Taiwan’s decision to extend compulsory military service from four months to one year, effective Jan. 1, 2024, has energized an existing debate over the quality of training that conscripts receive and the value of conscription. With this in mind, we’ve interviewed one conscript, 22-year-old university graduate Eric Wu (吳奕昀), about his recent experience before, during and after his four-month military service, in order to get a fuller view of what conscription looks and feels like right now. This is part one of three, conducted over Skype, several months ago, the day before he entered the military, and before the announcement about service being extended.
The first thing anyone is likely to notice on seeing Eric pop up on Skype is that he has (virtually) no hair. The reason, it turns out, is that he wants to get in ahead of the “aunties” brought in by the military to cut new conscripts’ hair for them, because he’s heard “they have clippers that aren’t sharp enough, and they pull out your hair, like when you pluck a chicken, and it really hurts.” Where he has heard this from is what is most interesting, however: “I found a Line [messaging platform popular in Taiwan] group on D-Card [a social media platform popular in Taiwan], and the ‘elders’ said you have to do it like this.”
The “elders” (學長) are three or four former conscripts from the previous year’s cohort, giving advice to around 130 young men in the group, all of whom are about to begin mandatory military service. This unofficial production line of information speaks to the second thing anyone is likely to notice on talking to Eric about the experience he’s heading into: Much of the detail remains unknown to him. He knows he’s been drawn to be a conscript in the marines, but he doesn’t have much official indication of exactly what his training will look like. He knows he’s catching a train tomorrow, but he doesn’t know where exactly to. And so on.
Into this information gap, the elders, and some of Eric’s older friends and relatives, have inserted their own choices of key information, most of it pretty cynical about the whole process. One friend told him his time in a tank regiment primarily taught him how to polish tanks. Others pointed out “when you first get in it’s really boring because you’re always listening to briefings.” But one piece of trickle-down insider knowledge stands out in Eric’s telling more than any other. “They said [military officers] try to make you join the military in any way. You’ll never see it coming,” he says. “They said when you’re sleeping they’ll use your finger stamp to sign you up. They said you have to watch out from every angle. [It’s] like enemies in a war, coming from every direction.”
Being pitched as the enemy may not be what the Taiwanese military chiefs have in mind before getting young men involved. And they may also not enjoy how well it allies to Eric’s own main two points of concern ahead of joining up: 1. The idea that the small monthly salary offered to his cohort — 6,510 New Taiwan dollars — is disrespectful and makes the experience a waste of time that could be spent looking for jobs. And 2. Relatedly, the idea that the whole experience is a waste of time for Taiwan, because the training won’t help it defend itself.
“You try to build up an army but it’s not professional enough, you waste everyone’s time and money,” Eric says of the training, which he’s heard is full of menial and pointless tasks. “It’s like a plan from a hundred years ago. It’s history.” And on the money issue, he’s equally unequivocal. He tells me he knows he’s going to be “broke” while he’s in the military, and he resents it. “After we just graduate [from university] we [can] still have a job that can give us a normal salary. The lowest salary. The minimum wage [from January 1, 2023, NT$26,400.00 per month.] So we can still earn some money. And it’s quite a lot for us, for people who just graduated. But if you go into the military you have like NT$6,000 and it’s like a joke. You go back to Taipei once and it’s all gone,” he says.
The ultimate takeaway for Eric is that being conscripted on these terms shows that those in power can do anything they want to him, “because it’s the law.” In the end, “All parts of me are annoyed about [having to enter military service],” he says. “The money, the time, the problems most people have. We just graduated from college, so we try to get into the job market.” I ask: “Does it make you feel like part of a nation?” He responds unequivocally again: “No, no, no, definitely not. I’m not part of the nation. They’re not treating us as normal people.”
Since we conducted this interview, it’s been announced that conscripts’ monthly salaries will rise to NT$20,320 ($665) when the length of conscription increases to one year in 2024. This still places it below Taiwan’s (also low) monthly minimum wage, but it puts it alongside high-profile conscripted military salaries such as Israel ($694.69) and above South Korea ($414 to $549 depending on rank). Significant revisions to training procedures have also been announced. Eric’s reflections on these changes will be included in part 3. In Part 2, Eric will reflect on his actual experience in training.