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 three of three, conducted in person, and in follow-up messages by phone, a few weeks after Eric finished his military service.
In our final interview, after spending the majority of our conversations suggesting that his experience with the Taiwanese military has been a bit of a joke, Eric pulls out a twist and tells me that, ultimately, he believes that Taiwan’s military could successfully defend Taiwan from a hypothetical invasion, “at least until someone came to help.”
This surprising juxtaposition of opinions is actually an interesting mirror image of the overall population. People in Taiwan have been consistently described as calm in the face of threats from China, but at the same time some polls have shown a (slim) majority of people not believing Taiwan would be able to hold off an invasion attempt for 100 days. One might think you would have to choose one or the other. And yet there it is.
It’s more interesting when something like this turns up in one individual, though, because you get to directly ask them about it. For his part, Eric’s explanation is this: Yes, his time in the military very much appeared to him to be a waste of time. But he believes the parts of the military he did not witness — namely the career marines and navy officers in action — are “good” and “can keep the enemy far away from our land.” In other words: He’s optimistic about the things he doesn’t have experience with, while remaining entirely pessimistic about the things he does.
Beyond that slightly malformed endorsement of the military, our final conversation in a New Taipei City Starbucks very much carries on from where it left off in the two previous interviews. Eric is hugely relieved to escape after four months of military service. He feels “released” now that there is no threat of strict punishment hanging over his head for any infraction, either within his training camp or off duty. He feels “rich,” now that he has the chance to earn again, having felt financially “unsafe” before coming out. Additionally, he’s still bitter about the whole thing being compulsory: “There’s no way for us to hide, to avoid, to prevent, no way for us to get away from this s—-.” And he’s definitely not at all convinced any of his training has prepared him to be of use in an invasion scenario.
“They told us nothing about that,” he says when I ask if he knows what he’d be expected to do if an invasion began. “Would you know where to go?” “No. Unless they told us.” “Do you know how they’d tell you?” “Maybe on TV?” “Do you think the conscripted guys like you would be organized very quickly?” “That’s definitely a no.”
The deepest through line across our conversations is clear. Training hasn’t imbued Eric with any confidence in what he’d be supposed to do as part of Taiwan’s hypothetical defensive efforts. In fact, the extent of this is that in retelling a story about how the threat of becoming “cannon fodder” was regularly used as a motivational technique by officers trying to get conscripts to work harder, he seems to have internalized the wrong half of the message and keeps joking about how he sees his role as “going there to waste the enemy’s bullets.”
Aside from this gallows humor, which is apparently a shared endeavor among a lot of conscripts, the things Eric does think he’s gained from the experience are notably personal. He says he feels physically stronger than previously (albeit this is a man who explicitly dislikes exercise). He says he made some friends he’ll miss. And he says he feels a bit more like an adult now. These do not appear to be big wins for Taiwan’s military.
However, interestingly, there is time for one more significant piece of optimism regarding the wider structure of military service. That is: When I ask him about the reforms to military service beginning next year.
Firstly, he thinks the salary increase, from 6,510 New Taiwan dollars to 20,320 (USD $665) would be extremely welcome. “If I got that salary I’d think it was fair. Still low but compared to what i got it’s fair… It doesn’t solve all the problems, but eases the pain.”
And secondly, he’s immediately convinced that the increase of mandated service from four months to one year could be transformative in terms of levels of seriousness. “You get a chance to really learn…. There’s a big chance they will treat you like a real soldier if you’re there for longer.” Even though you thought there wasn’t enough equipment? “I believe everyone can have a rifle, because they do have enough rifles — when we did the drills and the firing, everyone had one — they didn’t allow us to use them. Grenades I doubt. [But overall] I think they can improve quickly, at least the basics.”
To me, this sticks out as surprising optimism against so much pessimism. But then I realize again, Eric’s optimistic about the things he doesn’t have experience with, while remaining pessimistic about the things he does.