Interpreting for the U.S. Army of the Deaf

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Robert Ham. Photo courtesy of Robert Ham

It has been almost two years since the distressing scenes of packed airports, people chasing after departing U.S. aircraft and the Taliban emerging on top were witnessed with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Amidst the commotion and confusion, what was certain was the fear within one type of Afghan citizen, the interpreters of the American military. Without them, U.S. forces would have been an army of the deaf, engaging in pivotal and deadly operations in a country thousands of miles away.

Robert Ham, the director and writer of Interpreters Wanted, a film that centers around the life of two Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war, joins Robert Scheer on this episode of Scheer Intelligence. Ham, an Afghanistan War veteran himself, offers a sobering account of an often overlooked aspect of warfare. The attitude of indifference and detachment from the wars in which the U.S. involves itself by ordinary citizens was one of the reasons Ham wanted to produce this film. “[T]here is a big distance between our civilian class in America and the military class. There's a very different culture there. The military operates in these very micro cultures, and the media doesn't really understand what's going on over there. In America, [people] didn't seem to be super interested in what was happening over there,” Ham said.

This apathy described by Ham not only applies to the Americans in Afghanistan but towards the Afghan people themselves. It is through the interpreters that Ham and the thousands of soldiers deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan were able to learn about the countries, their culture and their people, as well as keep the soldiers alive. “[The interpreters] were not only indispensable, it was impossible to do anything without them. We had to take interpreters on every single mission. No matter where we went, there was always an interpreter with us and it was impossible to do pretty much anything other than fight,” Ham said.

With the release of this film, Ham hopes to shift attention towards the ongoing humanitarian crisis Afghans face in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. The takeover of the country by the Taliban has put thousands of lives in danger, beginning with the U.S.-hired interpreters and and their families, and the least that the U.S. could do is provide refuge to those who wish to escape the hellscape brought upon by the tw-decade occupation. Ham thinks help for the Afghan people, “should be a priority because of what they did for us while we were trying to, quote unquote, fix their country and in many ways, we probably made it a lot worse and now we've left them over there, even though we used them.”



Joshua Scheer