Thu, Jul 19, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Begrudging service

Apathetic toward the military and averse to service, young Taiwanese question the idea of national defense as duty, complicating plans for an all-volunteer force

By Philip Tsien  /  Contributing reporter

Soldiers last month perform strategic maneuvers in Taiwan’s 34th annual Han Kuang military exercise in Taichung.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Chou Chien-yu (周建宇) was looking forward to enlisting in the military. Buoyed by a love of Taiwan, Chou saw his mandatory four-month military service as a noble civic duty, one he was eager to fulfill. Since retiring from the Republic of China (ROC) Army in May, though, Chou has made a striking about-face.

“My time in the army was a complete waste,” Chou says. “I wish I could get those four months back.”

Chou says that apart from rudimentary instruction in marksmanship, the bulk of his time consisted of cleaning the barracks and other odd jobs.

“Every day was spent sweeping floors or washing toilets. By the end of my first month, I couldn’t wait to leave,” Chou says. “I thought I could contribute something to Taiwan. But I was wrong.”

For young men like Chou, the experience is all too familiar. Born into a democratic society with robust civil liberties, they question both the purpose and efficacy of conscription. Their natural aversion to the military is buttressed by the impractical training and lack of resources they encounter while serving. And as the government transitions to an all-volunteer force, such disregard for national defense poses a challenge to recruiting able and willing soldiers.


Unappreciative of the role the armed forces play in securing Taiwan's national defense, youth see little point to the military. They sense no threat to their freedoms, and believe that conscription’s benefit to society is not worth the cost to their personal liberty.

Lin Chi-yi (林其億) finished his service with the ROC Marine Corps in April. He says that China need not use force to “defeat Taiwan.”

“What use are Marines against China’s economic power? How are our tanks and planes supposed to fight their renminbi?” he asks.

Cheng Da-ching (鄭大慶), who recently finished serving in the ROC Marine Corps, also doubts the risk of armed conflict.

“I think it’s unlikely that we will go to war. If there’s no real enemy to fight against, I don’t know why military training is necessary,” Cheng says.

Chinese threats of military action remain far removed from his daily concerns. But the disruptions his enlistment entailed were decidedly concrete. Cheng says that he had to put his “life on hold” after being assigned to serve in Kaohsiung, leaving his fiance, family and friends behind in Taipei.

To Cheng, the trade-off was laughable.

“Everything came to a standstill. And for what, a few months of service? It was ridiculous,” Cheng says.


Recent conscripts also say that they lack the preparation and experience to defend Taiwan against an attack. Low morale, antiquated equipment and unrealistic training reinforce their perception that national service is a fruitless endeavor.

Chou’s assessment is blunt: “Nothing I learned would be helpful in a war.” He spent weeks learning bayonet charges and basic martial arts, which “look cool but could not win a war.”

“If the enemy bombs our cities or storms our shores, what are we going to do — stab them with our knives?”

Lin is similarly wary of how well Taiwan’s current system prepares its soldiers. He says that unlike South Korea or Singapore, where men undergo two-year stints of compulsory service, Taiwan requires men to serve only four months, too short a period to be effective.

“What are we supposed to learn in four months? How to salute properly? We might as well not serve at all,” Lin says.

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