Special Forces troops and all Special Operations Forces for that matter are masters at relationship building with host nation forces that they live with, train, and fight alongside in the world today.
From the beginning of the OSS, the special operations forces had to earn the trust of their counterparts in occupied France before they could get the French Resistance to do operations that eventually tied up divisions of German troops behind the lines of Normandy. It carried over to the war in Vietnam where Special Forces A-Teams built camps all along the border of North Vietnam and recruited indigenous mountain tribesmen to create irregular defense groups.
Today the mission is no different although the area of the world has changed. And one of the best ways to earn the trust of the locals is to learn the language and customs. Sharing communal meals and hardships goes a long way with building rapport with host nation forces that Special Op’s troops will be embedded with.
Learning the language is paramount even if you’re not fluent, the act of trying to speak in host nation’s tongue is very important. Showing an effort that you want to learn the language, learning cultural nuances and customs shows respect for the local troops and people. And without the rapport with the locals, the mission is bound to fail.
In order to engage and earn the trust of a local population, you, the SF operator—must be able to speak their language, both literally and figuratively. You must be able to recognize and use to your and their advantage the local needs and desires.
In 2009, the Commander of USSOCOM wrote about the ability of Special Operations troops to build a relationship with the local troops was of paramount importance.
The complexity of today’s and tomorrow’s strategic environments requires that our SOF operators maintain not only the highest levels of warfighting expertise but also cultural knowledge and diplomacy skills. We are developing “3-D operators”—members of a multidimensional force prepared to lay the groundwork in the myriad diplomatic, development, and defense activities that contribute to our Government’s pursuit of our vital national interests.
Every prospective Special Operations candidate should strive to learn a new language. While the training in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) will include language training, don’t wait for that, take the initiative and do it on your own. Just about every college and junior college have language programs that candidates can sign up for. Programs like “Rosetta Stone” offer, learn at home software that are fantastic learning tools.
And sometimes the learning of an additional language will come in handy in the strangest of places. Who would think that having a Chinese linguist in Panama would be invaluable? Anyone? Bueller? Well, it just so happens that it did just that.
After the conflict with Panama in 1989 and the ouster of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) were disbanded. They were drawn down at much smaller levels and retrained as the Panamanian National Police (PNP). SF troops from 3rd Bn 7th SFG(A) conducted the early portions of the training until police instructors from the US could be brought in.
The country was split into six areas A-F and two SF OPATTs were assigned to each area to advise, train and monitor the local police forces. From Panama City, we received word in Area F that former military members loyal to Noriega were stockpiling weapons and that several crimes had occurred against the recent Chinese immigrants that settled in Panama.
The Chinese had immersed themselves in the culture of Panama and despite learning the language fluently in less than 18 months, were shunned by the locals. The Chinese were very distrustful of outsiders and wouldn’t talk to the local police. We were fortunate enough to have two Reserve SF soldiers who were cops at home in the US to augment us. One of them, a Vietnam vet was fluent in Mandarin Chinese which at the time of his arrival didn’t seem relevant, as well as Spanish.
Within five minutes of him speaking to the owners of a restaurant in the center of the area of operations, we were invited to dinner. Our linguist kept up a dialogue and knowing their culture, was a trusted ally immediately. Others were brought in and the information flowed quickly. The information that the community provided was extremely accurate, a number of weapons caches were found and confiscated. Also, a few assault cases and a double murder were solved because of their involvement.
Without the benefit of the language and customs, those avenues would have remained closed. And the Chinese community which had distrusted the Panamanian police now looked upon us as friends and nearly family. It was a rapport that sadly, was not maintained by the police after we were pulled out, we later learned.
When preparing for Selection and Special Operations training, we tend to focus on the physical aspects of the training in our preparation, which is understandable. But don’t neglect nor forget the very important part of being prepared. And that is being able to build rapport with the host nation forces that you’ll hopefully someday be embedded with.
You will be as reliant on them as they will be to you. A big part of mission success will depend on the team building rapport with the local military forces and the populace. And the first step of that is being able to communicate in their language and learn the cultural nuances of the country or region. The opportunities are out there and easily available to you…You’ll be glad you did.
Photo courtesy of DOD