As a country that uses conscription, it would be a fair guess that Taiwan is one of the few nations where people know about and appreciate their troops.
Taiwanese have either served in the army, navy, air force or marine corps themselves, or had a father, son, brother or boyfriend in the military. Some conscripts have been lucky or unlucky enough, depending on your position, to serve in Kinmen and Matsu, the front line of the Cold War against Chinese aggression in the past.
Despite this familiarity or first-hand experience, the more people see and read about the military, the more confusing their impression of it becomes.
Just recently, people have seen Discovery Channel programs about Taiwan’s elite special forces, including the amphibious reconnaissance team (frogmen), underwater operations unit and army rangers. They have also seen news of the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), who died on July 4 — three days before he was to be discharged from the army — from heat exhaustion in an alleged torture case.
At the same time as feeling respect and awe toward the elite troops who go through hellish training to ensure Taiwan’s security, people were reminded in Hung’s case about the stiff and dysfunctional military bureaucracy, the severe culture and the numerous lives lost at its bases.
The military’s reaction in the Hung case perhaps reminded them about the instances of fraudulent documents and fake statistics when they served, and how the culture of the military is to cover up every mistake and stop information from leaking out to the non-military world.
In terms of transparent government, the military remains the last piece of uncharted territory. With its refusal to open a joint investigation with non-military prosecutors, the military has shown it is stuck in a time warp of two decades ago.
There are more conflicting impressions about the military to be found elsewhere.
Retired generals have talked about Taiwan’s military and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) military as “all Chinese troops.” Meanwhile, a military officer-turned-civil-servant was reported as telling incoming military recruits in Hualien County that “unification is inevitable.” However the Ministry of National Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Report lists the PRC as the “enemy” and the ministry calls for a larger defense budget to purchase weapons systems and fighter jets to close the gap in an increasingly imbalanced military state of affairs across the Taiwan Strait.
People see and hear of thousands of soldiers moving out in the middle of the night to help with disaster relief after major earthquakes and typhoons. And yet they also see how military officers defended their retirement pensions and year-end bonuses in the government’s pension reform plan harder than keeping confidential information away from the Chinese.
Why have almost 4,000 soldiers either died or been injured from 2002 to 2011, including more than 300 suicides, when Taiwan was not at war? If several reported suicide cases were suspected to have been the result of torture, inappropriate training or even murder, how many more soldiers met their fate from unknown or unidentified reasons?
None of this is good news for a military that is trying to transform itself into an all-volunteer force. It is facing exactly the same problem as its commander-in-chief, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九): a loss of credibility.