The first four minutes of my tour in Baghdad made painfully clear how unprepared I was for this new environment. I didn’t speak the language. It seems intuitively obvious that Iraqis, for the most part, don’t speak much English – but I’m not talking about Iraqis or the Arabic language. I’m talking about Americans, Brits and Australians – I’m talking about English. Or at least what I thought was English.
For the most part, I work with and for soldiers – that means Army – from the U.S., Australia and Great Britain. Unfortunately, we’re speaking completely different languages. Even when I can muddle through the accents of my allied peers or I can picture in my head the words just issued from the mouths of Army brethren, I remain clueless about what’s being said. True, I may have nodded my head and even mimicked some colloquialisms but if I had just been issued secret orders to capture Bin Laden, well, he’d be safe to spend another day toting his dialysis machine around the battlefield.
OK, time for caveats.
I’m not important enough to be getting orders to capture Bin Laden. Moreover, I’m the odd-man out here. This is a U.S. Army operation and, although I’m active duty military, I’m not Army. I am proud to serve with the Army and I’m humbled by the service of our soldiers – I just wish I had one of those pocket-sized linguistic dictionaries so I could figure out what it is they’re saying.
Not long ago I heard a college-educated Army officer make an entire sentence out of acronyms. I’m sure this sentence had a subject and a predicate and I’m sure 92 percent of the audience understood it – I only wish I was one of them.
On the Coalition Force intranet here in Baghdad there is a 300 kilobyte Microsoft Excel spreadsheet dedicated to decrypting U.S. Army acronyms – and it only covers this theater! A person must have a certain basic understanding of “acronymese” just to set foot in the door. Such obfuscation must be a cryptologist’s dream. For example, “JHQ BPT SPT BFC ICW MND-C” is not only a legitimate command, it’s also completely indecipherable to the enemy!
Acronyms aren’t the only language challenge I face. The Army is fond of employing everyday words or creating brand new words for application across a broad spectrum. The word “roger” is a prime example.
In the Army “roger” can mean a number of things, including “yes,” “I understand,” “I will” or, even, “you are correct.” It is not a word to be used with modifiers or qualifiers, with the exception of the word “sir,” which can be used at anytime. Proper usage of the word “roger” might look something like this:
Superior Officer: “Your brief was good … what do you think if MNC-I, ICW the BOC, provides QRF to MoI?”
Subordinate: “Roger” or, just as correct, “Roger, sir.”
God forbid if your name happens to be Roger.
Add a British or Australian accent to the ubiquitous usage of words like “roger” and to the aforementioned acronym gumbo and you can begin to imagine what I call “the mud-bug stare.”
“The mud-bug stare” is a term I use to describe the look I’m sure I must give my Australian boss every time we talk. It is the same look you find in the face of a crawfish in the moments before you place him into the crawfish boil. The crawfish may see your lips moving, and it probably has some sense of impending doom, but there’s not much communication beyond basic eye contact.
Sure, I’m no crawfish and my boss isn’t looking to put me in hot water, it’s just that there’s a bit of, shall we say, pressure to do things correctly and quickly.
Fortunately, this Australian is blessed with the gift of patience because every exchange we have requires at least three separate conversations.
The first conversation begins with my superior moving his lips and issuing some sounds from his mouth, to which I respond with a whole lot of “the mud-bug stare.” Only antennae extending three feet out of the top of my head could express more clearly that absolutely nothing he said has registered in my brain.
I always begin the second conversation by leaning a bit forward and staring more intently at my boss’s face. I also try to look more inquisitive. Sometimes I jot a word or two down on my little notepad. My boss soon realizes what has happened and redoubles his efforts. Fewer acronyms, smaller words, slower and I begin to understand. Perhaps one of my antennae might stick up.
With grace and resolve my coalition partner initiates a third volley. He throws in some more American-ese, drops usage of words like “fortnightly” or “bloke” and puts a “z” where he would prefer to have an “s.” And just as suddenly as night turns into day over a Louisiana duck blind, the incomprehensible is understood. I’ve got my orders and they are clear.