November 06, 2018 11:46
Safety concerns increasingly trump combat readiness in the Army as a new generation of coddled young men embark on their mandatory military service and officers grow wary of taking responsibility.
A National Assembly audit last month revealed that the Army has not trained new military recruits in the use of hand grenades for the last three years. The measure was taken after one conscript died and two were injured during a grenade-training exercise in September 2015. A probe was launched to look into faulty grenades, but the cause of the accident remains a mystery.
Such incidents are far from rare in the military, and the knee-jerk reaction by top brass has often been simply to scrap dangerous tasks to avoid being held responsible. But critics said that approach is harming the military's readiness to deal with a crisis.
When one unit conducted target practice with grenade launchers earlier this year, the first gunner fired the launcher but the projectile got lodged in the barrel. The projectile was eventually launched, but the commanding officer immediately halted the drill citing safety concerns.
The military has an obligation to protect its soldiers, but being overprotective can mean that they get no training at all for vital tasks. There are also frequent cases of soldiers being excused from taking part in drills in full gear because they grow too tired.
One Army commander made sure that two rank-and-file soldiers under his watch stayed close to him during a recent night-time exercise because they had complained of personal problems. The commander said he was unable to focus on the exercise because he had to watch over the two soldiers but had no choice since he was ordered to do so by senior officers.
Five other soldiers were told to stay behind in their barracks in compliance with an instruction from the top not to force soldiers with psychological problems to join training.
Many officers complain that they feel like kindergarten teachers, and they even have to distribute medication to soldiers to prevent them from overdosing. Soldiers are also told not to engage in night-time exercises when the president is traveling abroad, because if accidents occur during the president's absence the military could become the focus of intense security.
Frontline commanders say the problem is a culture of making commanding officers take all of the blame if an accident happens. One Army commander was penalized last year and is getting ready to quit because a soldier under his watch committed suicide a month after he took charge. Following an inquest, the commanding officer ended up taking all the blame for failing to manage his troops.
One high-ranking Army officer said, "The commanding officer gets grilled if a soldier in his company takes his own life even if it was for entirely personal reasons like gambling debts."
There are even instances of soldiers' parents meddling in the operations of military units. Some units have opened websites aiming to communicate with soldiers' parents, where photos of training activities can be posted.
"It's like nursery school teachers posting photos of children because the parents want to see them," one officer complained. Some parents file complaints urging officers to "go easy" on their sons.
"If a soldier falls ill, the parents call the commanding officer and ask them to take care of their son or to send him to a large hospital," one Army captain said. "If we report this up the chain of command, we are ordered to consult with the parents."
Moon Keun-sik, an analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said, "We need to let the public know that proper safety measures are being taken, but we also need to keep company commanders from taking full responsibility for every accident involving soldiers if they could have done nothing to prevent it."
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