General confusionWhen People’s Party lawmaker Jang Byung-wan was the minister of planning and budget during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, he visited the Marine Corps headquarters. When he arrived, the general’s march was played four times. It is a privilege offered to the president, ministers and eight four-star generals in the entire armed forces.
Jang, a former marine officer, said he was very moved. The Marine Corps was established in 1949, but the commander is a lieutenant general, for whom the general’s march is not played four times. Jang joked, “I made the long-cherished wish of the Marine Corps come true.”
It may sound trivial, but the military is all about ranks and protocol. Servicemen have little privacy and spend 24 hours a day together, so they are very sensitive about ranks.
The biggest difference happens when one is promoted to the rank of four-star general. From the sword to guns, they say the general gets 100 new things. Generals also get different treatment for their rank. The general’s march is played as many times as the number of stars, once for a brigadier general, twice for a major general, three times for a lieutenant general. The gun salute for a brigadier general is 13, and a major general gets a 15-gun salute. A lieutenant general and a general receive 17-gun and 19-gun salutes.
They are also given different cars, Grandeur-level, Chairman-level and Equus-level vehicles. In the past, commanders of powerful units such as the military police or the Defense Security Command used the cars assigned for work use for personal purposes and showed off their influence.
But the protocol is problematic, as excessive formality causes confusion. The generals get the same treatment as the Minister of Defense, so it became awkward for the Vice Minister of Defense. In case of the minister’s absence, the vice minister leads the armed forces and commands the generals who get higher treatment than the vice minister. This was caused by former president Chun Doo Hwan, who seized power in a military coup and changed the related rules to please the military.
A bigger issue is the excessive number of generals. There are 314 generals in the armed forces. Despite the overall decrease of soldiers in our military, the number of generals remains almost intact. In terms of the general-to-soldier ratio, we have a smaller number of generals than in the United States. But the United States is currently involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to make efforts to correct the unreasonable practices while keeping the morale of the troops high. Only then, the starred generals of the military will be the true symbols of honor and pride.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.