Veterans Day: Hidden War Heroes

The wild patriotism that occurs every 4th of July is infectious, and the celebration of America’s freedom resounds through the nation. The fireworks have long since faded, but November is a good time to thank those who fought for and protected that freedom. November 11th marks Veterans Day in the United States, an annual federal holiday to commemorate and celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans.

So why November 11th? The  date is the last day of World War I, back in 1918. Then-president Woodrow Wilson declared the date as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. Though the armistice itself wouldn’t last long, the holiday persevered. November 11th, 1921 saw the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, where an unidentified soldier killed in the war was buried.

In 1926, Congress passed a resolution that Armistice Day should be commemorated “with thanksgiving and prayer,” and in 1938 the date was made into a legal federal holiday. In 1954, after the conclusion of World War II, the name of the date was finalized as “Veterans Day” and November 11th became the a day to commemorate American veterans of all wars. (Veterans Day is not to be confused with Memorial Day; Memorial Day is to remember those who became injured in service or perished, while Veterans Day pays tribute to all veterans, especially those still living).

Even though many of us know a veteran or have one in the family, there are still misconceptions surrounding members of the military. One common misconception is that  members of the military are hot-blooded grunts with boots on the ground and  weapons in hand. However, there is a wide variety of careers available in the military beyond the mere physical, including those in linguistics, especially in interpreting and translation. The tradition of using language in the military has a long history that continues to this day.

As one might expect, the use of foreign languages in warfare is hardly a new concept. The international dimension of the world wars naturally led to a demand for multilingual Americans who could communicate with both the allies and the enemy forces. Stateside saw the use of code talkers (bilingual soldiers), who could use obscure languages to send secret tactical communications during wartime.

Many Americans associate code talkers with Native Americans, especially with the Navajo in World War II, though the Cherokee and Choctaw peoples pioneered the craft in World War I. The employment of code talking was not limited to the United States: Nubian-speaking people were employed for code talking by Egypt in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and Welsh was used in Balkan peace-keeping efforts. These choices are obvious. Non-speakers of the language would find it nearly impossible to distinguish unfamiliar sounds in these languages. Furthermore, one who learns a language later in life would have quite a challenge sounding like someone who has been speaking the language since birth, so it was extremely difficult for an impostor to send a message. This is what made Navajo such a popular choice. Virtually no one outside the Navajo people could speak the language, and there were few books published in the language. It was almost impossible to learn, especially under layers of cryptography.

The role of bilingual persons in the military continues to this very day. Interpreters who work in the military perform a variety of tasks, including preparing translations to and from a target language, assisting military contract officers with local purchases, facilitating communication between other soldiers and locals who don’t speak English, acting as escorts for foreign dignitaries, and assisting with the training of foreign forces. They can also be responsible for interviewing prisoners of war and civilian informers in their native language.

The role of interpreters doesn’t end after the warfare stops, however. Linguists are also invaluable in coordinating efforts during peacetime. In terms of work environment, interpreters can work in an assortment of locations, from military bases to working aboard ships or in airplanes. What languages are in demand? Though the current search is for speakers of Arabic dialects, those not fluent in the language can receive training by the military after proving an aptitude for language learning.

Much like their stateside counterparts, army interpreters act as an invaluable linguistic bridge between cultures. However, as war continues to become increasingly mechanized, so too does the role of the interpreter. The government is currently developing a two-way voice translation device that would come equipped with multiple languages, especially with French dialects in preparation for mobilization in Africa. This is intended to cut out the “middle man” (the interpreter), but just as online translation via machine can be variable and outright incorrect in contrast to a human interpreter, these machines might still have a long way to go before they become as reliable as their human counterparts.

Until then, military linguists continue to provide invaluable assistance to America’s efforts abroad. So as you think of whom you may want to express gratitude toward this Veterans Day, remember the linguists who spent their time (and often gave their lives) overseas working to make the cultural divide a little bit narrower.

Special for Bromberg by Jillian Lewczynski 

Jillian Lewczynski is an International Affairs major with German minor.

Photo: © Wildkatphoto / – Train and Advise Photo