Monday, January 29, 2007

Language Ties

Language has been one of the more obvious ways to group countries in the world, especially if a “first” or primary” national language is identifiable.

Unique in this schema – and granting a very wide latitude in the definition of “English” – are the five major countries in which English is the national first-language: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. (This listing also ignores the fact that each of these countries, including Britain, had non-English-speaking indigenous inhabitants and today has some residents who have not learned English even as a second language.)

This common linguistic bond reinforced political ties between Britain and three of the four other countries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Canada stayed with Britain, refusing to support the upstart colonists to the south in what became the United States. Language helped cement ties between Australia and New Zealand with Britain in the 19th century in the Crimean War. It tied these three to Britain in the two world wars long enough for the U.S. to finally enter the wars and turn the tide on the western front of World War I and in Europe and Asia in World War II.

The same array of English-speaking countries became involved in new wars in the new millennium almost as soon as the calendar ushered in the 21st century. First came Afghanistan in October 2001, followed by Iraq in March 2003. This time the United States was in the lead from the beginning. Considering the world’s initial response to the events of September 11, 2001, it is not surprising that, as of January 2007, among the now 37 countries with troops in Afghanistan, Britain has the second largest contingent (surpassed only by the U.S.) at 5,200 (down 800 from November 2006), Canada is fourth (behind Germany) at 2,200 (up 200 from November), Australia has 500 (up 300 from November) and New Zealand 100 (unchanged). Britain and Canada have each lost more than 40 soldiers.

In contrast in Iraq, as President Bush decides to “surge” 21,500 more U.S. troops into Baghdad and Anbar province, other English speaking countries that sent troops in 2003 as part of the invasion force were either gone – New Zealand – or had removed significant numbers of troops – Australia down 541 or 39% and Britain down 1,300 or 15%. Canada never joined. Moreover, Britain is indicating that it may withdraw a further substantial number of soldiers sometime in 2007.

Reports from London confirm that the British people want their troops out of Iraq. The British Army Chief wants to draw down his troops in Iraq because the army is stressed. (Sound familiar?) Now more and more politicians want Tony Blair to “tie up the loose ends” on Iraq before he relinquishes the prime minister’s chair to Gordon Brown. That change is anticipated this summer.

President Bush could do worse than starting to tie up his own loose ends. Given that the U.S. presence in Iraq is twenty times larger than the UK’s, Bush needs to start now if he is to make a dent in the number of soldiers in Iraq who speak American English instead of the dominant languages spoken by the Iraqi people.

After all, it’s more important to do what is right than to simply talk about it – in any language.


Blogger rasphila said...

There is one other tie among these English-speaking countries: they were all, at one time and in one form or another, British territory. England was the great imperial power of the late 18th and 19th centuries (and into the twentieth). The territory that is now Iraq was British for a period following World War I.

This is not an attempt to blame the current mess on the British. Iraq is a U.S. blunder, dragging Tony Blair in its wake—and it has never been popular with either the Labour Party or the British public. But it seems that the public in the ex-colonies and in England has learned from history. And the U.S. has not.

10:29 AM  

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