Unlike many countries in the world, Taiwan retains a somewhat unique system in which all male citizens must serve required military service for eleven months. For some of us young and able boys, it is one thing that we try the hardest to intentionally avoid. Of course, some people see it as a gap year to figure out what to do with their lives, but the rest of us do not like being “trapped in a moment” for almost a year. It just puts a damper on making any sort of plans for the future.
But upon coming back to Taiwan last July from Zimbabwe, I knew perfectly well that the military service was what I should be expecting starting March. However, the thought of idling through eleven months of my life increased my reluctance to face it like a man. Around the same time, the tragic events of Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, who was “supposedly” viciously tortured to death by his commanding officers as retribution, revealed the ugly side of Taiwan’s decaying military system. Corporal Hung’s death seemed to be an omen, gently reminding me that it just was not a good time to serve in the military.
Therefore, I started desperately searching for any information about the substitute military service. Substitute Military Service, or SMS, is a program that allows male citizens with advanced degrees to apply their skills to various government agencies, schools or national institutions. It not only gives young men an opportunity to utilize their skills, but also adds more valuable assets to the government. In other words, the SMS provides many young Taiwanese men an outlet to avoid actual military torture through 11 months.
For me, it was my only chance to avoid serving in the regular military. However, as the days went by, I became increasingly impatient and paranoid at the lack of information on the program. I was constantly haunted by the thought of joining the military while still hoping that somehow a miracle would happen to wake me up from the nightmare of having to do hundreds of pushups under the tropical sun. In December, I saw the information about a new round of substitute military service applications, and I immediately submitted my application on the first day. From December to March, I started compiling information from different sources about what the SMS and tried to get myself ready for the service by doing consulting friends who have gone through the SMS. While everyone, including myself, knew that the substitute military service was in many ways less demanding and less meaningless than regular military service, I still felt a sense of insecurity accumulating in me.
The sense of insecurity piled up as I waited for the official notification on whether I will report to SMS. Finally, the official document arrived at my doorsteps just twelve days before my report date. I furiously stared at the piece of paper, hoping that I had misread the date, but the bold print clearly reminded me that I only had 12 more days of freedom. It was at that moment I realized our broken military system has never given its citizens the respect we deserve. They grab us as if they own us, and they expect us to give up control over our lives. As my resentment toward the military system grew stronger, so did the feeling that there’s nothing much I could do to change that reality.
Fast-forwarded to March 17, the day that I officially became one of the substitute military service soldiers. We were to first report to basic training.
I was fortunate enough to have several old friends to keep me company, as that really did reduce the degree of my nervousness. After a briefing by officials from the Miaoli county government at the train station, we got on the bus and hit the road. As the bus was approaching the camp in Taichung, which was 40 minutes away from Miaoli, I could sense the uneasiness among all of us, and silence filled the air. When we finally stopped, we were immediately rushed off the bus by several substitute soldiers in their khaki uniforms and black hats. As we stood there, looking puzzled, the soldiers came over and began asking us to form a specific close formation. Then one of them, clearly the leader, warned us to bear in mind that the moment we got off the bus, we have lost our freedom of expression, and that every bit of our move would be under close supervision. Obedience was mandatory, but self-centeredness would only put ourselves into trouble. Substitute military service is still just that, military service–our superiors were still expecting the same total obedience from us.
Life inside the barbed wire fences was worse than I expected, with someone constantly breathing down my neck to monitor my every move. There was no room for negotiation, since everything was to be done according to the military’s often nonsensical and absurd traditions. Rookies like us were only allowed to talk after raising our hands and being recognized by the managing officers. Any move without permission would earn a round of harsh shouting, and points deducted. Additionally, all of us were required to make our beds in a specific way, and follow a set of very “polite” table manners at every meal. Whether your mistakes were careless or intentional, it would be judged by the same standard, with the same degree of punishment applied to all. In a way, life there was not governed by fairness, but by luck. If you are lucky enough, you can get away with the mistakes you’ve committed.
However, the companionship that I’ve developed over the 16 days of boot camp has proven to be the decisive factor that helped me pull through the training. We supported each other to get through each difficult task, and no one ever thought about competing to get ahead, but rather we all cooperated. I guess the intense and often unreasonable lifestyle has made us realize that only by relying on each other can we all leave the training safe and sound. From complete strangers to friends that have gone through so much in 16 days, I am glad to leave basic training with something positive to remember. As for the training itself, it did nothing more than reminding me how much I enjoy freedom of any kind. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you make you stronger, and I have certainly learned to cherish life as a free man after basic training.
As I gladly waved goodbye to the camp upon getting out of the gate and felt proud of myself for surviving the toughest part of the entire service, I thought the remaining 10 months’ would simply be a piece of cake for me. But life will prove again that I am too naive at the two-week professional training.
(Feature photo NOT of the author in military service, by Phan Shannon Garcia, US Navy.)
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