It’s not time to bring back the draft
Anew survey by the Academia Sinica revealed a surprising finding: At least 50 percent of Taiwan’s public — in all age demographics — support reinstating the military draft.
From January to February, a research team specializing in relations with mainland China asked the question, “Do you support reinstating the draft system to strengthen Taiwan’s military?”
Seventy percent of respondents between 30 and 39 years old said they were in favor. Support from respondents under 29, between 40 and 49 years old, between 50 and 59 and over 60 was 62 percent, 62.8 percent, 56.8 percent and 51.7 percent, respectively.
The poll indicates public willingness to take up arms in times of need, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim ( ) said yesterday, in what was a rare appeal from a politician to reconsider all-volunteer recruitment.
“This policy is not fixed in stone,” Hsiao said during interpellation session with Deputy Minister of National Defense Chen Yung-kang ( ).
Local media sources, including Storm Media ( ) and the Central News Agency, have noted that Hsiao is DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s ( ) key aide and will likely play a key role in forming the presidential bid platform.
Hsiao said new recruits have disproportionately been officers and not combat soldiers. Based on the defense ministry’s fiscal situation, it will be impossible to shift from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force by the target of 2016.
There are sound reasons for a draft. The immediate effect is that the Defense Ministry can meet its manpower needs.
From a social policy standpoint, a conscription program may be a way to reverse the drifting civilian-military divide, to turn boys into men, or even, however briefly, to equalize the parts of society that are persistently unequal.
Another main argument for bringing back conscription is that it could slow the public’s decision-making process on issues that have a chance of leading to military action.
If the DPP comes to power in January 2016, it would be doing so on a highly polarized voting base that the party will need to manage and actively respond to.
In effect, conscription would act as a safety brake on politically vital but fringe groups, allowing Tsai to avoid taking risks in cross-strait relations that may result in war.
But the military should not exist to serve as crowd control, and it is not a social experiment designed to switch from one recruitment strategy to another based on which party is in power.
In the end, reinstating the draft would create more problems than it solves.
Imposing a major interruption in the life of a draftee is something that will cost him, the economy and arguably the health of a free society. Conscripts do not serve as long as volunteers and higher turnover translates to a less-skilled force. As a rule, conscripts are also less committed. Taiwan’s repeatedly postponed military reform plan, which promised the phase-out of compulsory military service, is a main reason behind the armed forces’ chronic low morale. The goal should be to build a military that is versatile and disciplined — a modern fighting force that deters enemies from attempting attack.
As a solution, the draft tries to address a long-term problem that it cannot ever resolve.
The Academia Sinica poll is most accurately interpreted as a signal of public anxiety — anxiety that Taiwan’s lines of national defense are incapable of meeting future commitments.
This is a serious and legitimate concern that can’t be solved by recruiting more soldiers from the fixed population of 23 million.
Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, teaches that it is advisable to surround the enemy if one’s forces outnumber the enemy’s by ten to one. If by five to one, it is wise to attack. If one’s forces are drastically outnumbered, as Taiwan’s would be regardless of recruitment strategy, it is best to evade.
For the party that comes into power in 2016, a strategy with longer range is to move away from a confrontation-oriented approach to cross-strait relations, changing the game so that military commitments can be managed by the resources Taiwan has.