"To provide outstanding young military leaders an unsurpassed opportunity to achieve fluency in a foreign language, pursue graduate study at an overseas university, and acquire an in depth understanding of foreign cultures, thereby further equipping them to serve in positions of great responsibility as senior leaders in the United States Armed Forces."
Friday's visit to TALIM by Olmstead Scholars Captain Jamil Musa (left, USAF) and Captain David Saunders (right, USMC) educated us about this longstanding program (since 1959) that helps create internationally-aware military officers.
You may knowingly remark that lots of soldiers in the US military are fully aware of foreign locales, places like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan…
Yes, that's true. But in an institution as large and far-flung as the US military, it's still probably an exception to find people like our two young officers, spending an extended course of study at a Moroccan university, immersed in the language and culture of their Moroccan counterparts. That's deep education, and hats off to the George and Carol Olmstead Foundation for sending them our way.
Already, with our hosting of the Tangier CLS program, we do our best to encourage young Americans to learn Arabic beyond the textbook.
This is Professional Military Education (PME), but to a different tune than the usual service school (West Point, Naval Academy) or war college routine. Surprising, perhaps, but then again, the US military has the means to invest in infrastructure of all sorts, including the education of its future leaders.
I remember studying Arabic years ago with some US Army officers, who, unlike me – studying with a follow-on assignment to Egypt – had no idea if or when or where they'd be using their Arabic. One of them explained, "the Army decides it needs to pre-position X-thousand tanks in the Arabian Peninsula, in the event… (this was in the early 1980s, so he was very prescient). Well, like tanks, they also say – 'we need x-dozen Arabic-speaking officers…'." Stockpiled, so to speak, to be deployed at the right time and place.
Several Middle Eastern wars later, the Army presumably has hundreds of Arabic speakers, so the refinement of the Olmstead program is that the uniformed services will also have a handful of officers who will have deep knowledge of Arab societies like Morocco which are not at war. Countries where young people struggle to get an education and enter the job market, or find a place to live to raise a family. That kind of deep knowledge is longlasting, and can be of use in war or in peace.
If you tell me, I'll listen.
If you show me, I'll see.
If I experience it, I'll learn.
– Lao Tse, 430 BC
That snippet is from an Air Force document looking at PME in 2020. Not that far away, and in an age when the US no longer has a monopoly on strategic thinking. Lao Tse knew the value of experience in learning back in 430 BC. In the 21st century, his modern Chinese descendants are vying with Americans to learn Arabic.
That's why General Olmstead's investment in several generations of internationally-aware officers is so important. It's not just the tool of language, it's also the qualitative experience of their immersion in foreign culture that will last them a lifetime.