Towards barracks reform

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Towards barracks reform

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Oh Young-hwan

Reform of Korea’s military service is a topic up for discussion. Everyone has their two cents in a country with compulsory conscription. Civilians and soldiers alike are coming up with various ideas. The military authorities want to reduce violence and deviant behavior in the barracks by eliminating its blind spot for abusive acts and by strengthening punishments and disciplinary actions. Such notions of shock therapy are unavoidable after a string of soldiers running amok and the death of a private first class by group violence. Making an example is the key. In society at large, the crackdown on drunk driving has led to severe punishments for transgressors. Setting rewards for the reporting of abusive acts and reducing the number of soldiers in each barrack would be effective. What helps reduce drunk driving are systems like chauffeur services. However, knee-jerk responses will not be enough to improve life in the barracks. We need to look at a more fundamental issue: the overall military culture.

The first issue is the identity of the military. The military hasn’t provided clear answers to young Koreans as to why they have to do their military duties. When the authorities can provide a convincing answer to that fundamental question, the soldiers will have a sense of mission and feel motivated. An organization that does not understand the reason for its own existence has a hollow core. It is a society without a soul. The bringing together of young men from different classes and backgrounds is guaranteed to create some friction. Even officers are suffering from a lack of spirit - and these are the individuals who go on to become professional soldiers. It may be the poison of a prolonged period of peace.

Providing a justification as to why young Koreans need to serve in the military is the essential core of barracks reform. Instead of only countering the North’s aggression, we need a vision or a history lesson that includes peaceful reunification and East Asian values.

The core of the liberal democracy the military is defending is the dignity of the people. The biggest weapon the South Korean forces hold against North Korea is the power of a liberal democracy. Therefore, inhumane abuses in the barracks are practically benefitting the enemy. The barracks should have a sense of soul and conviction. Fixing the hardware will not solve the problem. The military is not solely responsible for its state. Koreans lack a sense of citizenship that considers military service valuable and a source of pride. The Roman Army was strongest in the early days of the empire when Romans were proud of their duty to serve in the citizen militia. Today, Koreans worry about their children serving in the military even before they are born. It is regrettable that personal safety in the barracks has become a hot potato when warfare is drastically evolving with the revolution in military technology, cyber warfare and drone attacks.

Moreover, the relationship between the civilian and military spheres should be readjusted. The military has to be separated from civilian society. Life in the barracks is no summer camp. However, it should also not be too removed from mainstream society as it is the military of the people. A legal system that reflects an enhanced respect for human rights is necessary. A judicial system that helps victims is the key to unity. The military should also care about a generation growing up in the shadow of a polarized society. Flexible leadership is needed now more than ever. Yet, opportunism must not be allowed. The military has to be a well-trained, disciplined organic body defending the state. Barracks reform is a call of the time, but the true mission of the military is to be an organization that can win a war.

We have to be wary of a hasty debate over conscription or the size of the military. The United States has ultimately failed in its Iraq War, where a 21st century military fought against 20th century forces. The war in Afghanistan was not much better. The United States underestimated the ground forces necessary for either. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” A discussion that does not take self-reliance or an era of reunification into account is unrealistic.

We have reached consensus on the need for barracks reforms. There are many places where the “reset” button should be pressed. The authorities need to promptly implement measures to eradicate violence. But there is no simple or quick solution. Education, training, leadership and support for talented individuals are all correlated. The culture cannot be changed overnight. U.S. Navy Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, who pioneered the concept of network-centric warfare, liked to say, “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old one out.” His words apply to Korea. We need the insight to look 10 years into the future.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 28, Page 28

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

BY Oh Young-hwan














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