from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #17: Hell is the Impossibility of Reason

with 6 comments

“Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.”*
-Chris Taylor, Platoon-

The Korean Army is a place devoid of reason. A place so devoid of reason, I’d like to imagine it would drive the greatest of thinkers insane. Einstein’s rowdy salt-and-pepper would fall out from stress, Stephen Hawking’s tongue would go numb from exertion, Bobby Fischer would disappear forever in failure. After a while, you have to stop trying to rationalize what is happening around you because the only reward for your efforts is a migraine and possibly an aneurism or the onset of insanity.

Tradition is the excuse given for much of the apprehensible, incomprehensible practices in the army. “This is the way it’s always been done,” people say, shrugging their shoulders and sighing or rolling up their sleeves to give you a thrashing. Some blame the Japanese, but figuring out whether it really is the hand-me-down of the Imperial Japanese Army or attributing tradition to the Japanese is a convenient way to divert the blame by playing on historical enmities is something I can’t be bothered with. Does it really matter? The past is endlessly arguable, the present was fucked up.

People say that the Army is getting better. I hear that the term of service has been shortened by four months since I left the gates of the Second Army for the last time, the pay has increased to slightly above slave wages, and certain basic freedoms and amenities have been afforded to conscripts, but there is one thing I am sure of: senior conscripts are still assholes to their subordinates.

How can I be so sure? Because it’s more than just tradition. It’s the basest aspect of nature codified into tradition. We all want to be that alpha male silverback gorilla, so we bide our time and suffer through the degradation, waiting for our day in the sun. It’s why we all can’t get along. It’s why high school seniors will always pick on freshmen. I was picked on as a freshman, so when I become a senior, I will also pick on freshmen. It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle. Not to say that it can never change. “Someday” is always nice to believe in.

I once heard a nice story in which a man was shown two scenes. The setting was the same in both scenes: a group of people sit around a huge pot of stew. Each person holds a spoon with a handle a meter long. For some reason, they could only hold the end of their spoons—an inherent flaw in the story. The difference between the two scenes is that in one, the people sit around the pot, silent and starving because they cannot bring the stew to their mouths with their own spoons; in the other, the people feed each other with their spoons and are happy. The first scene is supposed to be hell, the second, heaven. The first is too nice a scene to depict the relationships in the Army. In an Army depiction, a few of the people would be fed and happy, their spoons by their sides or used as instruments to hit the rest of the people who are forced to feed them.

In one of my favorite books, Cannery Row, Steinbeck states that “there are two possible reactions to social ostracism—either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things.” It’s too bad that the latter is the more popular choice.

* This is the epigraph for my first interim chapter, Basic Combat Training.


6 Responses

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  1. Nice entry. I have a few comments about what you said.
    First, the excuse of tradition to justify the continuation of stupidity isn’t just a Korean Army thing. I got the same excuse when I went to school here. Upperclassmen would beat and berate younger students with impunity (teachers simply give them a slap on the wrist) and the younger kids would tell themselves its ok because they can do the same to kids younger than themselves. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t want to thrash underclassmen around and I didn’t. I think it’s extremely narrow-minded and immature.

    However, I think you might have heard right about the Korean Army getting better. “Better” doesn’t mean good but it is an improvement over what the situation used to be. Apparently even just a couple years or so ago conscripts would get beat and sexually molested regularly. It still happens but less frequently. They still haven’t fixed the issue of verbal abuse though.

    While senior conscripts can be quite the douches, I also have to deal with officers and NCOs who are even worse. One of the most ironic moments I have had here was when I had the chance to read the US Army manual on leadership, because the ideal examples and goals described in the manual are the exact opposite of the “leaders” I face everyday.


    July 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm

  2. I agree that officers and NCOs are worse, complete trash a lot of the time, but the system is set up so that most of conscripts’ hatred is directed at each other. Divide and conquer. Create divisions and then divisions within those divisions and nobody’s your friend. The system is perpetuated and accepted exactly because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Yes, it’s stupid and it will always be. And yes, this kind of stupefying tradition is present in society, the public school system, and corporations.

    The Army may be getting better, but I will never say that it is good. I think “bearable” is the closest it will ever get to good.


    July 24, 2010 at 7:33 pm

  3. Maybe its different for us desk-jockeys who have to face staff officers everyday. Our hatred is aimed towards more them than at eachother, although there is plenty of that going around too. While senior conscripts are sometimes assholes, officers and NCOs pretty much see us as slaves. Sometimes I wonder if they even see conscripts as human. The few (and I mean few) officers that I’ve found to be decent were always combat leaders though. I can at least respect their balls for being amongst us conscripts when the going gets tough. Staff officers act way too tough for people who sit in front of a computer all day.

    Bearable it might be for most of us but we still get reports of suicides and desertions about twice a month. Fortunately none in my unit yet. I wonder how many guys offed themselves when it used to be worse.


    July 31, 2010 at 10:44 am

    • Trust me, I know how evil the officers and NCOs can be. I served at the headquarters of the Second Army, surrounded by officers. There was the demeaning treatment and absurd amount of work that they made you do during the day, and after normal work hours, they made you do completely meaningless and labor-intensive work such as moving in the new commander with his safe the size of a full-size refrigerator or planting two thousand trees because it’s Arbor Day and the new commander kind of likes a certain type of tree.

      After my deployment to Afghanistan, I went home to visit my family for the first time. It wasn’t easy. I had to jump through hoops to be able to do it. While I was in Seattle, I decided to get some more ink. It was in protest of officers’ treatment of conscripts. Daegu was tough, but Afghanistan was a lot more work. They didn’t let me sleep or eat regularly, and they always gave me shit about everything. Because to them, we are not human. We are only tools. So I tattooed the stamp they put on military issue items on my leg, with my personal information replacing the product information. The only officer to see it threatened to throw me in military prison.

      I guess the nature of every unit is different and of every person is different. The members of my unit hated officers, but people were just downright assholes to each other so we directed our hatred more to each other. The ones that worked in headquarters took all the shit they got from the office and took it back to the company with them. Because they couldn’t fight back against the officers, they used their subordinates as stress-relief. We only had to see the majority of the officers during work hours. We had to spend every waking hour with assholes who made our life hell.

      There were a few decent ones, but where I was stationed, the only thing I really noticed is that the nice ones usually don’t have rank. After a while, all officers learn that you have to become a dick to get ahead.

      There weren’t any suicides or desertions in my company while I was there. I sometimes wondered why that was. There were plenty of guys I was sure would snap one day.


      July 31, 2010 at 12:32 pm

  4. I guess it depends on the unit and I assume ROKA life back during your time must’ve been a bit different.

    You have to tell me more about Afghanistan, although it sounds like it wasn’t that great for you. I’m thinking of signing up for a tour and I’m wondering if it’ll be worth it or if I’ll come close to seeing any combat.


    August 1, 2010 at 7:27 pm

  5. Although it was supremely frustrating while I was there, Afghanistan was definitely worth it. Things might possibly well have changed, but when I went, it was paradise.

    First of all, danger pay and 25 days leave. You can actually make some decent money while in the service and have a whole extra month of leave. It’s pretty damn sweet.

    Second, all of things I wrote in my last entry. Civilians don’t know how nice it is to have hot water all year long. While I’m sure most people don’t think hot water would be nice in the desert, it’s far better than the feeling of dumping a cold bucket of ice on your head every time you want to get cleaned up. And food, good God, the food is far better there. The Americans have Burger King, pizza, and Thai, and the UAE camp lets visitors come for chow. The PX is full of good shit, and even the Korean DFAC is vastly better than the mess halls here. It’s privately contracted and so you occasionally get samgyeopsal and steak.

    Third, if you work it out well, you won’t that many duties and you don’t have to respect the stupid fucking hierarchical system that you do at your permanent station. If you do happen to go, contact me before you go for pre-deployment training.

    There are other benefits, but I’ll leave it at that. In terms of danger, it’s not dangerous at all. From what I hear, Iraq isn’t dangerous, either, unless you have a particular MOS. The Korean Army always contracts a parcel of land for its compound in the center of the base, so even though we had several rocket attacks and threats of tanker-bombs (VBIEDs), there was no real danger. I hear the guy who took over my position got blown up by a suicide bomb, but he was unlucky. There’s very little danger of suicide bombs normally.

    You probably won’t see any combat. Actually, in breach of base regulations, you probably won’t be given live rounds either. And unless the staff officers decide to take you along to Kabul to visit the embassy, you probably won’t even leave the base. I don’t know if you want to see combat, but it’s most likely not going to happen. I actually wanted to be able to shoot a round in a real situation, but it’ll never happen there. The base is huge and full of American soldiers who actually received real training.


    August 2, 2010 at 11:23 am

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