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Right here at UM, one of the nation’s best intensive language programs teaches our military the languages of war—and of peace
During his second tour in Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Adam McCaw spent nine months with a twelve-man Special Forces unit in a small village deep in the Taliban heartland. Their assignment was to recruit, train, and arm local villagers to become policemen.
It was a dangerous job in a dangerous part of the country. McCaw and his team were posted near Kandahar, just down the road from the old compound of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But McCaw’s team finished their deployment intact. There were no IEDs, no ambushes, no Purple Hearts. Hollywood doesn’t make blockbusters out of war stories like these.
“The mentality is that if you’re not killing people and not being shot at all day, then you’re not doing your job,” McCaw says. “But we started thinking about it—if we’re doing our jobs, are they going to want to shoot at us?”
As Special Forces, McCaw’s teammates were trained to be elite fighters. But McCaw had something the other guys didn’t—a secret weapon that likely helped keep him and his group safe. He could read, write, and speak Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s primary languages.
When he arrived, McCaw met with village elders, introducing himself and his team in Pashto.
“I had respect for them, and I spoke to them like that,” McCaw says. “I gave respect, and they gave me respect.”
The seeds of that respect, and the language skills to express it, were planted in the six months McCaw spent at the University of Montana’s Defense Critical Language and Culture Program. During that time, McCaw and about twenty other Special Forces soldiers and Marines studied Pashto intensively with native speakers from Afghanistan. They learned the history of Afghanistan and how it has been invaded by world powers since Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. They learned the cultural taboos of the Pashtun people—how it is impolite to spit, to show someone the soles of your feet, or to hide your eyes behind sunglasses. They learned how to situate America’s conflict there in a greater geopolitical context.
“It was awesome,” McCaw says. “You can go to sniper school, but you rarely take 1,000-yard shots. But every single day I was using what I’d been taught. You knew you were doing the right thing when you saw a smile.”
And the results spoke for themselves. Villagers lined up outside the gate, asking to become police officers. McCaw and his teammates were training unprecedentedly large thirty-five-man classes. Soon they got visits from top brass.
“They were seeing the numbers,” McCaw says. “They wanted to know how the hell we were doing it.”
McCaw attributes his success to his cultural and language training at UM. He was the only soldier in the area who knew the language. Even his teammates, an aggressive group with little fondness for Afghanistan or its people, grew to respect the rapport McCaw established with the locals.
McCaw was a better soldier than ever. And it had nothing to do with holding his ground in a firefight. He was a frontline ambassador for the U.S., trying to make a positive change in a country wracked with problems. For McCaw, it all started with dialogue.
“And it’s hard to have a conversation with someone,” he says, “if you don’t know anything about them.”
Montana’s most famous senator, Mike Mansfield, grew up in the military. At age fourteen, he ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined the Navy in time for World War I. When the Navy discovered his real age, he moved on to the Army. When he was honorably discharged from the Army, he enlisted in the Marines, who sent him to the Philippines and China. That initial exposure to Asia changed the course of his life.
Mansfield went on to a storied career as the longest-serving majority leader in the U.S. Senate, in which he committed himself to bringing America and Asia closer together, and as a diplomat, in which he served as ambassador to Japan. Mansfield’s legacy was institutionalized in 1983 with the creation of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at UM.
The Mansfield Center hosts economic summits, educational exchanges, and political dialogue between Asian countries and Montana. It brings together business leaders, political players, students, and teachers.
“First and foremost, the Mansfield Center is about global education,” says Abraham Kim, the center’s director. “We bring the world to Montana. And we try to bring Montana to the world, as well.”
Given Mansfield’s experience in the military and commitment to Asia, it’s fitting that the Defense Critical Language and Culture Program is connected with the center that bears his name.
“Mike Mansfield would be yippy-skippy, off-the-charts excited about this program,” says DCLCP director Don Loranger. “It’s who he was.”
“Soldiers are diplomats, too,” he says. And it’s important to provide those frontline ambassadors with the cultural and linguistic tools they need to be the best representatives of America.
“The way to do that is not through force,” Kim says, “but through persuasion, diplomacy, and understanding cultures to help maintain peace and security around the world.”
The Defense Critical Language and Culture Program [DCLCP] was created at UM in 2008 with a congressional earmark from former Senator Max Baucus. The Department of Defense had recognized the need to train U.S. soldiers and Marines in the languages of conflict areas and of America’s military allies.
President Barack Obama drove this point home in a 2009 speech to veterans.
“In the twenty-first century,” he said, “military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures they understand.”
The program took root in UM’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center [see sidebar], which was created in 1983 to foster U.S.-Asia relations. Then-director of the Mansfield Center Terry Weidner tapped UM alumnus and retired U.S. Air Force Major General Don Loranger to set up and run the program.
Loranger grew up in Havre, Montana. The first time he heard people speaking another language, he was eighteen years old, working on a road construction crew in Gardiner. He overheard two German tourists on their way to Yellowstone National Park.
“I couldn’t believe they could communicate,” Loranger says.
It doesn’t take much investigation to see that America lags behind most of the world in learning foreign languages. Only about a third of Americans have passports, and only 18 percent speak a foreign language.
“As Americans,” Loranger says, “we’re not very good at that. We think everybody should learn English.”
Loranger took the opportunity to rectify that, at least in himself, with a thirty-year career in the Air Force, where he learned French and served in Germany, Belgium, Vietnam, Laos, and Iraq. During his international postings, he quickly appreciated the importance of communication.
“You can’t win the hearts and minds of people if you don’t speak their language or understand their culture,” he says.
When Loranger took the reins of the DCLCP in 2009, the first thing he did was go to the military. “It’s business management 101,” he says. “You go to the customer and ask what they need.”
The military said its first priority was training Army and Marine Special Forces in Pashto. So Loranger found some native speakers and cobbled together a Pashto program. In its infancy, the program had just four employees. Loranger knew the courses had to be flexible to meet the military’s needs. To improve “dwell time”— the time that troops spend with their families between deployments—Loranger introduced distance-learning courses. Now almost all instruction happens via video teleconference.
Today the DCLCP has thirty-eight employees and offers courses in Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, and Arabic. Future courses are planned for Tagalog, Russian, Thai, and West African French. The DCLCP is one of ten language schools competing for grant money from the Department of Defense, but it gets 38 percent of the funding.
“That’s how good our program is,” Loranger says. “We’re proud of that. Our results are far better than anyone else doing this. And the reason is faculty, faculty, faculty.”
One of those faculty members is “Sima,” an Afghan teacher who asked that her real name not be used for the safety of her family in Afghanistan. Loranger met Sima in 2010 at a conference in Tucson, Ariz. A senior officer was giving a speech about the mission in Afghanistan, and Sima asked him a pointed question about civilian casualties. He tried to dodge, but Sima wouldn’t let him off the hook. Loranger admired her tenacity and asked if she was interested in coming to teach Afghan languages at UM. She was just finishing her undergraduate degree.
The decision to move to Montana to teach American troops wasn’t easy for Sima. She understood that people in her country were conflicted about the U.S. military presence, because she, too, was conflicted. Sima spent her entire life watching Afghanistan be destroyed by invasion and civil war. Unlike many Afghans, she didn’t leave for Pakistan or Iran. During the Taliban rule, she secretly taught girls to read and write in her basement. The religious police once beat her for not wearing a proper headscarf.
So when America toppled the regime in 2001, she ran out into the street, as though to celebrate the rain after a long drought.
“I thought we were free,” she says. “We were in a cage for so many years, like a bird. The U.S. soldiers were welcomed with open arms.”
Sima watched the Americans repair schools the Taliban burned. They repainted them and fixed the chairs. They were helping rebuild the country, and Sima was hopeful. But as the years went by, security deteriorated. Suicide bombers, once unknown in Afghanistan, targeted military installations and government offices. U.S. convoys roared through Kabul in armored Humvees as nervous soldiers swiveled machine guns at women and children. Civilians died in drone strikes. U.S. patrols burst into homes unannounced, tramping prayer rugs with muddy boots. Suddenly America looked less like a liberator and more like another invader.
When Loranger offered Sima a chance to teach these troops, she knew it would put her family at risk. Cooperating with the American military could mean reprisals from the Taliban. But she also saw the opportunity to make the U.S. presence in Afghanistan more positive.
“I knew the importance of American soldiers in Afghanistan,” she says. “I knew the impact they would have.”
So Sima took the job. She earned her master’s degree in political science at UM and now, in addition to teaching Dari and Pashto, she is the DCLCP’s lead instructor. Sima hasn’t told her family in Afghanistan the specifics of her job. But she’s proud of the contribution she is making, both to the U.S. military and to her country.
“I’ve witnessed people being killed,” she says. “I took this job to save lives. I don’t remember a single minute of peace in Afghanistan. If these soldiers are better educated, they can help bring peace and stability in the country. I would do anything to bring peace to my country or the world.”
Creating a more peaceful world is an intrinsic part of the program, according to Loranger. Learning a language has a transformative quality that gives a student much more than the ability to construct sentences in a foreign tongue.
“I argue, once you learn any language,” Loranger says, “it changes the way you think.”
That change begins in several small, well-lit classrooms on the second floor of a business center in northwest Missoula. The classrooms have sound-absorbing padding on the walls, 47-inch TVs, video cameras, and smart boards. When a class is in session, one teacher sits in these rooms, broadcasting a lesson to up to six students sitting in a room on a military base in Kentucky, Washington, or North Carolina.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Byeong-Keun You is teaching Advanced Korean in Classroom Two to a group of soldiers in Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. In Classroom Four, Qing Liu is teaching a class in Advanced Chinese. Around the corner, Emma Datu, a graduate teaching assistant, is sitting in front of a monitor, leading four soldiers in a conversation about the news in Bahasa Indonesian. No one, in any classroom, is speaking in English.
At first glance, the space looks like standard office real estate. But there are Afghan carpets on the floor. A picture of the Great Wall of China hangs near a series of hand-embroidered tribal costumes from Afghanistan and a bank of international flags. The DCLCP is growing so quickly that it’s running out of room. A kitchen area is being fitted with the technology to turn it into a classroom.
The students in these language courses study for up to six hours a day. But they also get a dose of culture and history, courtesy of visiting UM professors and Owen Sirrs, a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College who had a career with the Defense Intelligence Agency as a Middle East specialist before joining the DCLCP.
At lunchtime, the teachers and graduate teaching assistants gather in a conference room. There are Koreans, Chinese, Indonesians, and Afghans.
“We’re kind of like the United Nations,” Loranger says. “Everybody gets along.”
One thing they share is a respect for the soldiers and Marines they teach, whose motivation and commitment to learning set them apart.
“The American Special Forces are the best students I’ve ever had,” says Fei Huang, a graduate teaching assistant from China. “They study very hard. They try to get as much as they can from me.”
Staff Sergeant Adam McCaw remembers how motivated he felt when he was studying Pashto. Unlike a traditional college language course, where students might be inspired by an upcoming backpacking trip in Europe, what McCaw learned could mean life or death for him in Afghanistan. He had a recurring nightmare that he was in battle alongside Afghan soldiers, and he forgot the Pashto words he needed to lead them.
“I would think about it daily,” he says.
After he got back from Afghanistan, McCaw wrote a Christmas card to his captain, asking how he was. “Things just aren’t the same,” came the response. “It’s probably because we don’t have a Pashto-speaking phenom on the team anymore.”
McCaw is back at UM as a civilian student, pursuing a degree in journalism and Chinese.
“I wanted to expand into another area of the world,” he says.
He’s studying journalism because one day he hopes to return to areas of conflict, this time with a camera instead of a gun. He looks forward to the objectivity.
“With photojournalism,” he says, “you can literally show up and not pick a side and present the story the way it truly is. And that’s amazing. You’re still in areas of conflict. You’re still dealing with amazing cultures. You’re kind of getting the best of both worlds.”
Wherever, and whenever he goes, McCaw knows that understanding the language and culture will be keys to connecting with people.
“It’s kind of like showing up to the test with the answers,” he says.
Jacob Baynham graduated from UM with a journalism degree in 2007. He writes for Outside, National Parks, and other magazines. He lives in Missoula with his wife, Hilly McGahan ’07, and their two sons.