One of my students this week, Nathalie Boucher, a major in the French Army, is preparing for a NATO language proficiency test, preparatory to possible assignment with various NATO commands.
For several years I taught military officers in the Italian armed forces at the Italian Ministry of Defence. In general the standard of English there was high (and the higher the rank, the better the English, on the whole), but there was considerable anxiety about possible miscomprehension. One colonel, I remember, had been in charge of the Italian contingent in the NATO force massed on the border of Kosovo during the bombing campaign against that country in 1999. The commander of the operation was a British general, and my student would go over to his HQ on a regular basis for briefings. He told me he was terrified, given this was a live situation, that he would misunderstand an order, and so double- and triple-checked everything he thought he had understood, to the bemusement and irritation of his colleagues.
You don’t want to be invading a country by mistake. There is a famous (and apocryphal) story about a Great War front line commander who sent a message back to his HQ by runner, and in the process of Chinese whispers that ensued his despatch – ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’ ended up reported as ‘send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance’.
And there’s a frighteningly real story about Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief of the Anglo-French forces in the Crimea between 1853 and 1855, who had last seen active service in the Napoleonic Wars (he lost an arm at Waterloo), and who repeatedly threw his staff into bewildered panic by referring to the enemy (the Russians) as ‘the French’ (his allies). A different class of misunderstanding perhaps, but precisely the sort of thing NATO will want to be avoiding.