it provides them with more than an inkling of how to take defensive measures to promote OPSEC.
In a ground force environment language skills can be as useful in a practical tactical situation as a cryptological analyst might be in a technical intelligence sense.
“People think of linguists as merely translators a lot of the times, but there’s so many other things that we’re capable of. When you roll into a town with a unit, they’ll have their regular civilian interpreter and they’ll go up talk with the village elder’s house and the platoon leader starts talking to them. This one time, I’m just sitting there sitting back, standing guard, and all the locals are talking not knowing that anybody understands what they are saying but we’re there, we’ve got our ears open, we’re pulling in every single thing they’re saying.”
Investing in focussed language training for intelligence exploitation purposes does not come cheap. Job training for a US Army cryptologic analyst requires 10 weeks of basic combat training and three to 52 weeks of Advanced Individual Training with on-the-job instruction. Part of this time is spent in the classroom and in the field. The US Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California (DLIFLC) teaches courses for six to 18 months, depending on the language the individual is selected for. Those recruits who already speak a needed foreign language fluently may be allowed to skip this course. There are cryptologic linguist training courses at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas for 10 – 16 weeks, also depending on skill level of the language.
This investment will be repeated to a lesser or greater degree depending on the importance of each individual foreign language as it is perceived to assist the security of the USA. In 2009, over 40 languages were being taught at the DLIFLC including Afrikaans in Washington, DC and the following in Monterey: Modern Standard Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurmanji, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Sorani Kurdish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, and Uzbek.
Such breadth of languages and depth in personnel allocation can be supported by perhaps only one or two other nations in the world. The rest must cut their cloth accordingly. A middle ranking military like Britain describes it’s modus operandi thus: “You use specialist skills in combat zones around the world. You analyse intercepted communications and advise Commanders on the culture of the country where you’re working. You could be talking to local people or prisoners of war to obtain vital information on the enemy’s plans. Training is conducted at the Defence School of Languages, Chicksands, Bedford. The training lasts around 2 years in total; you will be taught a foreign language up to diploma standard and learn how to use that language to support intelligence gathering operations.”
Where then does this leave the smaller military powers with their more limited defence budgets, those that have not had the privilege of developing and sharing research in SIGINT on the scale of the ‘Old Commonwealth’ nations or one of the emerging superpowers? When considering the technical capabilities of the first world intelligence gatherer, nations with lesser capabilities would be well advised to consider how the language they employ might itself be used to exploit their own military weaknesses. Cryptologic linguists are trained in more than one language to enable them to: “recognise key information during real-time, as well as post acquisition analysis. This may include the provision of a gist or overview of what is being communicated, as well as the translation of spoken or written material from one language to another.” Such specialists form a key component of a modern force’s intelligence support to warfare communities on land, at sea and in the air. In peacetime a common language for interoperability may be essential but will that always prove the case in war?
English – A Military Babel
For English speaking nations, the training of foreign military students in the English Language is considered to be a fruitful way of helping friends to understand them better, particularly in helping to ensure foreign students are able to understand the syllabi taught on military courses. The International Policy Division of the Australian Defence Organisation’s Strategy Group funds the Defence International Training Centre in Melbourne for this role. The USA has a training program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Similar cases exist throughout the military world. For example, Malaysian submariners are well versed in French having been trained there extensively while preparing to operate the Royal Malaysian Navy’s French built Scorpene Class boats.
An inexpensive, although time sensitive method of protecting voice communications is the employment of low grade authentication codes, daily changing call-signs etc. However, the language used as the basis of many tactical signals employed at sea and in the air during combined exercises and coalition operations is invariably English. Unfortunately widespread availability of various exercise and tactical publications, together with readily accessible Joint Electronic Libraries have provided hostile intelligence services with many avenues ripe for exploitation in wartime. For an example, consider the Multinational Maritime Tactical Signal and Manoeuvring Book (MTP-1(D) Vol. 2). It is published by NATO, contains comprehensive tactical signals for maritime forces and aims to provide “NATO and cooperating nations with… common doctrine to conduct multinational exercises and operations”…it may be released to a non-NATO nation on a need to know basis.” Although it “shall not be posted on any freely accessible information or media facility,” versions are readily accessible (and therefore available for exploitation) on the internet. It would appear the whole world has a ‘need to know’ how to conduct maritime tactics.
The issue here is that English, being one of only two NATO official languages, is now widely spoken and understood by militaries, friend and foe alike, across the world. Since the end of the Cold War NATO nations have been keen to extend interoperability beyond the (now 28) Alliance members. Additionally, and especially since 911, the US military has been keen to extend its influence, most likely with the ultimate aim of increasing US homeland security. New concepts such as a previous Chief of Naval Operations’ ‘1000 Ship Navy’ and organisations like the US Pacific Command sponsored Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) naturally employ English to get their message across. The MPAT has over 30 member nations and it has spawned the five volume Multinational Force Standard Operating Procedures (MNF SOP). The MNF SOP focuses on “the operational level of planning and execution, and is designed to address military operations other than war and small-scale contingencies.” Although not binding and impressing no rights or obligations on member nations, it does provide a comprehensive description of how to establish and run a coalition force headquarters. Details of order formats, warfare disciplines, battle rhythms, etc. offer potential enemies a cost free insight into how it may be possible to disrupt the operation of a multinational headquarters. Inevitably the widespread and increasing flow of information exchanged in recent years of peace has encouraged many nations outside of NATO to train, develop and transmit recognisable tactics which some nations will recreate, in English during hostilities. Crucially they may fight as they train, employing English even when operating nationally and not immediately in a multinational force environment.
Are there are ways for smaller nations to maximise military opportunities in language exploitation while minimising expenditure in language training and investment in expensive cryptological hardware? One way may be to consider readily available local language assets. The following are two examples taken from the US Army’s history. The first exploits ready knowledge of an enemy’s language while the second is defensive, providing army voice communications security.
During World War II, fighting in the Pacific theatre of the war required Japanese linguists for translation, interpretation, and combat purposes. When American military officials discovered the lack of skilled Japanese linguists among Caucasian personnel, they recruited second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) soldiers. The organization that trained and employed these Japanese American linguists was the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service. They attended the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) that was first established in the Presidio in San Francisco and later at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling, Minnesota. The MISLS was critical in producing skilled linguists who were essential in World War II and later the occupation of Japan.
Some nations are fortunate to possess indigenous peoples whose native languages are quite obscure. This was certainly the case in the USA where some aboriginal Indian tribes were employed to protect secret communications during wartime. The name ‘code talkers’ is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific. Code talking however, was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving under British command in World War 1 at the second battle of the Somme. These soldiers are referred to as Choctaw code talkers. “Other Native American code talkers were deployed by the United States Army during World War II, including Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers. Similarly, soldiers of Basque ancestry were used for code talking by the U.S. Marines during World War II in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating.” Code talkers have been portrayed by Hollywood on screen in 1959 and 2002.
There is a balance to be struck between being able to play well in peace and fight even better in war. Many nations now train as they will fight, using essentially recognisable tactics in both peace and war but that does not mean the enemy should be helped to answer the ‘who, what, where and when’ military intelligence questions just because everyone uses the same language in a training or peacetime environment. A nation that has a relatively unique language, like Japan at the beginning of the Second World War, will have an OPSEC advantage, at least at the tactical level and in spite of modern translation technologies, if they conduct tactics in their own language. For a country like Malaysia with several language sub-groups in Sarawak it may also well be worth considering developing a reserve branch for ‘code talkers’. Certainly whenever using insecure communications it would make sense to revert from English to a native language in wartime (depending on the adversary) and it would be prudent to consider which tactical publications would benefit from a rewrite from English into the local language for their use as wartime publications.

The views expressed in this paper are the personal views of the author and are not the official view of any government or other authority.


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