[Viewpoint] The damning reality of our military

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[Viewpoint] The damning reality of our military

The shooting rampage at a Marine base on Ganghwa Island reminded me of the case of Pfc. Choi Yeong-o. At 8 a.m. on July 8, 1962, Choi, who joined the military when he was a senior at Seoul National University, pulled the trigger of an M1 rifle at the backs of two of his superiors.

His motive? A corporal and a sergeant in the same barracks opened 12 letters sent by his girlfriend and made fun of him. When he protested, the superiors beat him. He was so furious and frustrated that he shot them and attempted to kill himself, too.

During his court martial, Choi said, “I died the moment I murdered them. However, I shot at the military’s cruelty and inhumanity.”

Many fellow SNU students and writers appealed for mercy, but to no avail. On March 19, 1963, Choi was executed by firing squad at the military shooting range in Susaek-dong in Seoul.

Before his execution, he gave his final words: “I hope my death will make the inhumane military be born again as a democratic armed forces that guarantee individual rights.”

But the tragedy did not end with Choi’s death. That evening, his mother, at the age of 61, threw herself off a cliff into the Han River. She had raised Choi alone for 20 years after her husband passed away.

Her shoes were left on the riverbank in Mapo, where she used to do her washing. A note was found inside her shoes: “Dear high and powerful. I am leaving this world instead of Yeong-o, so please save my son.” The story of Choi Yeong-o and his mother left many Koreans in tears.

The number of deaths in the military has fallen from about 600 per year in the mid-1980s to 130 per year. Technological advancements in military equipment and weapons and improvements in the barracks have drastically reduced accidents.

However, the number of suicides and victims of shootings has not changed - averaging 70 deaths per year. Military authorities usually blame family situations or personal issues whenever a tragedy occurs, but the excuses are not convincing. The environment in the military has certainly improved, but the rest of the world has gotten a whole lot better.

It may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, but let’s look at the case of Israel.

All Israeli citizens must serve three years in the military after they graduate from high school. The compulsory military service could have been considered a waste of time, but the Israeli military has invested in educating and training an advanced and specialized workforce. As a result, Israel was able to become one of the most advanced powers in the world.

Koreans have a somewhat different perspective on their compulsory military service.

People want to give birth to their children abroad so they can obtain foreign citizenship and avoid mandatory military service. A popular musician allegedly pulled his teeth to be given an exemption in the health screening process.

Once enlisted, soldiers in our military repeat the cruel and inappropriate practices of bullying and hazing, depriving people of sleep and ordering them to stand still. Many young Koreans struggle in the military and our entire society is afflicted by the trauma of the military’s cruelty.

Not so long ago, “The Unforgiven,” a low-budget independent film, received a slew of awards and critical acclaim. The movie attracted large audiences and outstanding box-office results for an independent film. In the movie, the protagonist resists the abuse of his military superiors and Ha Jeong-wu tells him frequently, “I am not saying you are wrong, but you are making yourself more miserable.”

The viewers become completely immersed in the movie, agreeing that that’s exactly what happens in the military. The movie looks straight at the crooked power dynamic and authority structure inside the military, and how it changes the naive soldier into an attacker. The movie is a sad but unforgivable portrait of the reality inside the military.

The investigation is in progress on what really happened at the Marine base on Ganghwa Island. Military authorities will probably announce a series of follow-up and preventative measures. But we cannot expect the tragedy to never happen again. Immediately after the incident of Choi Yeong-o in 1962, writer Kang Sin-jae wrote a column for a newspaper. His writing makes us wonder if our society has progressed at all over the last 49 years.

Kang wrote: “It pains me to write about Private First Class Choi and his mother, for their story is so painful and cruel. It hurts to read their stories in the newspaper, and frankly, I desperately want to look away. However, Choi’s execution is not the conclusion of the case but the beginning of a greater problem. We have to ask ourselves if there really was no way of preventing the tragedy.”

Two generations later, we are faced with the very same question. And it is hard to forgive ourselves.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Cheol-ho
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