[OUTLOOK]Soldiers need support as well

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[OUTLOOK]Soldiers need support as well

A shooting that occurred at a front line military base just a few days before the 55th anniversary of the Korean War has left not only the bereaved families but also the entire nation in shock. Because Korea’s military relies on conscription, not volunteers, the Army is a place where our young sons have to manage their lives for certain period of time apart from their family members. Therefore, it is natural that the incident draws the public’s attention.
The exact motives for the shooting spree are not yet clear. But the remote cause can be seen in the slackened discipline of the Korean Army and the inability of new generation soldiers to adapt to military life.
The former is related to the special characteristics of the military and its order of command that emphasize obedience, patriotism and psychological education. The latter is related to the military culture, which makes the isolated Army life stifling for the new generation “red devils” who are accustomed to free ideas and lifestyles, and the position of emphasizing the human rights of the conscripts.
As you see, the reason for the rampage can be traced from two different positions, but one thing is clear, that there is a problem in the structure of the Army and the administration of soldiers and that we need to deal with the problem quickly.
Today, the standards of military officers and enlisted men alike have risen to a much higher level than in the past. The days when officers taught privates how to read and write passed a long time ago, the natural consequence of parents’ desire to educate their children in a better way than they were raised in the past. The expression “new generation” first surfaced 10 years ago, and those who were teenagers 10 years ago have grown up to be young men who serve in the Army.
It is true that the number of new generation youngsters in our society who knock on the doors of the most difficult military camps, such as the marine corps or the special combatant forces, and volunteer to have the chance of enduring tough training and strict rules to develop themselves, is growing larger each year. These young men find the military discipline and organization that emphasize cooperation, solidarity and loyalty rather attractive.
However, for the majority of young males, who have grown up comfortably like princes as most families have only one or two sons, it must be hard to endure restricted military life for two years. The hardships in the barracks increase the probabilities of desertion from the military, physical or psychological harm, suicide, random shootings and other serious problems.
Most advanced countries adopt a volunteer system so they select qualified people after evaluating their character and abilities as a soldier. And then they provide welfare services tailored to the special characteristics of each branch of the military not just to soldiers, but also to their families. They consider mental health to be very important and have military social workers available to counsel soldiers through whatever problems they may be going through and to administer support programs that aid soldiers under emotional stress. The military counselors even intercede in family crises and psychiatric sessions related to soldiers.
It is almost a miracle that Korea, which has no such support network, has been able to manage a vast organization of around 600,000 soldiers who serve mandatory military duties, while problems related to maladjustment to military life are overshadowed by the importance of national security.
Fixing old facilities, reconstructing officers’ quarters and modernizing barracks are all important, but the recent shooting teaches us that we need to find a way to solve the fundamental problem of mandatory service that fails to instill pride in our soldiers. We very much need to introduce a military social worker system, which has already proven to be effective in other countries. We need programs to encourage communications between superiors and subordinates and restore self-identities. We need to operate diverse individual programs necessary to help soldiers adjust to military life.

* The writer is a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Heung-seek
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