Lectures

The Limit of Defense: Life in a Taiwanese Military Training Center during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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On the morning of 23rd February 2021, I boarded a bus from my home in northern Taiwan to a nearby military training center. There I joined another four hundred draftees for our compulsory military service in the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces – or simply Guojun (“national army”). Along with the other draftees, I was first given a number. Feeling that my personality no longer mattered, I expected a future of becoming a tiny, nameless gear within the gigantic machine of national defense.

My experience turned out to be more nuanced. As Foucault argued in Discipline and Punish, modern armed forces rely on techniques such as drill and marching to create self-disciplined soldiers.[1] Researchers nonetheless point out the persistence of collective meaning-making activities in the military.[2] During my service, I became interested in how draftees and officers interacted in the context of Taiwan’s military restructuring, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the relations of trust and care in the training center. In what follows, I situate these subtle contacts, conflicts, and compromises at the intersection of national defense (guofang) and “pandemic defense” (fangyi). I start with a brief history of Taiwan and Guojun, and delineate how recruiting officers tried to create a new image of Guojun through a distinct neoliberal rhetoric. Next, I highlight draftees’ perception of military service as boring and pointless, and scrutinize how training officers responded to draftees’ complaints. I then conclude with the importance of trust in the relationship between officers and draftees. In doing so, this essay tries to demonstrate the agency of draftees and officers in Taiwan’s restructuring military and articulate how people can form solidarity in the midst of a pandemic.

Revolutionary Past, Neoliberal Afterlife

The complex institutional history of Guojun and the similarly twisted history of Taiwan made the relationship between the two highly uneasy. In the early 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish expanded their empires to Taiwan, where Indigenous Austronesian peoples have lived for thousands of years. Troops loyal to China’s Ming Dynasty briefly took over European settlements in 1661 before being defeated by the Qing Empire in 1683. Chinese settlers steadily expanded their influences under Qing until the island was ceded to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.[3] While Taiwan remained a Japanese colony, the 1911 Revolution overthrew the Qing and created the Republic of China (ROC), which quickly descended into a civil war between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and other provincial factions. By the end of World War 2, the Allied Power agreed to transfer the control of Taiwan to ROC, but the CCP would eventually win the civil war and found the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Before the ROC government retreated to Taiwan, bitter clash between Taiwanese and the new government had already broken out, which culminated in the February 28th Incident of 1947 that killed thousands of civilians. With the support of the United States under the containment policy, ROC’s armed force, or Guojun, became part of the Cold-War defense network in East Asia, while the KMT enforced conscription on all male citizens and imposed decades of authoritarian rule.

As Taiwan began to democratize in the late 1980s, Guojun came under increasing public scrutiny. The challenge remains both institutional and technical. On the one hand, Guojun needs to transform itself from a revolutionary force aiming at “recovering” the mainland into a regular army defending an island nation. On the other hand, facing continuing military threat from the PRC, it has to upgrade its weapon system, which in turn requires stable budget and public support.[4] To achieve these goals, in the 1990s the Ministry of National Defense (MND) took control of Guojun away from the older generation of KMT leaders. The MND also planned to create an all-voluntary force to professionalize the military. However, since conscripted soldiers made up most of the island’s defense, the government decided not to abolish the conscription law. Instead, since 2013, the term of service for draftees born after 1994 was shortened from one year to four months, while the MND tried to gradually increased the proportion of volunteer soldiers in Guojun by recruiting draftees for longer military service.[5]

Consequently, a recurrent event during our service was the recruiting talks—essentially job fairs where officers explained the missions, along with pay and benefits, of their units and occasionally invited draftees to visit their bases. It was in these talks that the role of COVID-19 in the restructuring of Guojun first became evident. Even though Taiwan did not experience major community transmission until May 2021, the service sector had already been badly impacted due to public anxiety. Since many draftees previously had entry-level service jobs, officers often emphasized how military service provided rare stability (decent salary, government benefits, pension, etc.) in a time of uncertainty. One officer even suggested that “Guojun is just another service job.” When officers did mention patriotism, they framed it through the language of personal growth such as “challenging yourself” and “doing what others’ won’t.” Many officers would end their speech with reference to the theme of responsibility: as young adults starting to make choices on our own, we should understand all the available options for our career. If the military can provide you a secured middle-class life, they argued, then why not serve your country, an employer unlikely to go bankrupt or forfeit its contract?

This presentation of military career as a personal choice reflects the economic rationalism of neoliberal discourse.[6] In this vision, one joins Guojun not based on abstract ideas like “duty” but on concrete calculation of risk. Further, this vision grants Guojun legitimacy by presenting it as a professional organization made of rational individuals, rather than an employment of last resort. Nevertheless, for the majority of the draftees who did not choose a military career, the military service simply interrupted their life. Intriguingly, unlike the recruiting officers who rationalized this interruption as an opportunity to explore alternative careers, training officers, as I will show in the next section, were more inclined to appease the draftees than force them to accept Guojun.

Managing Health, Managing Complaints

While the MND adopts this neoliberal approach as part of its attempt to rationalize national defense, during my military service, I found myself and the other draftees actually more concerned about another line of defense: the defense against the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the May 2021 outbreak, the MND had enforced strict mask wearing regulations as a precautionary measure aimed at protecting the health of draftees. This policy should be understood in the wider context of managing draftees’ wellbeing. In my father’s time, the compulsory military service was popularly understood as a harsh “rite of passage” due to widespread bullying and abuse of draftees by volunteer soldiers and officers as well as by fellow draftees.[7] This negative perception has been hard to shrug off. In 2013, a draftee named Hung Chung-chiu died from heatstroke while serving his detention sentence, and his superiors were blamed for using excessive workout to punish him.[8] The outcry following Hung’s death forced MND to reform its abuse reporting system and create a strict heatstroke prevention guideline. For example, during outdoor training, temperature and humidity were frequently measured to determine health risks. Draftees were also required to carry a card to record their daily water intake.

The arrival of COVID-19 made MND’s investment in our health even more apparent. In addition to compulsory mask-wearing and frequent temperature-checking, training officers tried to create physical distance or barriers whenever we had to take off our masks. While doing intensive exercise, we were instructed to increase physical distance. In the canteen, plastic sheets were installed on tables, and in the barrack rooms, they were used to separate people sharing a bed. Another technology was a card for contact tracing that we should complete daily. The last technology was cellphones. In Taiwan, cellphones have been used to monitor people under quarantine and to send warning messages for potential contact with confirmed cases. However, the MND wanted an additional line of defense: draftees’ self-reporting health status in social media groups via an app called LINE, which was very popular in Taiwan. As a result, we were added to a “big (company) group” and a “squad group” to socialize with other draftees and report our whereabout during day-offs.

However, these techniques for managing draftees’ wellbeing were largely considered a meaningless bureaucracy. Take, for example, the water-intake card. Training officers instructed us to complete the card by copying from a “template” they provided, and many draftees did not follow the daily recommended intake of water and preferred sugared drinks. The data of our contact-tracing card were similarly copied from a template, and as draftees cannot meet anyone other than their squadmates, they saw this card practically useless in fighting COVID-19. We also quickly learned to report our health conditions and holiday schedules in social media groups using template messages.

Although these official investments in health management were followed half-heartedly by both draftees and officers, the MND’s focus on draftees’ wellbeing meant that explicit violence and punishment, which used to be the foundation of officers’ authority, were no longer tolerated. This probably explained why training officers in my center, while reducing the techniques to safeguard draftees’ health largely into bureaucratic paperwork, adopted a more informal approach to manage draftee’s wellbeing: a demonstrable interest in draftees’ comforts and a high tolerance for our complaints.

Draftees complained about almost every aspect of the life in training center. They complained about the hot weather, the boring courses, the poor quality of food, and above all the loss of their freedom. Since officers had limited authority to add new contents to make the courses more appealing, they managed complaints typically by making our life as easy as possible. For example, since the second month of service, we were allowed to read our own books during breaks, play darts, pin-pong, and board games during designated “club time,” and sleep with air-conditioners on the whole night. Besides, during outdoors workout, we were often ordered to shift our positions in order to stay under shadows. We were also reminded to evaluate our physical conditions and report immediately if certain moves were beyond our capability. Finally, if draftees felt their concerns were not addressed, they still got the MND hotline, which would initiate a formal investigation into the grievance.

It must be stressed that draftees’ complaints stemmed not only from concerns over their health but from a lack of motivation to participate in training. This was induced by three factors. First, despite Guojun’s rhetoric of professionalization, the equipment draftees were trained with in my center was very outdated—mostly second-tier gadgets retired from the voluntary force. Secondly, due to limited training staff, our center did not teach military tactics and we repeated the same tasks (mainly rifle drills and maintenance) everyday. Finally, to prevent potential incidents, heavy weaponry was off-limits, and officers kept physical training to a minimum to minimize the chance of heatstroke.

Nevertheless, because the root of draftees’ dissent was the military service itself, they could always find fault with new things. Although some draftees acknowledged officers’ efforts to improve our life quality, this did not change the impression that our training was pointless. Even if we knew how to fire a rifle, we were barred from the professional knowledge the voluntary soldiers possessed (close quarter combat, urban warfare, map reading, first-aid skills, etc.). Many felt that Guojun had no plan for draftees beyond trying to recruit them. The techniques of pandemic defense, practiced largely as copy-and-paste paperwork, only exacerbated draftees’ negative perceptions. This cycle of complaints and compromises thus continued till the day of our discharge.

Trust and Solidarity

Thanks to officers’ willingness to accommodate our complaints, disputes were mostly settled within the company. In essence, the relationship between draftees and officers was based more on mutual trust than on the enforcement of order and obedience, which allowed officers to respond to draftees’ demands and gain authority not through coercion but through co-option. This trust brought benefits on both sides: as long as the draftees’ dissatisfaction was managed and we did not “make a fuss” through social media, officers saved themselves from launching investigations into our grievances, which would have led to more work and unnecessary attention from their superiors.

Nevertheless, the May 2021 COVID outbreak in Taiwan greatly strained this trust. While units such as the Chemical Corps gained positive visibility by carrying out disinfection work, the crowded living condition of training centers posed a serious problem for the MND: any incidents of draftees transmitting COVID-19 to civilians would tarnish MND’s reputation. We were subsequently warned that a single case in the barrack could compel the MND to lock down the whole center to prevent further spread. For draftees, however, the risk of further losing their freedom was unacceptable.

The general antipathy of draftees was made even clearer by the government’s announcement of the outbreak. Following the declaration, which was made on a Saturday, many draftees, already averse to and bored by training, became reluctant to return to the center. Many more expressed anger at their squadmates who had been granted home quarantine by claiming to have COVID symptoms. To make things worse, the MND required all units to “put pandemic defense into practice” (luoshi fangyi zuowei), and inspectors from the brigade moved into the center to institute new COVID-19 policies that ended up causing much inconvenience for both officers and draftees. For example, to follow pandemic and heatstroke prevention guidelines, we had to maintain a 1.5 meter physical distance while simultaneously remaining out of the sun. Officers thus spent most of their time finding suitable training locations that allowed for enough distance and provided adequate shade. Differently colored paper strips were distributed to draftees, and each of us could only use toilet and faucet matching our color. Amenities were cancelled. Draftees began to feel that officers, now under the close scrutiny of their superiors, could no longer respond to their complaints. 

And yet trust did not entirely disappear. Tension was eased when officers acknowledged that they were likewise clueless about MND’s decisions. For instance, because we shared our training ground with a voluntary unit, keeping us in the center perhaps posed greater threat to national security than granting us early discharge. Officers also joined the draftees to condemn those who were suspected of faking illness, but admitted that they could do nothing about it, because the decisions were made by medical officials higher up. Moreover, toward the end of our service, some officers started to show their disapproval of the current service program and confessed that the MND lacked a clear policy to make draftees an effective complement to the voluntary force. Trust was thus regained not by rationalizing the situation, but by showing solidarity. What unified officers and draftees at the moment of strained trust was not the rationalization of national or pandemic defense, but the reflexive acknowledgement of their limits.

To summarize, the everyday life of my training center offered an interesting snapshot of Taiwan’s restructuring military in the time of COVID-19. While recruiting officers presented Guojun as a professional organization offering secured employment during the pandemic, draftees’ everyday contact with repetitive basic trainings and bureaucratic techniques of health management was far from this professional image. Their doubts over the meaning of military service were expressed through a variety of complaints. In response, training officers tried to satisfy these demands as much as possible and created a trust-based relationship with draftees. Nevertheless, the major outbreak of COVID interrupted this trust, and officers instead showed solidarity with draftees to maintain the relationship.

I was discharged in the midst of the outbreak, and had the privilege of continuing my study abroad. As Taiwan again succeeds in keeping COVID-19 under control, the country still faces an uncertain geopolitical future. While the officers I met in the training center might have failed to make military service an experience in line with Guojun’s new image, they nonetheless taught me to look beyond the official techniques of national or pandemic defense and focus instead on the versatile relationships between people. Perhaps it is in those relationships that one may find something truly worth defending.


Leo Chu is a History and Philosophy of Science PhD student at Cambridge University. A member of Dr. Helen Curry’s From Collection to Cultivation group, his interests cover the comparative history of urban agriculture in North America and Southeast Asia, the intersection of resilience theory and food production, and the analysis of sci-fi films and games. In his free time, he enjoys writing novels and poetry. His publications can be found here. Twitter: @Leo_CL_Chu

Notes

[1] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Duke University Press, 2007.

[2] Smith, Philip. “Meaning and military power: Moving on from Foucault.” Journal of Power 1, no. 3 (2008): 275-293.

[3] Despite the successive settler governments, Indigenous peoples continued to play an important role in the history of Taiwan. See Barclay, Paul D. Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s “Savage Border,” 1874-1945. University of California Press, 2017; and Ye, Ruiping. The colonisation and settlement of Taiwan, 1684–1945: Land Tenure, Law and Qing and Japanese Policies. Routledge, 2018.

[4] Setzekorn, Eric. “Military reform in Taiwan: The Lafayette scandal, national defense law and all-volunteer force.” American Journal of Chinese Studies (2014): 7-19.

[5] Before the 2013 law reduced the service to the current four months, the government has already passed a series of amendments between 2000 and 2008 which cut the originally two-year service into half. In contrast, the shortest contract for voluntary service lasts four years.

[6] For an analysis of military and neoliberalism in the American context, see Cowen, Deborah E. “Fighting for “freedom”: The end of conscription in the United States and the neoliberal project of citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 10, no. 2 (2006): 167-183.

[7] Before the reduction of service term, draftees who began their service earlier would become “seniors” to newer draftees who they often abused. Even though draftees, especially college graduates, had then the chance to become non-commissioned officers, they were still targets of bullying by higher-ranking officers, volunteer soldiers, or even “senior” draftees. The abused draftee Hung Chung-chiu, for example, was himself a corporal.

[8] Hung, Chin-fu. “The internet and Taiwan’s new civic movement in the information age: Hung Chung-chiu’s Case (2013).” Asiascape: Digital Asia 1, no. 1-2 (2014): 54-77.



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