Friday, February 15, 2013

Being a Conscript

You occasionally hear about the guys who off themselves or blow away their platoon members. While you won't see as many headlines, a lot of guys desert as well. I personally would have never done anything of the sort, suicide in particular never entered my mine (deserting crossed it a few times). But I understand where these guys are coming from. I've said before that it's hard to discuss the details of military service without the feelings involved being evoked. The psychological component of conscription is a huge chunk of the experience, and one many seem to neglect.

From my previous entry, you know what conscripts in general do, but do you know what it feels like? The emotional turmoil is something that I don't think many people who haven't experienced it won't understand.

When a person is being conscripted, he is being torn away from his life. He is forced into being somewhere and being something he doesn't want to be. He's being torn away from being a student, going out with friends, and being with his family. Imagine yourself being told you have to be somewhere against your will away from your family, friends, and home? Away from what you are comfortable with? And there's nothing you can do about it. You only have a few other choices: go to prison and live with a criminal record, run and live as a fugitive, or commit suicide. Some guys maim themselves but if you hurt yourself with the intention of avoiding conscription, you could go to prison.

Never mind the political implications, the lack of pay, or even the normal hardships associated with soldiering. The simple fact that you are thrust into a completely alien environment without all the comforts you've become accustomed to and having your daily habits abruptly changed will bring about psychological discomfort. People get stressed about moving to a different country that they voluntarily chose. Being shoved in an environment without a say, against your own volition will obviously cause stress.

But of course, that's not where the stress ends. It's only where it begins. The nature of military life and Korean flavor of it only exacerbates the psychological disorder one feels.  When you first enter, the unfamiliarity of the situation is bewildering. The culture is alien; the military language they use is confusing and difficult to comprehend at first. It doesn't help that strangers are screaming at you and the looming fear of if you somehow screw up, you'll be punished in some way is always over your head.

Another thing you have to come to terms with is that you are at the bottom of the hierarchy in the beginning. You answer to everybody but your equals. There may or may not be enough of them in your unit to provide you some comfort. No one likes to be at the bottom of the barrel even if it doesn't seem like a big deal, particularly men. In the West, the socially ostracized proudly proclaim they don't care about how others see them but this is a reactive coping mechanism. We are social creatures and it though may seem stupid and superficial, but nobody enjoys being another's bitch. And a private second class is everybody's bitch.

In some ways, many actually feel more comfortable during basic training than the first months of their permanent post. In Basic, you're surrounded by your equals and due to the number of trainees, the relation between them and drill instructors is more distant and impersonal than that of junior and senior conscripts of the same unit. Plus you only see them for a few weeks. There is more physical discomfort, but as Harrow's monkeys have shown, social beings cope with physical hardships better than psychological ones. You just do what you're told and for the most part, you'll be fine. As I will elaborate later, simply following orders isn't always so cut and dry for the rest of military life.

In your permanent post, your superiors (who are initially strangers) breathe down your neck and watch your every move. They attempt to condition you to be how they see fit. You are also cramped in a room with a dozen of them. There is no privacy. No freedom. At first, you can't even go take a piss or get a drink of water without notifying someone. You get shot with icy glares from simply plopping open a book on your lap or dozing off in your free time.

You may have read my previous entry on military facilities and thought, "That's not so bad. At least they get some internet access and TV!" Not counting limited access to these amenities due to insufficient quantities, you also have to take into account many of these things are prohibited until you grow higher in rank. Even simple things like watching TV come with a catch. You can't dare turn your eyes to it without permission much less watch what you want. You can't even clip your nails without following certain protocols.

This is where the "Korean-ness" of it comes into play. The obsession with formality and putting on airs. You have to "show" discipline if you're at the bottom. Its not real discipline since nobody does it when they're the highest ranking guy in the room. This means the lowest guy constantly sits or stands at attention. He does everything for his superiors such as cleaning and organizing objects. Even the job of turning the light off and on is his job. He is constantly judged and harassed on how well he performs these simple tasks. He has to be constantly alert and aware and afraid of being reprimanded for the most insignificant of mistakes.

Being disciplined and alert is part of being a soldier but imagine doing it day in and day out from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you go to sleep. There are times and situations that call for this such as training or combat. Being like this every single day and during one's free time is going to take its toll. Also remember my previous post and the precipitous nature of working in Korea. You'll get called up to do things at the last minute and you never know when what is going to hit you. You can never get comfortable. It's psychologically exhausting.

It's difficult to socialize at first as well. Talking about your issues for many is not present as a coping mechanism due to the political nature of military life. Word gets around, rumors are spread, feelings are hurt and some dude who outranks you takes it the wrong way. Adult males are just as prone to gossip as teenage girls. You may want to bitch to simply to get shit off your chest, but you don't want to be outed as the guy who can't "take it." Don't expect much emotional or social support from your comrades. It will be hard to simply engage in friendly chatter as well since your initial introduction to the military is one of molding you. If you're too close to a senior, it will make it difficult for him to chew you out when you inevitably fuck up. Even if you have equals in your unit, your seniors will often give you shit and make you ostracize a peer in order to pressure him to perform better. It's all silly and childish and gets tiring real quick.

Remember the tidbit about simply doing what you're told? You won't get shit if you just follow orders, right? The thing is, this is Korea and "following orders" depends on who is watching. For example, the lowest guy in my squad had to spray water on the floor before lights out because it gets really dry during the night. Simple right? No, you had to do it at the right time and in a particular way to prevent the water from getting splashed onto a senior's slippers. If you somehow "suck" at spraying water, you get chewed out. Even if you do it exactly the way you're taught, there will be another senior who was taught differently and chew you out for doing it wrong. But you can't make the excuse that so-and-so taught you the method wrong because that guy is going to get shit and resent you for blaming him. Does it sound like they're over-complicating something as simple as spraying water? They are, and they apply this methodology to everything. Oh, and there are times when your seniors really do forget to teach you or teach you wrong, and you get shit for it.

So imagine working a job like that. Forced into a contract where you get a fraction of minimum wage and away from your family and friends. You are constantly harassed by your superiors on how you dress, act and do your job. Yet nobody really teaches you or everybody has a different idea of how you're supposed to do your job. They scream at you and treat you like an unwanted dog. Everybody throws you the shit they don't feel like doing and on top of that, you're responsible for all the remedial tasks such as mopping the floor and cleaning desks (everyone's desks). Don't forget, your boss will also make you work overtime randomly with no extra pay and call you during your day off and even when you're sleeping!

Think how you would feel if you couldn't fucking clip your nails or get a glass of water when or how in the comforts of your own home without someone breathing down your neck about it. Every waking moment. Every single day for several years.

Who wouldn't be stressed? Who wouldn't feel used? Who wouldn't imagine taking a revolver to work one day, or blowing themselves away? I fantasized burning down my barracks or division HQ several times. I thought about the officers I worked with during marksmanship training.

The sensation you feel is one of suffocating. This is literally what I felt many times during my service. The physical sensation that the cardiovascular system was being restricted. I have employed breathing exercises regularly to keep my sanity intact. The symptom is aggravated when you return to base after leave. In contrast to the fleeting moments of freedom you get when you're back in the outside world, you return to base and experience those freedoms being stripped away again. I also liken the feeling to breaking up with a girl you love, except that girl is so many things. It's being able to wear the clothes you choose, eating food you want, sleeping as much you as want, lying on your own bed, washing your hands in warm water, being on the computer, going out with a friend, holding a girl, not constantly looking over your shoulder, etc. All those tiny things so many of us take for granted are torn from the heart and leave a hole. It hollows you in a similar way you feel when the love of your life leaves you. At least it did for me anyway.

I also had a supportive girlfriend at the time who was of tremendous help to me. She was the love of my life and I couldn't even see her or talk to her when I wanted. My heart was broken every time I had to return from leave because I was never sure when I would see her again.

It should be noted that being on leave is the most positive thing an active duty conscript can do other than being discharged. It is elating. It's better than money. Simply being on the subway and seeing people wearing civilian attire filled me with joy! When else would anyone feel joy at the prospect of getting on a subway in Seoul?

Being deprived of simple physical comforts might not seem like as big of a deal as the social aspects, and I don't think it has the same impact on the psyche, but it no doubt is a source of discomfort. I've seen guys grow somewhat "off" during field exercises where one is really stripped of modern comforts. Being cold, sleeping on a hard frozen ground, and without any access of hygienic facilities and spending most of the time staring at a wall in a tent will do things to the mind. I've had juniors who just went weird a week into a large-scale exercises. I tried to provide at least some socialization to keep them and myself from going nuts. Being in a barracks isn't as extreme, but I suspect it would affect the mind nonetheless. Simply being around shit you don't like all the time must not be healthy.

There is one positive side-affect from all this: It does make one appreciate how spoiled he was living in the modern world. Training in the field in particular does get one back to his more primal roots to some extent. It's something I think every modern person should seek out voluntarily and experience what they have been blessed with and what they have lost. Don't forget a big emphasis on "voluntarily."

This may not seem like a big deal to most, but the absence of boxing equipment and no access to my beloved sport was another source of torment. I love boxing and it is a big part of who I am. To not be able to watch it and practice it was just as heart-breaking as being away from the woman I love. It drove me insane to have my skills deteriorate. To have toiled to sharpen my body into a weapon and to watch it grow dull. It hurt just as any breakup. There were times I wanted to punch a guy just so I can be in a fight again. Of course I didn't do that.

One obvious source of distress for most guys is the little to no contact with women. I probably don't even have to point this out but it sucks being in your twenties and having no female contact. But because there is so little privacy, a guy can't just go off somewhere and masturbate either. That is hair-tearingly frustrating.

So my point was that I understand when guys hang themselves or desert. A little less so when they snap and shoot up the place, but I see where they're coming from. The thought of offing myself never crossed my mind during my service and it's not because I consider myself "stronger" or that these dudes were cowards. I do not sympathize with the suicidal but I don't judge these people either.

What they felt was right to them and I think it's the same with how I feel. Some will say and have said that what I'm feeling and felt is wrong. That it's not that bad or I have grown as a person from the experience so I should appreciate it. In fact, the former sentiment is not entirely false. My military experience isn't the worst experience I've had and it did remind me how good I have it as a civilian. As much as I hated my time in the Army, it would still rank below my Korean school experiences and having my heart torn out by a girl I love in my personal top ten of shitty life experiences. But it still does not justify conscription or make it any less shittier than it was.

The principle of it is unjust. That fact that I was forced into is wrong. Even if you got paid at least the minimum wage and people were nice to you, would you feel good about someone forcing you from your home and making you work at a coffee shop? Being paid 30-50 cents an hour and being surrounded by assholes would certainly make it worse!

I described being hollow. You know what else I felt? Anger. Vehement abhorrence against government oppression. The injustice of having to suffer and have my civil rights taken away for the crime of being born Korean. I contemplated over the state of the world and thought about how historical conditions of the past have led to my imprisonment decades into the future. It felt so unfair and nihilistic. I mused over libertarian activism when I was allowed to zone out. I fantasized about various ways to destroy the Defense Ministry or to wipe out the Military Manpower Administration's database.

It is likely I felt another layer of emotional outrage at my predicament due to my political leanings. My American influence probably does play a big part in how I think. Most Koreans hate it but take it as something that has to be done since it is the law and the consequences of not serving are severe. I don't know. I have never met any Korean in person who feels the way I do about conscription. What most see as an inconvenience (albeit, a huge one), I see as an injustice.

Maybe I should just see it as an inconvenience? After all, worst things could happen. People tell me that at least it's not 9 years like in North Korea. To me that's a faulty line of reasoning. I could tell a rape victim to get over it since at least she's not dead, or that she should look at the bright side of being raped only once instead of several times. Maybe learning to get over the rape will create character? Should mandatory rapes be issued to all women? We need strong women for the greater good of the nation after all. You get my point. Besides, I'm not keen on comparing myself to North Korea or rapists. We should set the bar a tad higher than that.

Let's not get it twisted. Conscription sucks balls. Korean guys like to talk big about despite how tough it was, it was the good old days. They enjoyed being with other men and the relative simplicity of military life. Offer them the chance and none of those fuckers would repeat their service. I'm in the reserves now and I'll tell you, nobody fucking enjoys the annual three days of "training" and eating Army chow again. Nobody is going to repeat two years of it.

You do get the rare cases of guys who genuinely enjoy their time in the military. These guys often end up doing it as a career. There is some simplistic beauty of military life. That is true. While you get paid shit, your housing and food is provided, and you don't have to worry about getting promoted or getting laid off. For many guys, conscription is sort of a break from the real world where they don't have to worry about their future. However, all of that is moot because it isn't voluntary. It is still an infringement on civil rights and the very same principles of democracy that distinguish us from our enemy to the north. Why are we at war again? What logic is there in protecting our freedoms by taking them away? I've said all of this before so I won't go into it again. I'll just say this: You think military service is valuable and will instill character? Nobody is stopping you from enlisting. You enjoy it, then you fucking join.

For all the disdain I've expressed, I actually respect the idea of soldiers and the ideals that the military is supposed to uphold. Every society needs warriors to protect it and they should be respected. But my service wasn't respectful. I wasn't a soldier. I was a slave. As I've expanded on previous entries, I actually looked forward to learning to be a warrior but was solely disappointed. My hands were more familiar with a broom than a rifle.

I feel another thing: disappointment in myself. Despite my political convictions, I went through with it instead of being a conscientious objector. If I truly believed in what I told myself, I should have went to prison for it. Maybe I'm weak. Maybe I don't believe in my political ideals as strongly as I thought. Maybe I'm contradicting myself.

The emotional tides settle somewhat later in service. As guys get promoted and are granted more freedoms, the suicide and desertion rate go down. One adapts somewhat to the environment and routine. Less guys breathe down your neck as they eventually leave. The frustrations of military life are still present but you learn to deal with it better. You develop methods such as sweet talking an officer to not put you on a detail or simply learning when to hide. You also get sick and tired of everything and start to not give a fuck.

The frustration still lingers but the one thing that really gets to you in the later stages of service is boredom. You're not as on alert any more but you've also exhausted the available list of movies or board games to play. You're just waiting to get discharged and the wait can drive a lot of guys nuts.

Poor saps on their day of entry. Source

Summed up: Despair. Feeling trapped and defeated. Being emasculated. Loneliness. Confusion. Anger at the system. Disappointment at yourself for giving in. A desperate longing for the outside world and freedom. Frustration. Immense boredom. Torment and anguish. These are the things one feels as a conscript.


  1. I had hoped all these conscripts would be mean lean killing machines. Many of my friends have served in Korean military but I could take them down anyday. Sad.

    1. Nope. They just had the experience of shooting some rifles and throwing grenades--ordinary wartime fighting skills. Not mma.

  2. Hi, I've spent the past few hours reading most of the posts on your blog. I recently went through a lot of stress over whether or not to give up my Korean citizenship (I'm a Korean American dual citizen currently) and ditching the service so your blog has been very interesting to read.

    As of now I've pretty much settled on not giving up my citizenship and instead am thinking about applying for the marine corps and I was wondering if you had any insight into what that was like. I know you've mentioned that you don't really know that much about what day-to-day life is like in the marines, but that you do know a few people who've gone and done their service in that branch.

    If you have the time I'd greatly appreciate reading about what you have heard.