Monday, November 17, 2008

Interpreters Banned From Wearing Masks – the PSYOP Impact

Sometimes I struggle to get out a weekly post. I pride myself on combining the topical with a bit of sarcasm and perhaps a sense of history. Today’s post was prompted by an article in the Washington Post: “Ban on masks upsets Iraqi interpreters” (

I have had the pleasure to work with interpreters in both military and commercial settings and I can attest to the fact that a good interpreter is worth more than his or her weight in gold. This quote from the article that hit me pretty hard this morning:
"Now that Obama wins, they are going to leave sooner or later," said Maximus, who works with a psychological operations unit. "We've fought for them all this time. When it's all done, nobody appreciates it." (emphasis added by me)

We, in the PSYOP community tend to think of ourselves as a above the rank and file in terms of our understanding of human culture. PSYOP is about influencing people’s behavior and influencing behavior means you understand it.

I recognize that contractors are ‘employees at will’ meaning that they can be fired at any time for any reason. In analyzing the quote it struck me that hiring of interpreters in a hostile zone requires some thought to the end game – what happens after US forces leave. While there is no legal duty to care for at will employees, there appears to be not only an ethical duty but a logical and powerful reason why working with interpreters should take more of a long range view. It strikes me that if someone is putting their life and the welfare of their families on the line they are demonstrating a level of commitment beyond a simple paycheck.

Are interpreters in a hostile zone paid sufficiently to compensate for this exposure? Should the quid pro quo for an interpreter the really just paycheck? Seems to me there is more at stake here.

Cultural understanding is a prerequisite to information engagement success. Native speakers willing to work with or for USG causes and assignments are hard to find. Furthermore, the USG lacks credibility in the overall Muslim world partially because of a perceived USG cowboy mentality and a lack of credible spokespeople. A void which could be filled as former interpreters stream into journalism, business and government leadership.

The time has come to take a longer range view. In my opinion, each AO (linguistically divided) needs to assess their interpreter work force. Interpreters who are of college age or interested in pursuing journalism, public affairs or even business administration should be marked for future training in the US and/or put on a track to be connected with international publications and business organizations who will have a need for their services after US forces withdraw.

Interpreters who are ‘seniors’ should be groomed and encouraged to become peer leaders and influencers in their communities. We need to adopt the best practices of organizations who truly value employees and where employees repay that concern with longevity and superior service. In the case of interpreters, this service would be rendered for the overall good and supporting USG messages and efforts for years to come.

In short the PSYOP community in particular should get into the mentoring and outplacement business for its interpreters. This implies that the USG indeed gets its act together on how to employ the multiple forces of national power in concert to achieve its goals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. This can easily be argued as a matter of pragmatism, if the ethical argument doesn't persuade policy makers. Two easy points: First, good translators are hard to come by, they are not a dime a dozen. When it comes to psyop they are high skill labor, and our involvement in the Arab-Muslim world will not be short lived. People have memories and we need high credibility with these people when we interview them, in order to get the high quality people, and build relationships with them over time.
This ties into the second point, with is overall credibility of message in the Arab-Muslim community. These people will become examples to others in their communities, of a consistency between our message and our actions. It's easier to fight a negative rumor about US forces, when people have a concrete example like, "Abdul worked with the Americans and was treated honorably, so that can't be true."