Can the military be reformed? Who can do it?

The China Post news staff

The departure of two defense ministers in a week has left the nation wondering whether Taiwan’s military is still salvageable. Kao Hua-chu stepped down last week following the death of Army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, amid one of the biggest crises that has ever hit the armed forces. The tragic death, the result of an alleged conspiracy by his superiors to torture him, has infuriated the nation and underscored the perennial mismanagement of the military.

Andrew Yang, a university professor who served as Kao’s deputy, then took over to become the first civilian defense minister in about two decades. There were high hopes that a civilian who was not entangled in the complex web of relationships within the armed forces would be more apt to introduce a different mentality into the military and reform it. The very first reform that happened within the military did take place during Yang’s short stint. The Legislature revised the military prosecution code Tuesday to let all servicemen be tried in civilian court for any crimes during peacetime. Yang could hardly take credit for the change, which was made in response to tremendous public pressure in the wake of Hung’s death.

And it was on the very same day that Yang offered to resign after admitting to having committed plagiarism, even though, according to the short-lived defense minister the mistake was unintentional. He may have resigned because of a “small” glitch to his academic integrity, which seems to have nothing to do with the military itself. But conspiracy theories have been rife, alleging that Yang’s departure smacks of the military’s resistance to reform. It has been alleged that military leaders were angry that they had to be commanded by a civilian and that they lost one of their most powerful tools for commanding the troops — namely the threat of the military court.

Some critics had therefore called on President Ma Ying-jeou to replace Yang with yet another civilian to underscore his determination to reform the armed forces. But Ma yesterday quickly named Chief of the General Staff Yen Ming as Yang’s successor. But we must first ask: is it necessary that a civilian be defense minister so that the military can be reformed? If that is the case, what kind of quality must that civilian minister possess in order to harness the military? Some critics have noted that such a civilian must have a tough character and determination. He or she must receive full support from an equally tough and determined president.