[Viewpoint] The changing military cultureKorean women hate men talking about the military and football. And the most horrible topic is the memory of playing football while in the military. Whenever talking about their military service, men - both young and old - become bold.
All of them say their units were particularly tough, while they suffered greatly from an especially awful senior soldier and many of their comrades were injured or killed during service.
Let me talk about my experience without exaggeration. I was in an infantry unit about 30 years ago and two died during my service. One was a sergeant of an artillery platoon. During a firing drill, the sergeant looked into a mortar gun’s barrel when it appeared to be jammed and was hit by the belatedly fired shell.
Another was a private first class who joined the military around the same time as I did. He became very sick and suffered all night long in the barracks and was taken to a hospital. He died a few days later and the military explained that he died from hemorrhagic fever. But the unit members could not erase their doubts because the private had been brutally beaten by the platoon leader the day he got sick.
The Ministry of National Defense issued statistics on military deaths a few days ago, and that made me remember the deaths of the two young soldiers that I witnessed. According to the ministry report, 970 soldiers died in 1980, when the two members in my unit died. Of the total, 497 deaths were linked to military discipline ,such as suicides and assaults, and 473 deaths were from safety accidents.
The number of deaths went down significantly to 721 in 1985 and 330 to 1995. In 2000, there were 182 deaths in the military and last year there were129.
During this time, the military also made efforts to reduce the deaths. A guideline to root out brutal disciplinary actions was published in 1987 and a reform of the military culture also took place in 2005. In 2009, the military introduced the comprehensive suicide prevention system and this year, a measure to root out verbal abuses was established. As a result, the soldiers’ suicide rate is far lower than for civilian men in their 20s.
The military’s efforts are important, but we must pay more attention to the fact that the military is society’s “mirror.” The military is not a desert island. And, it is not a paradise or a hell. Members of our society who grew up in our homes and schools are in the military to serve as officers and soldiers.
In any society, there are people who have trouble adjusting to new situations, and the military is no exception. There is an old saying that the military makes a boy become a man, but that really does not apply anymore.
Youngsters who fail to fit in at home and in school do not mature just because they were in the military. A friend of mine, who has served a long time as a commander, said the draftees these days are the youngsters who were born after 1990 and are of the new generation, which has not experienced violence and brutal words.
Unless, after the recent fatal shooting rampage by a marine, the Marine Corps outright ends the old-fashioned, harsh treatment of marines, it will be tough to embrace the new generation of youngsters.
The problems of the military come from the problems of society. The Marines’ culture of giving the silent treatment to some of the marines, which triggered the recent disaster, is similar to the culture of Japanese youngsters’ bullying. Experts said the silent treatment of the military first appeared around 2000, when Korean youngsters influenced by the Japanese culture joined the service.
Also, of the newly recruited 824 soldiers in Army boot camp in Nonsan, South Chungcheong, 61 percent were an only child and 89 percent had their own rooms at home.
The only son of the family who has his own room is forced to eat, sleep and live together with tens and hundreds of others the moment he enters the military.
It is wrong to treat them in the same way as the older generations of our fathers and grandfathers, who lived in such small homes and with so many siblings that they actually felt relieved going into the military.
The military life of our sons is not the sole responsibility of the military, and criticizing the military won’t resolve the problems. It is an issue that the entire society must contemplate. I am worried that military commanders will become trapped in self-protectionism by feeling intimidated about the recent shooting. The military is not a Boy Scouts activity. Creating a military with high combat competitiveness and reforming the military culture are the same topics, and the outside society must support the efforts.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Noh Jae-hyun