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 two of three, conducted in person, midway through Eric’s training, while he was on leave several months ago.
I meet Eric in a cafe a couple of months into his compulsory military service. He looks tired, and he’s definitely not here to talk enthusiastically about the whole thing. He’s spent the last two months training within a marine infantry company at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Center in Pingtung County and he’s traveled back to New Taipei City via train for a few days of leave. But it’s not the journey that’s made him low on energy, it’s the place he’s come from.
“Before you left, you mentioned your parents and yourself being a bit worried about safety, from working with guns. How do you feel about that now?” I ask. “Now I’m not [worried]. I’m not. I’m just bored,” he says, in an answer that represents the tone of our entire conversation. Perhaps this is progress of a sort — familiarity rather than fear — but it’s probably not a great pitch for military service.
The uninspiring day-to-day routine Eric describes tends to be something like this. He gets up at 6 a.m. and arrives at an assembly area ten minutes later to do a “good morning” ceremony. He then does a 30-minute jogging session. Next: breakfast at 7:20 a.m. Other conscripts then have a break until 7:50 a.m., but he’s allocated some responsibility for food preparation and clearing up, so he has to complete that before he can take a break. From 8:50 a.m. to 11:10 a.m., he has a class on how to use a rifle, a rocket-propelled grenade or a rifle with a grenade launcher. This consists of reading a textbook or brochure and going up to the front of the class to practice loading. There are ten rifles between 18 people and they are decades old. After this class, Eric goes to help prepare food for lunch and then helps wash dishes. From 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. he’s allowed to use his mobile phone or can go to sleep. Following that there is usually a class about (but not often directly involving) rifle cleaning, and there is also some time for cleaning or administrative tasks. The process of preparing dinners begins at 4:50 p.m., eating dinner occurs at around 5:30 p.m., and then some conscripts (but not Eric) can go off and do sports. Conscripts who are free at this time can again use their cell phones until 7:30 p.m. if they don’t have another class. Lights out is at 9 p.m.
Readers will note what is missing among this mundanity. Eric tells me he’s only been trained in first aid “one or two times.” He tells me that since an initial rifle-firing test, at the end of a six-week training camp when he first joined up, so far he has only fired a weapon once, from a lying position. “We went back two weeks ago, with no practice or help. I fired three clips [from a rifle, at a target, scoring] zero, six, five [from a total of six shots each time]. First one didn’t count, they let you get familiar with the gun.” I ask what the passing grade was: “They didn’t tell us the rules this time,” Eric says. “They didn’t tell us anything about why we were doing this.” The situation is similar with cleaning a rifle: He’s also only done it a couple of times.
So, instead of those tasks, what does dominate Eric’s thinking most of the time he’s at the camp?
He’s been made to prepare for an end-of-year party, in which he and a group of other conscripts have to perform a comedic “striptease” dance. “It feels like humiliation,” Eric points out. “The leaders think it’s funny. We think at least it’s better than cleaning up piss. Other [infantry] guys have to clean up piss.”
He’s also noted — at length — how “troublemakers” among the conscripts, perhaps those with backgrounds in young offenders’ institutes and ties to gangs, are given preferential treatment in order to avoid trouble. They’re allowed to keep a hold of their phones, or take on easier “guard” duties, for instance. “You’re suffering and they’re just like punks, enjoying their lives,” Eric says.
And then, of course, there’s time for a bit of low-grade hazing. “We were sent to a different company building [after the initial training camp ended]. When we first got there we weren’t welcome. The drill instructor kept saying “Okay, we’re family now” but he also repeatedly brought up that some people were in the group that came in last place in the appraisal at the end of the first stage of training.”
During our conversation, Eric does point out repeatedly that he believes his experience is likely to be more limited than most conscripts’. He’s been drawn in an infantry company within the marines, and there’s no opportunity to go out and train alongside real marines. In fact, he’s stayed at the original training camp he did the first two weeks’ training at for the duration of his training so far. Furthermore, the class he’s been allocated within his company is focused around cooking, where other classes within his company are targeted around more directly militaristic activities — such as weapons cleaning.
However, Eric’s account of conscription as an exercise in dull time-wasting actually chimes quite directly with how one upper officer pitched him and another conscript the full military experience in a meeting. “He said: ‘Look at me,’ then opened his cellphone and showed ten hours [of screentime] that day. ‘I’m always playing cellphone. But I still get like 70k [70,000 New Taiwan dollars per month]. I’m a lazy guy. You can be lazy and still get the money,’ he said.”
Not many bosses introduce a job like that. And together, this all does a pretty neat job of describing why, sitting in this cafe, Eric can’t wait to get the whole four months over with.
Part three will be published on Wednesday next week.
Image: Official Photo by Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President, Creative Commons