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July 04, 2008

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual in Arabic, mostly

Picture_005 Go to the military affairs section of any major bookstore and you will find the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, edited by Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander in Iraq, and Lt. Col. John Nagl, somewhere on the shelf. As the military has shifted its approach toward counterinsurgency, the manual has become one of the most popular military publications.

At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I learned that the Counterinsurgency Center has translated that manual into Arabic so that soldiers advising their Iraqi counterparts could read from the same material. On the left, the manual appears in Arabic; the right in English. To look at it, you can almost see two counterparts sitting side by side explaining what they take from the words before them.

I, probably more than almost any other military reporter on Earth, was geeked to discover the manual came in Arabic as I speak Arabic. I quickly flipped through the pages thinking I would learn some new relevant Arabic words. As it turned out, I learned what I always suspected: the U.S. military is a language all to its own.

Now, to be fair, Arabic has about 100,000 words whereas English is comprised of roughly 1 million words. So it is often difficult to translate from one language to another. There is no Arabic word for counterinsurgency. On the cover, the Arabic translation roughly reads as "anti-revolution." Anti is written in Arabic by the way while revolution is in Kurdish.

But there are bigger proPicture_001blems. There is no way to translate the military's plethora of acronyms, so they appear in English in the midst of all this Arabic. Oh the poor Iraqi Army captain who has to figure out what COIN, HMMV, SOPs, TTP and OIF means.

Most amusing, the power point diagrams peppered throughout are not translated. They too appear in English. I cannot underestimate how significant power point is to the military. Everything, and I mean everything, has at some point been put into a power point presentation. In fact, I am convinced one could thread enough existing power point presentations to describe in great detail both U.S. military history and its current plans and strategies. Whether any civilian would ever understand it is something else.

So it is probably best that the diagrams and acronyms appear as they are. I am sure the Iraqi Army will learn a lot from the manual, just as they U.S. counterparts have, regardless. But when I bring my billingual eye to it, I can't help but think that some things simply cannot be translated. U.S. military lingo is simply a language of its own.


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Civilians need not understand Powerpoint. It is enough that we Powerpoint Rangers can accomplish the mission.

"This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it, but mine is [PowerPoint] 97 ... I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its fonts, its accessories and its formats ... My PowerPoint and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our subject. We are the saviors of my career."

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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