Taiwan has made plans for an all-volunteer military, but hopes for the plans appear to be hanging in the balance. To be sure, there is something good to be said about a voluntary military: It is an approach that has worked incredibly well in the US.
The US military has the best-trained armed forces in the world and probably those with the best morale. The idea of choosing to join the military services of one’s own volition seems to introduce a truly devoted and resourceful approach to service.
However, this has not come easily for Taiwan, and a recent feature article by Philip Tsien in the Taipei Times (“Begrudging service,” July 19, page 13) said that students entering required military service are “apathetic toward the military and averse to service.”
Even worse, it said: “Young Taiwanese question the idea of national defense as duty.”
This introduces a troublesome reality into Taiwanese life and culture.
According to Tsien, four months of military service are mandatory for young men in Taiwan. This in itself introduces difficulties, as four months is hardly enough time to genuinely incorporate oneself into military life and, worse than that, it is nowhere near enough to develop useful skills that could be used later in life.
“What are we supposed to learn in four months?” Lin Chi-yi (林其億) asks in the piece, while a soldier surnamed Chen (陳) asks: “Why should we give these young men the newest technology or in-depth training when they will leave so soon?”
These statements are certainly true.
One of the excellent things about US military service extending over a few years or more is opportunities for personal growth and skills development.
Talk to almost any soldier who has functioned in the US military and they will tell you that they received just this during their service: expertise in electronic hardware and software, proficiency in communication and other “soft skills,” such as self-confidence, teamwork ability, working in disciplined environments, strategic planning skills and skills with many orders of military equipment.
As soldiers are promoted, which is inevitable over several years of service as opposed to a simple four-month system, they acquire leadership proficiency and further aptitude.
Furthermore, the Taipei Times article looked at “antiquated equipment and unrealistic training,” in the Taiwanese military.
“My time in the army was a complete waste,” said one veteran, remembering the rudimentary, banal tasks — sweeping floors, washing toilets — that he was asked to perform.
Connected to this, the “impractical training and lack of resources” encountered while serving were criticized.
Needless to say, such failings and disdain for national defense must be addressed and they will certainly pose a challenge to recruiting volunteers who possess duty-boundedness and hoped-for professionalism.
In spite of this, we must not view military service as a “fruitless endeavor.” As we have seen, there is much good that can come from military life.
Soldiers, whether volunteer or mandatory, of course give up their freedom to serve. This might be a bit bothersome, but to slide into a belief that for that reason it is all a waste of time and the benefits to society are not worth such a cost is another troubling datum.
Not that different from any other commitment within society — whether more “free” or not — a military commitment is a pledge, a responsibility, a guarantor of freedom in this great liberal democracy. That alone should be enough to attract volunteers and to commit those who enter the military under mandatory conscription.
However, again, a key is to give these soldiers excellent training in skills that they can take with them when they leave the military, as certainly only a handful of these soldiers will stay in the armed forces for a lifetime.
All of this refers to the nation’s mandatory military service. While quite a few countries have conscription, many others do not. Some countries have instituted civilian, unarmed or non-combatant services, and alternatives to military service, such as work within society as teachers, disaster and rescue efforts, community service, healthcare and the like.
Taiwan has just such an alternative service, which is a major plus. To my knowledge, Taiwan also has conscientious objector status, also a good point.
Mandatory military service, although fairly common around the world, appears somewhat obsolete. It seems indicative of a somewhat paranoid outlook and overconcern about military conflict.
This of course brings up the issue of the Chinese military and its ongoing efforts to modernize and, in turn, the threat to Taiwan. While there is truth to this view, at the same time, Taiwan could enter the ranks of nations with volunteer services (there are many in the world) and this would be a major improvement. It would present a (mostly) peaceable face on the military, which could even have an effect on China.
Along these lines, Cheng Da-ching (鄭大慶) in the article said: “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.”
We hope that Cheng is right, but that does not take away from the value of military service as we have described thus far.
What has been discussed here could be sourced back to the idea of Taiwan announcing its political neutrality in world affairs, a position that I have endorsed before (“Neutrality is Taiwan’s best option,” Oct. 6, 2008, page 8).
As I said then, this could lead to profitable areas of investment and development in Taiwan and China, and stimulate resourceful, peaceful coexistence and human potential in Asia.
Are you listening, government?
To return to the volunteer military in Taiwan, according to a Control Yuan report, by January the military had enlisted 160,700 volunteers, 14,000 short of the estimated 175,000 troops required to adequately defend the country. While concerning, in fact this does not look all bad, a shortage of about 9 percent. With additional effort and positive promotion of the value of training in the armed forces (very much a positive of the US military), this shortfall could surely be taken up.
This editorial has for the most part endorsed an all-volunteer military and other peaceable ventures as essentially nonviolent, pacific forces — not so much forces bristling to defend the nation in a major war against China. Were that war to happen, a volunteer force of committed soldiers with a love of Taiwan and true obligation to defense of the nation would be a very good thing — the US military proves this.
Needless to say, of course, it is hoped that this does not happen — and if it does not, it might be best to institute exactly what we have described here, and this could be a major diplomatic and social victory.
David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.
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