Critics on Wednesday spoke out against last year’s abolition of the conscription exemption previously provided to professional athletes, saying the change is a violation of athletes’ rights.
Under the rule, all Taiwanese soccer players who qualified for the World Cup or other major international soccer tournaments had been allowed to complete a short 12-day alternative service program in lieu of the standard one-year military conscription. The rule was last year rescinded for all but those who have contracts with foreign soccer clubs.
Unquestionably, professional soccer players who win international competitions are important for the nation, if for no other reason than bringing the country exposure. However, should the government not consider other sports equally important?
As professional athletes are effectively entertainers, should singers and actors who perform globally not also be exempt? What about people who make great contributions to society, for example through the study of law or medicine? Recognizing the contributions of one group and not those of others will only breed protest and contempt.
Other countries with conscription, such as Israel, provide exemptions on medical or moral grounds, which is arguably more reasonable, but it is debatable whether conscription is ever the best recruitment method.
Brazil and Denmark have conscription, but both have met recruitment targets with volunteers over the past few years. The US military, which is the world’s largest by most measures, is made up entirely of volunteers. The government must take a cue from countries with all-volunteer militaries.
Some of the ways the US has been successful in recruiting for its military have been to offer financial incentives and career advancement opportunities. One change implemented in 2014 allows for breaks in service so that officers can work in the private sector and later return to the military.
“What if you entered the air force knowing you could serve for a few years, then go to work for an innovative tech company and then return to the air force?” US Air Force Major General David Allvin said at the time.
The US government also allows immigrants to serve in the military to become citizens. In 2015, it introduced a debt-forgiveness program for new graduates who enter the military and revamped the career-advancement model to refocus it on merit and performance, rather than time served. Last year the military doubled signing bonuses to US$40,000 and introduced a monthly bonus of US$500 for those who stay in hard-to-fill posts after the first year.
Arguably the decision to join the military for many Americans is not only informed by financial incentives, but by the stature of the military in the US.
In a Dec. 7, 2014, opinion piece in the Boston Globe, commentator Stephen Kinzer said that the US’ fetishization of the military is a relatively new phenomenon that was brought about by rituals at sports events and other public venues, where the honor guard performs and soldiers give speeches.
An article published on Oct. 28 last year on The Economist’s Web site talked about how the walls of US bases in Iraq were covered with thank-you cards sent by US schoolchildren.
The article also cited then-White House chief of staff John Kelly as attacking critics of the military by saying that they “have never experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do — not for any other reason than they love this country.”
The solution to the nation’s military recruitment problem does not lie in conscription, nor can grievances about conscription be solved with selective exemptions. The government must instead make service in the military attractive to young people.
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