The death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) has created a massive backlash and dealt the army a peacetime defeat. The case exposed a long-standing problem in military culture.
When Andrew Yang (楊念祖) was appointed the first civilian minister of national defense in a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), we could have narrowed the gap between military culture and social values, taking a first step toward military reform.
Just as reform was about to happen, the military suffered another blow when Yang resigned after only six days. The approval ratings for both Ma and the military slumped due to a series of military scandals, which have been the greatest frustrations to military reform.
A civilian defense minister is normal in a democracy. It is an indication of a democracy’s maturity. Under the National Defense Law (國防法), a defense minister can command the armed forces. The military will only be able to perform at its best when both the military and the civilian systems are allowed to do their jobs. For those who still have reservations about a civilian defense minister, it may be a matter of sour grapes or a misunderstanding.
A civilian defense minister is no guarantee of successful military reform, but it would be a first step. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) appointed a civilian as defense minister in February 2008, but Michael Tsai’s (蔡明憲) appointment came too late, making reform implementation difficult.
Ma has had much better conditions than Chen had to appoint a civilian defense minister. Unfortunately, he attaches little importance to national defense, seeing it as a tool to be called on when needed and then dismissed — a useless hammer in peacetime. He lacks enthusiasm for defense reform, let alone the cultivation of a civilian defense administrative team.
The political appointees in charge of national defense issues at the National Security Council are a reserve talent pool, but Ma has given all the defense positions to military leaders. Yang did not even dare hire a civilian policy secretary when he entered the Ministry of National Defense. When he had to step down due to a plagiarism scandal, there was no one that could move into his position. The KMT is close to the military, so it is ironic that the party cannot find a civilian replacement for Yang.
As the scandal surrounding Hung’s death grows, angry military officers often say: “Television commentators are vicious, politicians are hateful and angry youth who have not performed their military service are pathetic.”
If the military cannot even resist attacks from media pundits, politicians and angry youth, how will it be able to resist the People’s Liberation Army? Reputation is what others think of you, but aspiration lies with you. The US military lost its reputation in the Vietnam War, not its aspiration. It managed to regain public trust during the Gulf War.
While serving in the ministry, I heard of some military misconduct, but I saw even more hard-working officers with a sense of responsibility. If the good ones want to drive out the bad, the military must ignore embarrassment and engage in self-reflection.
Without a civilian defense minister, the military is led by a flag officer. No matter how open-minded the military defense minister is, all personal enmities from before he was promoted could become a burden on reform.
Tsai served as a civilian defense minister for about 100 days under Chen. Yang remained at the post for six days. What a pity. The last hope for military revitalization lies with our military personnel. Hopefully, they can make a difference.
York Chen is an assistant professor in the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University.
Translated by eddy chang