Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The inmates are running the asylum

Readers of my blog may remember my having mentioned our excellent Albanian- and Serbian-language translators, Mr A and Mr Z. They've been an integral part of U.S. Army Chaplain Team efforts over the past five KFOR rotations.

I found out yesterday that both of them are being furloughed at the end of the month, because they didn't score well enough on some English proficiency exam or other. As is common knowledge, both here and back home in the States, the multinational forces here are downsizing, and as a consequence the number of support personnel here on Post (and elsewhere) is, quite naturally, shrinking.

The only criterion for a translator being kept on, from what I gather, is performance on the exam I mentioned above.

As some of you know, I can be pretty picky about English grammar and syntax. My biology students have often grumbled about losing points for misspellings and poorly-written sentences. "I didn't know this was an English class," many would kvetch.

That being stated, I have had no problems understanding the English spoken by either Mr A or Mr Z. I trust them to translate accurately what I've said; with them, this has never been a concern of mine. Their English is fine!

Exam performance alone might suffice as a criterion for retaining translators working for other Staff sections here, but for what we Chaplains do, it is definitely not enough!

The Army "Unit Ministry Team" usually consists of a Chaplain and Chaplain Assistant. In practice, for what we're doing here in Kosovo, the Unit Ministry Team also has another member: our translator. This is especially crucial because Chaplains/Chaplain Assistants switch out every time a new KFOR rotation arrives.

Our translators provide much-needed continuity, over the span of years, in terms of what we have been tasked to do in Kosovo: to build up relationships of mutual trust and understanding with religious leaders across our Area of Operations (AO).

Mr A and Mr Z

Mr A and Mr Z are the "institutional memory" for what Chaplains have been doing over the past five KFOR iterations. Politicians come and go, and therefore interpreter continuity is not as important a consideration as it is for Chaplain teams. The religious leaders for whom Mr A and Mr Z interpreted during KFOR-8 (and KFOR-9 and KFOR-10 and KFOR-11) are the same religious leaders they're interpreting for during KFOR-12.

In all likelihood, those same religious leaders will be dealing with Chaplains from KFOR-13 (and beyond, presumably).

Those religious leaders know and trust Mr A and Mr Z. In turn, because of their long association with those Bishops, Muftis, Priests, and Imams, Mr A and Mr Z are able to contextualize for incoming KFOR rotations what's happening in the present, in terms of what's gone on historically -- over the span of many years, and not just during the previous KFOR iteration.

That sets up incoming Chaplain Teams for success, and for furthering the accomplishment of the mission we've been given as Chaplains who meet with those important religious leaders.

This is of critical importance to our mission as Army Chaplains.

But the unelected, unappointed, lowest-bidder civilians for whom the interpreters actually work don't care about that.

"Go ahead and file an I.G. complaint," a civilian is reputed to have said, relative to this situation. "We have a contract, and by the terms of the contract, all that matters is the score on the test."

I understand and fully support civilian oversight of the military in the United States. It's one of the things that makes us a great nation. However, that civilian oversight is performed by civilians who have been *elected* according to Constitutional norms, or who are *appointed* by those elected officials, and then approved by duly-elected representative bodies.

In this situation, it sure seems as though unelected, unappointed, lowest-bidder civilians are dictating how the military conducts its business.

I do not understand this, especially since it has the potential to damage significantly what Chaplains have worked for -- under military orders -- for so long to accomplish here.

A few months ago, for example, I was able to meet with a religious leader who'd not agreed to meet with KFOR personnel since KFOR-9. My interpreter was able to fill me in on what had transpired during the past two rotations, and how we might overcome the pitfalls encountered by our predecessors.

His insight and wisdom were spot-on, and we managed to snag an hour-long meeting with the individual in question. What a difficult hour that was, as it turned out! But I was at least somewhat prepared for what eventuated (though I psychically felt as though I'd not be able to sit down for a week afterward), and therefore didn't feel 'ambushed' by what transpired.

I communicated the person's concerns to the appropriate personnel back here on Post, and I count the interaction a success, albeit an uncomfortable one.

Had it not been for our interpreter's "institutional memory," I wouldn't have gotten to meet with the religious leader in the first place, because I wouldn't have known how to make that happen, and even if I'd been able to finagle a meeting somehow, I am quite sure I'd not have been prepared for what actually occurred.

Sure, Liaison Monitoring Teams (LMTs) file lots of reports, which eventually get copied into some archive or other. Perhaps someone could wade through the many gigabytes'-worth of those files for the past five years and get a sense of what's gone on. But I defy anyone to do that, and come up with the "institutional memory" possessed by our translators!

When either Mr A or Mr Z calls up a Bishop (Orthodox or Roman Catholic) or a Mufti or a Priest (Orthodox or Roman Catholic) or an Imam, the person on the other end of the line knows who's calling, because they've been dealing with Mr A or Mr Z for so long now. In a culture in which relationship is so important, this consideration cannot be dismissed lightly.

After so many years of building up these relationships, for no reason other than "the terms of the contract," the Chaplain teams from KFOR-12 and beyond are now going to have to reivent the wheel.

Mission effectiveness be damned, evidently.

Thanks, Mr. Unelected, Unappointed, Lowest-Bidder Civilian. I didn't realize you were signing my Operation Orders (OPORDs) and Fragmentary Orders (FRAGOs) now and determining how the Army is to accomplish its mission.

This situation gives new depths of meaning to the phrase "civilian oversight of the military."

The inmates are truly running the asylum.

(This is, as ever, just my own personal opinion of what these civilians are doing....)

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ
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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Fr. Tim, I am a soon to be over 50 Chaplain (currently waiting for my Oath of Office form so I can enroll in CHOBLC) and I found your blog and truly enjoy your wit...I found myself laughing aloud. I know your are at the end of your tour and I want to thank you for your service to the soldiers that serve our country. Our son completes a year long tour in Iraq and could of used a chaplain like yourself...be blessed and welcome home.


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