The 921 Earthquake and the disastrous flooding caused by Typhoon Morakot prove the point: In the face of a major disaster, the military is a necessary — possibly the only — major organization in relief operations. However, the Taiwanese military has always treated disaster relief as a sudden and temporary matter. The Ministry of National Defense’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, does not list disaster relief as one of its tasks.
This has two consequences. First, no training for troops at any level has ever included disaster relief or disaster prevention, nor have any joint disaster relief exercises been held by the military, police and fire departments. In addition, military procurements do not include disaster relief equipment such as large helicopters. When troops back at base have nothing to do, it seems their officers would rather tell them to sweep floors and do physical exercises than organize disaster relief drills.
Second, because the military does not consider disaster relief to be one of its responsibilities, they adopt a passive approach to disasters and will do nothing unless they are told. Both the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法) and the Regulations for Applying for Military Disaster Support (申請國軍支援災害處理辦法) stipulate that local governments can only apply for military support if they are unable to cope with disaster relief themselves, but that such applications must not extend beyond the scope of the military’s support capability. In addition, local officials must submit a written explanation of the situation and specify how many troops and pieces of equipment and machinery are required.
This means that local military commanders do not need to actively form an understanding of the disaster or actively draw up plans for support efficiency. This is why, when flooding in Pingtung County reached the second floor of local buildings, the military incomprehensibly sent unusable armored personnel carriers rather than inflatable boats, and then, in a strange turn of events, went on to blame the county government for not specifying what it wanted.
Why is the Ministry of National Defense so passive in the face of disaster? Because, according to traditional military thinking, disaster relief is unrelated to military exercises. Former chief of the general staff Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明) once said at an internal meeting that the military focuses on war exercises, and that “unless it is really necessary, disaster relief should be handled by local governments.”
After Typhoon Toraji hit Taiwan in 2001, Tang expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the military had been forced to interrupt a military exercise to participate in disaster relief.
In times of war, the military is involved not only in combat but must also maintain social order and handle casualties and panic among civilians. If the military lacks the experience and the capability to cooperate with police and fire administrations in disaster relief in times of peace, presumably it would simply let civilians fend for themselves in times of war.
Disaster relief training and military exercises have a high degree of overlap. Participation in peacetime disaster relief can prepare forces for an adverse wartime environment, including the destruction of equipment, communications failures, water and electricity shortages and severed lines of transportation. It could also test the military’s capability to move and restore communications quickly and to swiftly overcome an adverse topography through rebuilding infrastructure.
The capability to gain an understanding of a disaster situation in peacetime is also closely related to the capability to gain a firm understanding of enemy movements and casualties during war. This requires that the military form a good grasp of a changing situation — necessary in peace and in war.
Put simply, a military lacking disaster relief capabilities lacks the capability to wage war. Participation in one genuine natural disaster relief effort could be more effective in improving combat capabilities than a dozen military exercises. It also reveals problems with command, control, communications, intelligence, investigation, search, level of personnel training and suitability of equipment.
Compared with the Taiwanese military’s extracurricular approach to natural disasters, the Chinese military has always treated it as part of its tasks. Disaster response has been included in China’s defense white paper for many years, and in 2005, China also promulgated regulations on army participation in disaster rescue work.
The regulations stipulate that it is an important mandate of the military to carry out disaster rescue work.
They also stipulate that local military forces must provide relief assistance and report to their superiors when a local government requests assistance; that if local forces learn of a disaster zone, they must provide relief and report to their superiors; that when a local government organizes a disaster relief command center, the local military officer in charge of the corresponding military unit must take part; and that in areas often struck by disaster, the military and the local government must hold regular joint disaster relief exercises.
With this system in place, Chinese commanders cannot sit around and wait for local governments to request assistance, nor will they go unpunished if they provide too little help.
The military follows orders. If Taiwan’s leadership had been willing to issue them, the military would not have been so slow to react. It is frustrating that victims of this disaster were stuck with a commander-in-chief who would not issue orders.
If we would rather not hear excuses along the lines of “the law does not tell the military to save people if they are not asked to do so” or “the commander-in-chief did not order the military to mobilize,” then perhaps we should emulate China and enact military disaster relief legislation.
The commander-in-chief is not necessarily a capable person, but saving people’s lives is not a task that can wait until the commander-in-chief issues an order. If, in future, the duty to actively participate in disaster relief can filter down to local regiments, military police command centers and logistics command centers, we would at least not have to behold the preposterous sight of soldiers who want to rescue people holding back for want of orders.
Liang Wen-chieh is deputy director of New Society for Taiwan.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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