ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Conscript controversy draws focus from Taiwan military's real importance
Publication Date : 13-08-2013
The Taiwanese military is in a period of soul searching (and some suggest internal conflict) amid the controversial death of Army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, which drew 200,000 protesters to the streets last week and brought down a defence minister. The resignation of the replacement, Andrew Yang, an academic appointed to bring a fresh face and reformative force to the defence ministry at a time of crisis, only six days after taking office due to plagiarism accusations, is yet another blow.
The death of the corporal resonated in Taiwan not because it is unique but rather because it symbolises the widely viewed systematic sleaziness of the armed forces. The scandal grew into a national crisis in no small part thanks to the numerous tipoffs and exposes by current and former servicemen. Everyone seems to have a tale about their “dark days in the army” to tell.
The controversy, however, underlines a more profound danger for Taiwan. Military forces around the world have not been known for their respect of human rights, nor their transparency. As organisations dedicated to the art and science of efficient eradication (or at least the incapacitation) of human beings designated as enemy, the armed forces can find themselves psychologically far-removed from the norms and rules of the civilian society they defend. Brigadier General John B. Murphy, a commanding general of Division Artillery of the US' 100th Infantry Division during World War II, dismissed the idea of a democratic army as absurd, saying such a force would be an “undisciplined mob.” Many US servicemen and women are probably still reminded of a similar philosophy by their boot camp sergeants: “You are here to defend democracy, not to practise it.”
The significance of Taiwan's spectacular response to Hung's death is therefore twofold. First, it highlights the Taiwanese people's extraordinarily high regard for human rights. The 200,000 protesters amassing outside the Presidential Office for Hung showed the world the proudly humanistic spirit of Taiwan.
It, however, also reveals the predicament of the nation's armed forces, which seem to have lost their purpose.
The Taiwanese military should have built a reputation as one of the forces in the world most needed by its nation. It defends Taiwan from the world's most populous and armed (in terms of military size) nation, one which is also a major nuclear power. The mainland's People Liberation Army (PLA) has been advancing rapidly in recent years. Decades of military standoff and Taiwan's recent detente with the mainland seem to have stripped the military of its purpose and a substantial amount of respect.
Without a sense of military urgency, the armed forces are often seen by the outside world as nothing more than an extension of government bureaucracy and by at least some in the inside as a place for profiteering and bullying. The military is sleazy due to idleness.
Such idleness is dangerous, especially when it is not shared by one's rival. The Times of London last week reported that the PLA has passed “one of the last remaining psychological barriers” in its journey to becoming an effective modern fighting machine with the establishment of a permanent opposing force “dedicated to playing the enemy during training exercises”.
The goal of such an opposing force is to end drills and war games that are played out like scripted drama in which the blue team always triumphs (a script not unknown to the Taiwanese military). The mouthpiece newspaper of the PLA, the PLA Daily, said last week in what the Times described as “unprecedentedly blunt” criticism of such drills: “For years, the idea that 'soldiers should be trained the way wars are fought in the future' has been trumpeted loudly. But in truth, war games are sometimes still played out like Peking Opera highlights ... with predictable outcomes.”
The Communist Party mouthpiece, The People's Daily, also reported last week on the PLA's emphasis on war game authenticity: “In a relatively peaceful environment, the fundamental way to maintain the combat ability of an army is to 'train as if in a war.'” The PLA has intensified authentic training specifically on practical scenarios like the South China Sea and Diaoyutais disputes, the newspaper reported.
The war game advancement of the PLA, which some experts see as more important than its recent technological improvements, is a warning to the Taiwanese military. Before a political resolution between Beijing and Taipei can be reached (an unlikely scenario in the near future), peace across the Taiwan Strait has to be maintained by keeping the status quo, which includes the military balance between the two nations.