At the training center for members of the U.S. Army's elite Special Forces, soldiers learn a variety of specialized skills to enable them to take the lead in some of the toughest combat zones in the world. But they're also spending more time on something designed to improve their ability to do other things they need to do in today's counterinsurgency fights, train foreign armies and communicate with foreign civilians. During a visit to the army's Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, this week, VOA's Al Pessin found the soldiers are spending several months in intensive language training.
These soldiers have spent months getting into the best physical shape of their lives, and learning such things as hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, small unit tactics and a variety of other skills. Now, they're sitting in a classroom, learning to teach Iraqi troops how to use a radio, in Arabic.
TRANSLATOR: "What is the life of the battery?"
TRANSLATOR: "Between five and six hours, approximately."
The translator is whispering in the ear of a high-level visitor, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen. The student leading the class asks the admiral if he has any questions.
MULLEN: "Actually, no. Very impressive, obviously. What I take away from this is also the practical aspects of this, not just the language itself."
The U.S. Army uses some civilian classroom material and computer programs to teach Arabic and other languages, but it has also developed some of its own lessons to give the troops the kind of vocabulary they need to do their jobs. Admiral Mullen visited the Special Forces school's computer lab.
SOLDIER: "In the video, you're going to see a soldier setting up a tent and you're going to hear a speaker in Arabic describing how to accomplish this task. And as you can see, the soldier is placing the tent on the ground, and then he's spreading it out."
This soldier is less than halfway through an intensive six-month Arabic course.
"The Arabic is spoken a little bit slower," he said. "I've only had nine weeks of Arabic at this point, but I can hear each individual word, and the words I haven't learned from my vocabulary I'm actually able to infer the meaning from the context of what I've seen and what I've heard. So, for example, the first question is 'What must you do with the tent?' And I saw him place it on the ground. I already know how to say, and I heard him say… 'Place the tent on the ground.'"
The commander of the Special Warfare Center, Major General James Parker, says language training first increased after the September 11 attacks in 2001, and was increased again in 2004.
"We've increased the emphasis," he explained. "We've made set standards, where they have to meet certain standards to graduate and become a member of Special Forces. We've integrated it throughout the entire training, not just one small block. We think of the Special Forces training program almost like a university, and you have language woven throughout your term of study here."
General Parker says the increased language training for U.S. Army Special Forces enables them to have a greater impact on local people and on the new security forces learning to protect them.
"I've traveled around and seen our guys on the battlefield speaking the language. I was in Afghanistan not so long ago, and one of our NCOs [non-commissioned officers] is there teaching the Afghan commandos in the native language," he explained. "So, is that having an impact? I would think it would be having an impact."
These soldiers, some of the most ready-to-fight in the U.S. Army, are working to learn these "softer" language skills to be able to have an impact beyond the power of their weapons.