Life in camo: One window into Taiwanese military life

To your disappointment, my experience neither includes being verbally assaulted by Sergeant Hartman nor getting firehosed while doing flutter kicks on the pavement. While there are various systems of training across the numerous armed force divisions in Taiwan, these are not amongst them. But here is how mine went. 

Like most countries, ours is a product of war, and my conscription reflects the standing tension between us and China. One could see our mandatory service in the Taiwanese military as a rite of passage leading to adulthood—our version of Seijin no Hi. Every able man has had his days dressed in camouflage serving the nation, but duties have changed over time and terms have been condensed to adapt to modern needs. For Taiwanese young adults today, only four months of service is required, including basic training. Some people can split up their service months, as long as they guarantee completion within two years. This rather short and flexible enlistment comes amidst a transitional phase toward building an all-volunteer career force.

My father always gloats about his two-year stint as a lieutenant, and his father would scoff at him for having never fought in a war; the military life is a household conversation, and it is one that nurtures a strong protective instinct and emotion sheltering among Taiwanese males. But we also speak of it in the same manner we speak about high school, as another unreasonably rigid but occasionally enlightening institution we attend during our teenage lives before “real life” begins.

As a private in the infantry, I focused on rifle maintenance and operation: target shooting, ruck marching, bayonet drills, jumping jacks, sandbag stacking, window screen installing, recycling and a load of squeegeeing. You may argue our training model produces more of a neighborly rescue team than a menacing military force. Although baffled by the regimen myself, I’m convinced it is, in fact, a revolutionary tactic that rivals us against the most formidable malice. In the words of Sun Tzu, “The supreme art is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” (Sun Tzu, “Art of War,” 1910). 

A person of lower rank is obligated to comply with all orders given by one of a higher rank—and it irks everybody. I’m the bottommost scrap, and that I had no choice but to commit to all my duties deceived me into believing I was a man of unequivocal talent in being productive. Yet most tasks assigned to us were pointless and arbitrary, like raking foliage in the rain. Cruising through assignments devoid of meaning rankled me even more. My time was, apparently, expendable. At night we were granted leisure time. With this escape, my fellow soldiers and I would chew over the inefficiencies of bureaucracy in the military as I read “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight, founder of Nike. That’s the company whose catchphrase is “Just do it.” The irony of it all.

In addition, because one’s superior is not responsible to answer questions, not only is there general helplessness and confusion, but from there also stems the unspoken rule: Do not ask questions. However, it is far from a cruel, stifling misery, rather a bizarre incertitude instead. An officer once chastised our company for wearing our gas masks when he realized he didn’t have his with him in the tear gas chamber. He’d not asked the lieutenant to have one ready for him. I assume to release frustration, he decided to lash it out at us, but somehow he ended that admonition on the principles of arranging grocery items in plastic bags. None of us would go on and ask about anything.

Upon discharge, my fellow privates described our brief military life as a paid summer camp desperate for participants. Bewildering experiences are usually a hard sell. I thought, at least for a few weeks, that no one would enjoy the excitement of using chopsticks of equal lengths or showering without a time limit as much as I did. I was delighted to discover that the military had taught us to appreciate the little happinesses we often take for granted, until I realized that no, normal life is simply much more interesting. 

After returning to civilian life, I curiously searched up the military to reminisce about the days when I chanted my steps, marched in right angles. To my surprise, I found there’s no shortage of varied experiences and perspectives on our armed forces, and Taiwanese are no stranger to expressing them. Any average Joe was willing to offer his criticisms and suggestions on online platforms. The more I dug into the online dialogue, the more I noticed that the Taiwanese people are open to sharing anything societal, making even the most difficult topics accessible for conversations. There exists a rich outlook (seemingly antagonistic but perhaps endearing deep down) on our conscription and political practice, and the very participation of these exchanges reflects our care and collective effort for a more ideal tomorrow.  

It wasn’t long before my fellow soldiers and I linked up with our officers from back in the days on a group chat. What followed was the fuss, the tea and the truths. We are one and the same, only set apart by rules and duties. With our shared background, the conversation flowed. It felt natural, cathartic to finally share what it was like to participate in this institution in our various ranks. With my hair gone and a few extra pounds gained, I came away with an unexpected splash of patriotism.

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