The Armed Forces Museum’s YouTube ad for its latest exhibition looks something like a trailer for a new disaster film. Serene Taipei is violently interrupted by a nuclear blast, and as the mushroom cloud rises, another explosion destroys the entire city including the stately Taipei 101 skyscraper. A dark, transformers-like machine drops down from the sky to rule over the destruction, but is stopped in its tracks by a green robot, which triumphantly morphs into a Hua-An 100 decontamination vehicle and its brave crew: the “Dragon Soldiers” (龍騰勇者) or the ROC Army Chemical Corps.
The exhibition commemorates the 80-year anniversary of the founding of the Chemical Corps. Housed on the first floor of the museum, a medium-sized exhibition room is divided into eight sections: unit insignia, historical background, “glorious campaigns,” “the shaping of heroes,” R & D, training simulations, disaster relief, and the future of the Corps. The words “glorious” and “heroes” pop up throughout, to remind us of the hagiographic nature of this military retrospective and the proper attitude we should have towards those protecting us from the threats of atomic explosions and giant space robots — which are never actually seen in the exhibition itself.
According to the exhibit, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) personally ordered the founding of the Chemical Corps in 1933 to research chemical warfare and possible threats emanating from the notorious Japanese biological weapons laboratory, Unit 731.
Led by the godfather of Japanese biological warfare, Shiro Ishii, this scientific military unit murdered thousands of individuals, mostly Chinese, perfecting effective biological and chemical weapons, and killed thousands more in numerous germ weapon attacks in China. However, Ishii’s biological warfare lab was not designated “Unit 731” until 1941, and Ishii’s Pingfan headquarters complex in Manchuria began construction in 1936, the year Emperor Hirohito issued the command to create the euphemistically dubbed “Epidemic Prevention and Water Supply Unit.”
As a military leader with training in Japan, Generalissimo Chiang was aware of Japan’s production and use of chemical weapons, but his aims for the newly minted Chemical Corps were probably set on the Communists and not on the Japanese nor on Manchukuo, which the Japanese had held since 1931. The exhibition’s historical focus on repelling the invading Japanese is illustrated in a diorama that details a skirmish between flame-thrower-wielding Chemical Corps troops and Japanese forces. The other examples of “Glorious Campaigns” all involve fighting the Japanese or assisting the Allies. Just how all this properly Chinese history really affects us today or influences the modern Chemical Corps is left unclear.
“The Shaping of Heroes” and “Research and Development” sections show us how much the Dragon Soldiers need to study and prepare to do their jobs, which no longer explicitly involves any sort of warfare. We are presented with official certifications, to prove that the Dragon Soldiers are not simply soldiers, but rather warrior-scholars who know the science behind the invisible threats of CBRN: chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear.
The exhibition’s recurring theme is to remind us of the possible dangers we face from CBRN attacks or disasters. The Chemical Corps is here to protect and save us from extraordinary and invisible threats, such as nuclear disasters, SARS, or terrorism. This means that a possible catastrophe could well come from a domestic cause, such as a nuclear meltdown, or from an external enemy, say perhaps China. And exactly what would the Chemical Corps do in the event of a war? All we know is that they would protect us with impressive camouflage-color trucks, wear fancy protective suits, and spray disparate objects with disinfecting hoses (no more flame throwers). They are called “Dragon Soldiers,” so where are the weapons? I hope the Chemical Corps doesn’t aim detection meters at the invading army. And isn’t the best defense a good offence?
It just so happens, that in the recently closed 2012 Taipei Biennial, I, with Tony Chun-hui Wu (吳俊輝) and Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, created an exhibit (Taiwan WMD), which details the history of Taiwan’s weapons of mass destruction programs. While the ROC’s quashed attempts to create nuclear weapons are relatively well known, Taiwan’s biological and chemical weapons programs have remained reasonably secret.
Despite denials from the museum staff, I imagine the Chemical Corps exhibition as a governmental response to my exhibit Taiwan WMD, or conversely, Taiwan WMD as the obscene complement to Dragon Soldiers. It is precisely what remains unsaid and ambiguous within the propaganda of the Chemical Corps that is the truth.
Various international sources have suspected or accused the ROC of stockpiling chemical and biological weapons, and the production of these weapons is well within the reach of Taiwanese scientists and industry. Because the ROC is not recognized by the UN as a sovereign state, Taiwan is excluded from international treaties and organizations that regulate the production, import and export of such weapons or weapons-making materials.
Since the general public loathes the idea of WMD, it makes perfect sense for the exhibition to omit any references to Taiwan’s offensive WMD capabilities. In light of US President Barach Obama’s (seemingly ineffective) warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” no government wants to publicly admit that it is stockpiling such devices.