May 8, 2009
I ran across the first chapter of Nathaniel Frank’s book: “UNFRIENDLY FIRE How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” in the NY Times. Fascinating reading. Excellent writing. I have to wonder if Lt Choi’s speaking out was somehow linked to Frank’s book excerpt. The excerpt was published March 18th and Lt Choi first appeared on Rachel Maddow on the 19th. Maybe that’s why he was on. I don’t recall.
This is how Nathaniel Frank’s book begins. [Paragraphs as were – emphasis/underline added.]
On September 10th, 2001, the United States government intercepted two phone calls placed from Afghanistan between Al Qaeda operatives. “Tomorrow is zero hour,” said one of the voices. “The match is about to begin,” came another ominous line. The National Security Agency intercepts millions of messages every hour, but these calls came from sources deemed to be high priority. They were, of course, spoken in Arabic, so they made their way to a translator’s queue, waiting to be interpreted. Unfortunately, in the fall of 2001 our government did not have enough Arabic linguists to translate the messages quickly. The phone calls were not translated until two days later, on September 12, 2001. It was two days too late.
How many gay linguists have been fired?
The firing of gay Arabic language specialists during America’s war on terrorism is a particularly stark illustration of the gay ban’s costs to national security. And so it’s no surprise that the Pentagon has not been forthcoming about the number of linguists fired. In 2004, when Palm Center researchers asked the Pentagon for the total discharge figures of gay linguists (including all foreign language specialties), they were told that figures only existed since 1998. It took a Freedom of Information Act request and pressure from members of the House Armed Services Committee to force the Pentagon to release even these incomplete figures, which landed at 73 discharges of language specialists from the Defense Language Institute between 1998 and 2004. Of these, 17 were Arabic speakers, 11 spoke Russian, 18 studied Korean, 6 were training in Persian-Farsi, and the rest studied other languages.
Thing is the records did go back further than 1998.
Then in February, 2005, a GAO report was released that included figures dating back to 1994 – the period when data was not supposed to have existed. Those figures were even more troubling. According to the GAO report, 757 troops with “critical occupations” were fired under the policy. These included voice interceptors, interrogators, translators, Explosive Ordinance Disposal Specialists, signal intelligence analysts, and missile and cryptologic technicians. Three hundred twenty-two  fired service members had skills in what the military deems “an important foreign language.” Fifty-four  of them spoke Arabic. Ian Finkenbinder makes fifty-five . And counting.
What the Army says themselves. Lt Choi is/was a member of the NY Army Guard:
An Army report released that year by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, found that “the lack of competent interpreters throughout the theater impeded operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The US Army does not have a fraction of the linguists required.” The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the government “lacked sufficient translators proficient in Arabic and other key languages, resulting in significant backlog of untranslated intercepts” and the secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, pleaded that “we need more Arabic-speaking analysts.” A Pentagon advisory panel reported in 2004 that the U.S. “is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam.” A Justice Department Inspector General Report that same year found that the government “cannot translate all the foreign language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collects,” due largely to inadequate translation capabilities in “languages primarily related to counterterrorism activities” such as Arabic and Farsi.
Learning Arabic is not easy and is not something anyone with an ear for foreign language can pick up.
Arabic is what DLI calls a “category 4” language. Along with Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Arabic is the hardest for English-speakers to learn, and the course lasts 63 weeks for basic knowledge. Because it’s not a “cognate” language for English-speakers — not one that shares the roots of the Germanic or Romantic family language trees — most American students hit the books for several hours each night, after taking up to seven hours of class every day. Arabic reads from right to left, has no capital letters and its characters run together like cursive, making it difficult for the untrained to distinguish them without months of practice. The year after 9/11, the number of students graduating from all American colleges and universities with an undergraduate degree in Arabic was a whopping six. Six.
It seems there’s a way around not discharging gay soldiers:
The week after the twin towers were felled, the Pentagon looked around and noticed it would need as many soldiers as it could get its hands on for the wars it was about to wage. Under the authority of President George W. Bush, the Defense Department issued an order giving each military service the authority to suspend administrative discharges (called “stop-loss” in military speak). In explaining the decision, the folks in the Pentagon’s public affairs office showed that no one was more confused than they were about how to retain badly needed gay troops while reassuring the public that the military was abiding by the law that required their discharge. “Stop loss has been authorized,” spokesperson Maj. James P. Cassella told the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to the status of the gay discharge policy. “However, consistent with past practices, administrative discharges could continue under stop-loss.” To clarify what the military really intended to do, Cassella said that “Commanders would be given enough latitude in this area to apply good judgment and balance the best interests of the service, the unit and the individual involved.“
As we struggle against an enemy whose world most American can scarcely begin to comprehend, the few men and women in the military conversant in that world would seem an invaluable asset. Instead, more than 55 Arabic language specialists are no longer working for the U.S. military because they are gay.
And it appears Lt Choi will be the 56th.
Nathaniel Frank’s closing paragraph:
Running through all these reasons is a commitment not to face the truth. And this, every bit as much as the wasted Arabic linguists, counterintelligence officers, artillery operators, pilots and surgeons, is the insidious nature of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There is something deeply embarrassing about the most powerful nation in the world imposing a gag rule on itself; we have voluntarily shackled ourselves in order to deny what we know to be true, all in the name of protecting our supposedly fragile soldiers from a phantom gay menace. The gay ban marks no less than the stalling of the Enlightenment project. The last three centuries of Western civilization have celebrated the ideals of freedom, truth, reason and self-understanding. In America, we often consider ourselves to be a world beacon for these efforts. We hallow our Constitution for its use and protection of these traits; we broadcast and praise our commitment to liberty and free speech.; and we have framed our war on terrorism as a struggle against sectarian, anti-intellectual and illiberal forces who are trying to overturn all we hold sacred. Yet “don’t ask, don’t tell” demonstrates that the American government is helping these forces along, to our own detriment. Americans should be asking themselves: what is gained and what is lost by sticking our collective head in the sand?
[Source: NY Times “Excerpted from Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.”]
3-19 Conspiracy at the Rachel Maddow show involving Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
3-21 Lt Dan Choi: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has got to go
5-6 Lt Dan Choi kicked out of Guard b/c he’s gay
5-7 Rachel Maddow: Lt Dan Choi re: his dismissal from the Army
5-8 Lt Choi on CNN’s American Morning