Foreign Area Officers Help Bridge Cultural Divides
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2007 A cadre of military officers with special foreign language training and cultural expertise are helping the Defense Department and U.S. military bridge gaps between American allies and local foreign populations.
More than 1,400 foreign area officers, or FAOs, possess a vital foreign language, regional expertise and cultural awareness that are integral to the Defense Department’s warfighting capability, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Plans said at the Pentagon today.
“Foreign area officers are an extraordinary group of people who have in-depth knowledge of cultures, of regions of the world and languages of the world, sometimes the more difficult and strategic languages, who play an incredibly important part in our ability to communicate and work with other countries,” said Gail H. McGinn.
Strategic languages identified by the Defense Department include Arabic, spoken by an estimated 206 million as a mother tongue, and 246 million as a second language; Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s primary languages; and Chinese dialects.
FAOs work in the Pentagon on the joint staff, service staffs, and with the defense agencies as regional desk officers, planners and policy officers. They also work at combatant commands and U.S. embassies around the world, advising commanders on a region’s cultural aspects and geopolitical issues, and enhance military-to-military relations.
U.S. Africa Command, which is slated to become fully operational next October, will benefit greatly by having FAOs in place from the start, McGinn said.
“Those foreign area officers will know parts of Africa, they will know some of the languages of Africa, they will be able to be in the African community, talking with the leaders and advising,” she said, noting that other Combatant Commands have requested additional FAOs.
McGinn -- who has a language background in French, German and Danish -- said the Defense Language Institute is establishing a broad curriculum to address the steady demand for trained linguists across the globe. She noted that that by 2012, some 1,000 officers are expected to join the ranks of FAOs.
McGinn said the Defense Department and all military service branches established standards for FAOs several years ago. Officers seeking to become FAOs first must successfully perform their military specialty, speak a strategic or dominant language in their area of concentration, possess a graduate level education that focuses on their region of expertise and have experience and in-country training in the countries and region of their specialty.
“The personal touch of (FAOs) being able to understand and communicate in the language of the country you are situated in is a sign of respect for the country, and a sign that the United States is aware of the fact that we need to be able to communicate and operate in other places,” McGinn said. “It isn’t all about us being Americans and (speaking) English.”
FAOs are “key links” in building coalition partnership in regions across the world, McGinn said. “It is our corps of individuals who have professional foreign language capability, … (who are) our ambassadors, they can help us with alliances, they can help us understand parts of the world we find ourselves in,” she said.
Language has the unique ability to connect U.S. operators with people of other countries, McGinn said.
“To be able to communicate with the people, to understand what they’re saying, to understand what they’re thinking, to understand what their habits are and the correct way to interact with people … is incredibly important,” she said.