Army is stuck in the past

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Army is stuck in the past


Kim Jong-dae

Mobile phones are dubbed one of the greatest inventions of mankind. They are serviceable and have saved lives in various spaces, including in the deserts of Africa, the heights of the Himalayas, and in the isolated, all-controlling hermit kingdom North Korea.

When cut off from society for nearly two years in Korea’s mandatory military draft system, young men in their early 20s cannot entirely tame their natural longing to stay connected to the outside world. They come up with inventive ways to sneak phones into the barracks and check messages from under pillows or behind shops near their outpost.

Why do we need to cut off these young men, barely out of adolescence, from their loved ones?

U.S. servicemen, upon arriving for duty in Korea, are awed by how indispensable smartphones are to Koreans regardless of age and gender. They then become surprised to discover that Korean servicemen in U.S. military compounds are banned from using cell phones. Their Korean colleagues explain that the military authorities prohibit them due to security concerns.

Excessive control and isolation feed the hidden dark side of military life - brutality, cruelty inhumane demeanor, and violence. Because of underlying distrust and a lack of confidence in their men, the superiors holler louder, discipline harder and condone physical brutality in the name of keeping the house in order.

Security is the last threat a mobile phone can pose to the military. Do they seriously believe North Koreans can eavesdrop on the casual phone conversations of soldiers? Or do they fear satellite technology will track them down? These are all theories that have been put forward.

But these unrealistic circumstances could be avoided if certain phone features are blocked on military premises. If authorities are so nervous about security dangers from cell phones, why do they allow high-ranking officers to use them?

Security within rather than outside the barracks is what seems to concern them. They also worry that soldiers could neglect duties when distracted by phones - a non-issue if phones are only used during a solder’s free time. Soldiers will be happy to comply in order to connect to the outside world. At times of depression and loneliness, a friendly voice from outside could save a soldier’s life. It is cruel to deprive young men of a basic means of rescuing themselves.

Smartphones have become valuable assets in modern warfare. U.S. soldiers use smartphones in conflict zones these days instead of heavy handheld radios or paper maps. Radios can run out of power during long excursions and exercises. Marked military information on paper maps cannot be shared with other brigades.

The U.S. Defense Department has also developed hundreds of applications for smart devices that offer support in battles and protect soldiers since the Afghanistan engagement. One new smartphone-based communication system allows U.S. soldiers to locate bombs and warn others about them through video and messages. The use is also common among NATO soldiers. The world’s defense front is going digital, and Korea, an IT powerhouse, should have been in the lead.

One more huge misunderstanding must be corrected. Incidents that have seen soldiers suffering from mental episodes have not occurred because young men cannot adapt to military culture and discipline. It is more that military authorities have failed to keep abreast of changing times and the needs of the younger generation. The defense system is sticking to a conservative barracks lifestyle when the world has gone cyber.

Mobile phones could bring about massive changes in military life that could be used to reform and update military culture. In the end, it could help connect the military with the civilian community and empower the entire nation with greater security alertness and knowledge.

What is the military fearing by resisting this positive change

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is the chief editor of Defense 21 Plus, a monthly military magazine.

BY Kim Jong-dae
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