Monday, February 11, 2013

General Conscript Life

What is conscript life like? What do conscripts do all day? This is one of the most common questions I get regarding military service from foreigners I meet.

What's it like? What are the the long hours, the criminally low pay, the idiotic superiors, the poor living conditions, the ridiculous Korean obsession with formality, and the absence of privacy and autonomy like? To quote Jesse Pinkman, it was totally Kafkaesque, yo. Like, majorly.

To save them my long-winded rants on Korea's conscription policy and the general asininity of military life, I just tell them "it sucks." Because it does. It sucks fucking donkey balls. It's difficult for me to talk about my service without expressing my personal hatred for it. The daily routine of military life is infected by all the narrow-minded absurdity that invariably accompanies. It was hard to go through a day on base without being reminded of how much and why I hate being there.

What We Do All Day
If you disregard the aforementioned conditions and focus purely on the activities of day to day life, conscript life isn't too different from most people of the civilian world. I should clarify that my life wasn't all that different. What one actually does and what kind of conditions one lives in heavily depends on the unit and post.

My unit's daily routine when like this:

  • Wake up at 0600
  • Morning roll call
  • Warm up using the silly ROK military warm up routine
  • Run 2km
  • Rest/shower/eat breakfast
  • Go to work (assigned MOS) at 0900
  • Lunch at round 12 and rest until 1300
  • Work until 1600
  • Afternoon PT (4-6km run followed by sit ups and push ups)
  • Supper at around 1730 to 1900 and freetime
  • Cleaning at 2030
  • Evening roll call and mandatory TV news viewing at 2100  
  • Lights out at 2200

Look how tough and hardcore military warm-ups are!

That's the general outline of a day but there's a lot of variation depending on the unit, how the commander feels, and other circumstances. For example, we would skip running during the winter and instead shovel snow. Sometimes they wouldn't let us during after meals if there was a lot of work. On special occasions, like the during the World Cup, they would let us stay up late and watch the games. On weekends and holidays, we wake up at 0700, there is no morning run, and they let us rest. Unless there was work to be done. Which usually there was.

As anybody working in Korea knows, no plan is ever followed and things are changed last-minute constantly. Conscripts are always on guard for extra duty and overtime work during their free time. Having a phone call to your girlfriend or a movie viewing interrupted by some rock picking or leaf sweeping detail is common. An officer would suddenly remember he has to prepare for a briefing the next morning an he would make you help him while everybody else is sleeping. Free time isn't always free time in the military

That also applies to work and PT, however. Some guys will make excuses to not run during PT or go to the Medical Corps during work hours. Work doesn't always mean constant work as there are lazy days as well as busy ones. As is Korean tradition, its good form to look busy, but there were a lot of times where I wasn't. I pretended to work but messed around when nobody was looking. Officers straight up took naps or watched TV when nobody higher than them was around.

What kind of work one does depends on the MOS you're assigned. I was at first in an administrative position where I typed away on a computer and made coffee. It's basically an office job. Guys in band spent their days practicing playing their instruments while cooks cooked, and security platoon guys stood on guard for hours a day. There are more special types of occupations such as being in charge of the tennis court for officers, and basically take care of the tennis court. Some jobs are comfier and easier than others. Many envy the position I had and some suspect I used my family's military connections to get it. I actually wanted to be in a tougher combat unit but I had little choice to where I was placed. So it goes.

I complain about work and how abundant and inconsistent it can be, however, having free time in the military can also be extremely boring. Nobody is going to choose picking up rocks over sitting idly but the boredom of military life can get to you. I read a lot of books, some guys play board games, most watch TV, a few work out. All of that can get old due to the lack of variety. You can only watch so many TV shows or read so many books. I've read a lot of books and the act of reading kind of got tedious after awhile. Guys played a lot of soccer and I could've spent a lot of time working out if there were boxing equipment available. But of course there wasn't. Getting visits from family members and friends helps during the weekend.

Engaging in certain activities during your free time also become problematic due to the sudden nature work. You might start up a movie only to get called up for some shitty detail ten minutes in. You might want to go for an hour long run but be discouraged to go because your unit might need you when they get called in to look for a general's dog. Then when you return from your jog, the rest of your unit will resent you for not participating in their struggle even though you had no idea something like that would happen. Shit like that will make your free time feel not free at all.

I guess many civilians are curious of how good the facilities are on military bases and most assume it to be shitty. It is shitty compared to the modern civilian world but I was somewhat surprised when the general cleanliness and availability of "modern" comforts. This also depends a lot on the unit. Some units have newer buildings for their barracks and better facilities. Location also has a lot to do with it. A guy stationed on a tiny island somewhere can't expect to have the same comforts as a guy stationed in downtown Seoul. The guys stationed at the DMZ apparently have to wait for regular PX trucks to visit while guys like me visited the PX inside the building whenever we wanted.

My barracks had actual toilet seats in the bathrooms. A large, open shower room with hot water during most of the winter. Albeit there weren't sufficient enough numbers of them, we had dryers and washing machines. A TV and with satellite in every room. Public phones in and around the building. Even a "PC bang" which are called Cyber Knowledge Information Rooms (사이버지식정보방) with really crappy PCs which charged like 400won an hour, with a quarter of that time spent waiting for the computer to load.

So I wasn't completely cut off from the outside world. I was exposed to the changes in pop culture and technology. I could facebook my friends and call my family. Although it was frowned upon but not illegal, some guys brought their Playstations from home to play video games. Playing Call of Duty sure made the time fly during weekends.

Most barracks are designed like Korean schools (or more likely Korean schools are designed like military barracks) with the building in front of a large sandy field that is used for roll call and soccer. Usually one building is used by one unit, but sometimes smaller units share a barracks. My unit used the second floor while the smaller Recon unit used the first. Most units also have a mess hall in a separate building.

Typical looking barracks. Source:

Unlike in the U.S. military where soldiers share a room with one or two roommates, Korean conscripts share one with their entire squad or even platoon. In my case, I was in a room with a dozen other guys, which isn't too bad. Some have 20 or more in one room. We didn't have beds, but a platform which we slept on side by side. There was a locker for each soldier. That's his personal space which he could decorate to some extent with picture of his girlfriend or favorite celebrities. I had a big picture of Manny Pacquiao once. People thought I was weird because I was the only without pics of hot chicks. The newer buildings have actual beds and accommodate fewer soldiers per room.

Typical room although mine was smaller with fewer people. Source:

 The new room design. Beds! Source:

During lights out, we slept on a thin "mattress" that was really a shitty green futon. We are issued one light summer blanket that was camouflaged, a thicker wool blanket that's green, and a sleeping bag that was also green. I got sick of everything being of this really dull green. Not every terrain in Korea is green so I don't know why everything we wear and use is. Anyway, the sleeping bag is the warmed thing so most guys bundle themselves up in it during the winter even indoors.

The food was okay. Not as horrible as I anticipated going in. It was tolerable and occasionally, even good. However, it was still cafeteria food and I got sick of it after two years of it. I honestly didn't want to even look at kimchi for a few weeks after my discharge. I made sure I had plenty of western food with cheese during my leave and after my discharge. An issue I had with the food was that the guys making the food weren't very good at it most of the time and the only method of seasoning they used (probably due to lack of resources and options) was to put a shit ton of salt, garlic, chili pepper, or a combination of all three. So the food a lot of time tasted too salty, garlicky, or spicy. My main problem, however, was the lack of fresh vegetable and fruit. This is probably due to the fear of food going bad and people getting sick, but the lack of fresh, raw produce probably wasn't the best thing for my health. I did get plenty of salty, overcooked cabbage though! As for the mess hall itself, it wasn't well heated or air-conditioned, but it did what it had to do. Despite the frequent rat sightings, nobody that I know of got sick of food poisoning.

As mentioned before, we had a PX inside the building with all sorts of fattening snacks at military discount prices. I saw my military service as a chance to get rid of my soda addiction but that did not turn out as I have hoped. Some guys actually get fat during their service due to the lack of consistent activity and availability of cheap junk food. It was common to see guys take out their stress on food.

Limited exercise facilities were also available. My unit had a tiny weight room and a really bumpy basketball court along with the sandy soccer field. Some bigger units have ping pong tables. We also had a singing room that charged by the song. Korean soldiers love to sing high-pitched ballads there. I forgot to mention this before, but heating and air conditioning is almost non-existent in conscript living quarters. I say almost because some rooms had a tiny electric heaters for an entire platoon. Mine had none. I was cold during the winter. We had fans during the summer though.

My working environment was much better. While I wasn't happy being a desk-jockey and a coffee slave for the officers, I did appreciate that because I worked with spoiled officers, I had access to better facilities. The office had AC and heating. While some guys were out digging trenches in the sun, I was inside and drinking cold water from a water filter while sitting at a desk. I also could have a lot of coffee should I wanted to. Koreans fucking love that instant coffee mix.

I went in the Army thinking I was going to be cut off entirely from the outside world and all forms of modern comforts. I expected to live like an animal for two years. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't entirely the case. It seems to be getting slowly better but the living conditions of ROK soldiers are still severely lacking compared to their American counterparts.

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