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Train in relevant languages

Nearly 14 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many people, the most lingering visual image of the victory of Poland's Solidarity and the eventual end of the Cold War was the dismantling of the wall that divided East Germany from the West for 28 years.

Although much has changed in the succeeding years, some individuals and entities are seemingly entrenched in Cold War thinking, or at least slow to adjust to the modern political realities.

In particular, an audit of 23 U.S. Army linguistic units —including the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade of the National Guard, headquartered in Salt Lake City — showed that a quarter of U.S. Army linguists are not considered proficient in their primary assigned languages. Moreover, the Army is concerned about poor recruiting for speakers of Arabic, Farsi and Korean to help in two of the most likely theaters of war.

These are highly troubling findings considering that the military needs top-drawer linguists for intelligence operations, not to mention the capability to interview prisoners of war.

Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson, quoting a recent Army Audit Agency report he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, determined through subsequent interviews with military personnel that the Army is in the process of converting its emphasis from languages needed during the Cold War to languages needed for emerging threats, such as Arabic, Farsi and Korean.

Although the Army audit is now nine months old, it is nonetheless disturbing that there wasn't a greater urgency to improve recruiting of Arabic and Farsi speakers after the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, let alone the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.

It also defies explanation why no special recruiters assigned to attract people who speak especially needed languages such as Arabic and Korean were placed in high-density ethnic areas such as California, New York and Michigan. Two of eight recruiters nationwide were based in Las Vegas, where less than 1.5 percent of the U.S. Arabic and Korean population resided in Nevada.

Poor pay, difficulty retaining linguists and the failure of some members of linguistic units to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test as annually required were among other concerns addressed in the audit.

Again, nine months have passed since this report was issued, so one can hope the Army has shorn up the shortcomings identified. And it should be noted that proficiency percentages for the Utah units are somewhat better than the national average: only 18 percent did not achieve minimum proficiency standards in their primary languages.

Still, with the United States at war with Iraq and experiencing considerable tensions with North Korea, it is unsettling that the Army's shift from Cold War thinking has not been more responsive to the defense machine's needs.