IN 1974 IN VILLARS, SWITZERLAND, I SHARED A "TELEcabine" ride up to the Roc D'Orsay ski lodge with a waitress from Holland who spoke Dutch, German, English, French, and Italian. When I asked how she knew so many languages, she said, "Holland is a small world; we have to." When I asked what a woman with five languages was doing waiting on tables, she said, "I like waitressing."
The United States has become a "small world" too since then, and shrank considerably two Septembers ago. But any serious thought that "we have to" become proficient in other world tongues has been a delayed reaction.
The crying need for "human intelligence" in general-and foreign-language mastery in particular-may now get bumped to top priority as a result of the bomb set off in the Washington playground when David Kay resigned in January as head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, stating that prewar intelligence was "almost all wrong."
President Bush's enemies are gleeful, but, interestingly, even Mr. Kay isn't blaming the president. Truman's Oval Office plaque notwithstanding, the former chief U.S. arms inspector thinks the buck stops at the CIA itself for being suckered by disinformation, and failing to have good sources. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), speaking last summer, the problem predates this current administration. He claims that well before 9/11, "we had a hard time figuring out what was going on because our foreign intelligence was decimated. The human intelligence was decimated in the 10 years before [under Clinton]."
On Sept. 12, 2001, shelved intercepted messages predicting the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were finally translated. A superpower's defensive soft spot had hit home.
J. David Galland, a 33-year veteran of the military intelligence community, laments: "Here is one blunt truth: The military requirement that the United States has needed to ... build a worldwide coalition to hunt down the al-Qaeda terrorist network coldly confirms the gross strategic intelligence failure stemming from decades of congressional inattention, neglect, and political opposition to the necessary work of intelligence."
Mr. Kay traces the etiology of disaster to decisions made in the 1970s to focus on gee-whiz technology like satellites at the expense of developing human sources on the ground. What's the good of being able to tap messages through mobile phones ("technical intelligence") if we can't read what we've intercepted ("human intelligence")? The five foolish virgins of infamy had the lamps, all right, but they neglected to bring the oil.
"Terrorism by its nature doesn't involve armies with usually identifiable weapons on a battlefield. It's elusive and sophisticated.... [T]oo much reliance on technology and technical intelligence is not really very appropriate.... There, you need human intelligence," according to Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He goes on to say, "That means shifting resources and a greater emphasis on recruiting people who are suitable for that work, with language skills, with the knowledge of the area."
The language-skills problem was a thorn in Mr. Kay's side long before his resignation, when he was already frustrated by "more than nine miles of documents relating to" WMDs in Iraq that sat collecting Persian dust for lack of qualified translators (WORLD, Dec. 6, 2003). Everette Jordan, director of the National Virtual Translation Center, calls our country's assumption that terrorists will all speak English "linguistic arrogance."
V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports, C-130 airlifters, B-2 Spirit bombers, Joint Strike Fighter fighter-bombers, and RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopters are swell, but you eventually need men in the Baghdad bars who can talk to somebody who knows somebody who has a tip on where Osama bin Laden hangs out. And they'd better have their colloquialisms and local table manners down pat.
What I know about learning a foreign language is that it takes a decade or so before you can do it even half badly. There are 29 rules governing the use of the definite article the, and your 3-year-old knows them all intuitively, but my Ph.D. husband never got the hang of it. And don't even get me started on the misunderstandings that arise when cultural subtleties are not adequately apprised.
All of which seems to have implications that trickle down to the very earliest levels of educational brainstorming. Science tells us that second-language acquisition is most effective the earlier you start; with every year of a child's life the window of opportunity closes a bit. Perhaps nations, like children, have windows that we had better make use of while there's still time.