Stories like this from the Associated Press drive me nuts. The Afghan army is "hard to train." Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? [...] The average private soldier in Afghanistan does not need to be literate. Nor does he need diversity training, by the way. (FWIW, he probably has a lot more liberated attitude toward gays than does the average Marine recruit.) He only needs the sort of literacy classes described in the AP article if his American trainers lack the imagination and historical knowledge to train him to be an Afghan, instead of an imitation American, soldier. If we are going to make any progress in dealing with failed states, we are going to have to learn to train across cultures.
Thereafter, he received the following reader email:
I'm not sure what the point of your post quoting Tom Ricks was. His arguments that literacy is not a necessary skill for soldiers are ludicrous. He says "the average soldier in Afghanistan does not need to be literate" citing as authority Spartan soldiers at Thermopalye, who were apparently illiterate. However, I doubt that the Spartan soldiers had to operate and repair trucks, tanks, canons [sic] and other mechanized equipment, or do any of the myriad tasks a modern functioning army is supposed to do.
I suppose Ricks believes the Afghan army could do away with intelligence reports, uniform written protocol and procedures, or anything else of the sort. Hell, get rid of maps, since the soldiers don't need to be able read them. It's just ridiculous. I can't tell what basis he has for disputing the Maj. Gen.'s assessment that the literacy rate is an impediment to training the Afghan army other than some romanticized notion of the Spartan soldier, who needed nothing more than a stout heart and a sharp sword to defeat his enemy.
I'm also not sure what Ricks is suggesting with respect to the "diversity training," but if that is his euphamism for training that is supposed to instil a respect for the rights of other ethnic groups and tribes, I don't think it should be dismissed as casually as Ricks does.
I think both sides are overstating the case somewhat when it comes to the necessity or non-necessity of literacy, but that's not actually what interests me here. What interests me is nation-building, which is supposedly what we're doing in Afghanistan (let's ignore the obvious flaws inherent in that strategy for now).
One of the few points of agreement, to my knowledge, in the theory of the rise of nation-states is the importance of national, citizen armies. (Knowing this highly contested literature, it's entirely possible that there's a school of thought that dismisses this factor, but I have never encountered it.) The idea is that the technical and bureaucratic requirements of creating, maintaining, updating, and deploying such a force contribute mightily to the state's growth in terms of capacity, revenue, and control over its territory; and, more important for my purposes here, that the common experiences, training, and contact among citizens from disparate parts of the territory serves an important role in homogenizing them and helping them to identify with the whole nation, rather than a region or ethnic group. In this sense the military's role is comparable to that of nationally standardized education and national newspapers.
So if what we're trying to do is build an Afghani nation to go along with the state bureaucracy we've instituted, then literacy training, diversity training, really just about ANY training that is universal across diverse forces drawn from diverse locations, is in fact vital. Literacy and diversity training are positive things in their own right, in general, but from a particular academic perspective they're not necessarily the point (though there's a strong academic case to be made for literacy as well).
I do wonder--diversity training, while teaching us that we're all equal and so on, can have the effect of reifying and institutionalizing the categories across which we're equal. If we're trying to build a pan-Afghan identity, it might be more effective to have a policy of equal treatment and let experience of enforcement and example from senior officers do the work: after all, I don't think the British army of old spent a lot of time talking about how people from Kent are just as good as people from Liverpool, or whatever, but rather treated them the same--as soldiers. However, this a) is based on my own speculation and b) requires a functioning, standardized, and authoritative military bureaucracy, which Afghanistan decidedly lacks at the moment.
Another important difference here is that, in my understanding, the French and British citizen armies that came into existence at the dawn of those nation-states fought primarily outside the state's existing territory of dominion. This serves two purposes: it provides an operational imperative for soldiers to get along and function the same, no matter their local, ethnic, or sectarian origins, without complicating these questions with interactions with those origins (for example, deployment to those localities, interactions with those ethnicities, etc); and it allows the military to function as a fairly closed system with a homogeneous culture. Afghanistan, while it does have an operational imperative for functioning, uniform soldiers, faces conflicts largely within its borders. This complicates the building of homogeneous loyalties and experiences, and it makes the building of a distinct military culture and experience that can trump or at least influence preceding experience and loyalties much more difficult.
The thing is, as long as we continue to try to instill these principles from outside the organization, it won't work. These things happened in the European nation-states because they were politically and militarily beneficial. Arguably, the reason no comprehensive nation-state system has emerged in Afghanistan so far is that there's no political imperative for it. The processes and incentives just don't seem to be there. Given that, it's hard (for me) to see how this project can ever be successful--but I said I wouldn't get into that.
Regardless, the significance of these kinds of training is based solely neither in the cost to the American taxpayer nor in the operational relevance or irrelevance of their content. Spartan soldiers, after all, were not just trained how to use a sword and that's it; they were trained how to fight in formations, how to fight alongside their fellow soldiers, and they were trained to care what happened to their fellow soldiers and to the fortunes of their city-state. Similarly, while literacy is useful in learning how to operate equipment, it's arguably easier to learn such things through being taught hands-on by someone who already knows. Almost more important, from a nation-building perspective, than the content or use of what one learns in the army is what happens when one leaves the army: one carries a common experience, body of knowledge, and bond home with one, and an army of ones disperses these commonalities throughout the territory. Over time, the effects of this phenomenon contribute a great deal to the formation of a common identity.