Student soldiers

Some USyd students go on gap years, others are called to national service.

Alexandros Tsathas and Victoria Zerbst spoke to three former conscripts.

Art by Matthew Fisher Art by Matthew Fisher

In a handful of countries around the world, when boys – and sometimes girls – turn 18, they must heed their nation’s calling. The practice goes by different names: national service, military service, conscription, drafting. The finer details vary slightly from country to country, but the overall structure remains similar, with post-pubescents usually serving two years in the armed forces.

The nations themselves are often small, with chequered political histories and unpredictable neighbours. Governments hope this two-year boot camp will create a pool of reserves to draw from in the event of a skirmish, supplementing their undersized professional armies.

Proponents of national service, mostly old men and governments, sell it as a rite of passage. It “turns boys into men”, teaches them to be regimented and independent. It’s a great social leveler – prime ministers’ sons go through it. Attempts at ‘dodging’ are usually punished with a jail term longer than the national service itself. Even expatriates and their children are often expected to serve.

Critics of conscription argue that it represents the only remaining form of forced labour in first-world countries outside of incarceration. It makes for an inefficient, volatile army. It is sexist and strips the economy of cheap, young workers and delays education.

Though many countries have abandoned this scheme over the past 20 years, it continues to represent a significant event in the lives of thousands across the globe. Some of those lives now call the University of Sydney home.

Consider this: before they were members of Sydney University’s society executives, they were soldiers. Before they were your lab partners, they were international translators. The University educates students from many countries where national service is the law – Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, even Israel and Austria.

Stories abound.

Manesh Sadwani is a third year commerce student at USyd. He is President of the Singapore Students’ Society and Director of Events of the Finance and Banking Society. After graduating from Singapore’s equivalent of Year 12, he served 24 months in Singapore’s Air Force.

After an initial fitness assessment and nine weeks of basic military training, he was allocated to an administrative role that saw him tasked with managing the costs of the air forces’ pilots.

He explains he was assigned this role partly as a result of his intended area of civilian study (economics) and partly because that was where the vacancy was – two-year postings make personnel appointments very volatile.

Manesh’s experience of national service was overwhelmingly positive, and afforded him experiences he would never have otherwise sought out.

“In the first nine weeks, you go off to a different island and leave your family, you only see them on weekends. They make you go bald, they give you a number one [buzzcut]… they put you in the jungle, we got to shoot, got to throw grenades. They gave us the opportunity to keep a rifle, to experience stripping a rifle. I really enjoyed that bit especially.”

One’s early twenties represents the prime of one’s life. Many significant educational, relationship and financial investments are typically made. Does military service impose a two-year roadblock on the most inopportune stretch of life’s journey?

Manesh concedes it did interrupt his education, but not his social life to a great extent. His administrative role meant his typical days went from 8-5, and he went home in the evenings and on weekends.

However, Manesh does say the age gap which  emerges when student soldiers return to uni is disruptive. “When we start university [in Singapore], all our female classmates are two years younger. In the beginning, I thought it was kinda strange, but I think it kinda works out.”

Despite this blight, he believes in the enduring utility of his two years in the military.  “There’s just so much regimentation, it instills a lot of discipline into us. Every morning we have to make our beds, make our lockers; commanders will check everything. We’ve got heaps of push-ups, it makes you a much tougher man, I think. And for me, I’ve come out here to Sydney, and I’m here without family, so I think it’s good that I had the training so that I know how to survive on my own.”

***

Victor Lee is a second year pharmacy student who has recently returned to Australia after spending two years in Korea as one of thousands conscripted between the ages of 18 and 30. Although he spent his high school years in Australia, he was summoned back because he remains a dual-citizen. He is not as enthusiastic about his experience of national service.

One of Victor’s biggest gripes is that his university progress was stunted (Victor completed one year at USyd before he served in Korea). On his pre-tour memories, he jokes, “Is chemistry the one with shapes and shit? Obviously I feel behind. All my friends have already graduated or in their graduating year.”

For many conscripts, not only is university progress affected, but also their career progression. Victor explains, “It’s a two year blank. If your dreams are being in an orchestra, when you go into the army, your life will probably take a completely different direction.”

Completing national service is an important social milestone in Korea. Although Victor put it off at first, he knew that doing so inevitably would destroy his prospects if he ever wanted to work in Korea. “If I don’t go to the army people will see me in a different way. They have a stereotype of people who don’t go to army.”

Manesh says a similar expectation of service exists in Singapore, but to a lesser extent. A high rank, such as Corporal 1st Class or Officer on a CV may be the “x-factor” when Singaporean HR firms are filing through their candidates.

***

Victor was lucky enough to be assigned to  a special unit called KATUSA, the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army. After performing well in an English skills test, his name was added to a lottery. He was fortunate enough to win. This was a relief, “The Korean army is notorious for being strict but the US army is a lot freer. I was even able to go home on weekends and see my parents.”

Victor was stationed in a US base and served as a translator at the battalion level.  Consequently, he was privy to a lot of information that a normal conscript wouldn’t have access to.

“Obviously if I talk about it out loud they wouldn’t be happy with me.”

Victor had never translated before, and was scolded for his slow uptake. “It wasn’t a nice memory. Not doing your job properly is a big thing in the army.” He was once required to translate for a two-star general in the army when his “brain kept freezing up”. He interacted with many intimidating people, noting, “You can’t talk freely in front of them. They are in charge of 20,000 people, so they have an aura around them.”

If the pressure of completing one’s military role not enough, strict bans on external communication were enforced. According to Victor, soldier-civilian relationships don’t last in Korea. “More than 50% of the soldiers break up. It feels likes everyone breaks up.”

Relationships within his unit were stronger.

“I would say it is pretty special. If you go on a field training together for 15 days without washing, you will be friends for a while.” Victor found this particularly comforting in times of political tension. He remembers being assembled and told that South Korea had been attacked with a missile. “They told us to prepare for war. Every division was alerted. Everyone had to carry their rifle and helmet and everything.”

However, not every unit is as supportive. Bullying is notorious in the Korean army, and over 800 conscripts have committed suicide over the past decade according to official figures.

“Bullying is a big thing too, but everyone just accepts it.” Victor recounts stories of new arrivals being forced to introduce themselves while “doing something stupid”. He adds, “The only things our unit didn’t allow were actual beating or sexual harassment. We would never be able to say ‘your mum is a pig’ or ‘your sister is a whore’. If that happened the whole unit would fall apart.”

To combat its bullying problem, the Korean Army implemented a system which  roughly translates to ‘Letter of the Wish’ or ‘Letter of the Heart’. Every month, conscripts pen an anonymous letter to the officer in charge. That officer has the authority to immediately discharge anyone from their unit or send them to jail. Victor explains that you write down a review of how you have been treated, for example “Sergeant Lee has been harassing me” or “Sergeant Lee has been very kind to me, reward him” It is taken very seriously.

“There was one unit notorious for beating and harassing. One guy came in, wrote a letter, and it went straight to the highest ranking. 15 people in that unit were sent to jail straight away.”

Victor concludes, “There is always this system that prevents harassment”. He adds ominously, “but it is still conscription and an army.”

***

Steve Bachmayer didn’t have much to do with Israel before he volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As an Australian student, he was sceptical of Zionism because his school had “actively tried to force it down his throat”. His entry into Israeli culture came through his relationship with his best friend, Ben, and Ben’s Israeli family.

At the end of high school, Steve volunteered for the IDF Mahal program with Ben, serving shoulder-to-shoulder with conscripted Israeli soldiers. He “thought it would be quite interesting to serve for the army and see what it is all about”.

While most of his friends were taking gap years, Steve wanted to inform his opinion on the complex political climate in the Middle East. “I can’t form an opinion on something I don’t really know all that much about. I couldn’t trust anything that came out of my school’s mouth, because I went to a Jewish day school and they are going praise everything Israel touches.”

The 18-month Mahal program draws in Jews from all over the world. In Steve’s unit, there were Jewish soldiers from Finland, South Africa, England and America.

“The first year is essentially training. After that you go into a thing called Magav, which is guard duty.” Every unit was assigned a different area of the country; Steve was sent to the West Bank.

“It was an eye opening experience in terms of seeing the dynamic between the settlements and settlers. There were incidents. I came out of it with a disillusioned view of the settlements in the West Bank.”

There was one situation in particular that stuck with Steve. Peace talks were to be held in a settlement he was guarding, on the condition that Netanyahu made sure there was a cessation of settlement constructions on the West Bank. The army was sent to deliver the notices that would halt construction.

As a result, some Israelis turned on the guards. “Not like shooting or anything, but they put spikes in the road and slashed the tires of a troop carrier. It was pretty shit.”

“Around that same time they were also throwing glass bottles full of paint. I wasn’t there at the time but some of my friends had been hit.”

By the end of his 18 months, Steve was happy to return to Sydney to commence his studies in nursing. He believes his army experience did teach him new skills, but if asked to name those skills or detail how they have affected him, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. “Experiences shape us in ways that we don’t really realise,” he says.

For Victor Lee in the Korean armed forces, his military experience helped him break through mental barriers and make great physical gains.

“When you get 100 per cent in your Physical Training test” he explained, “they give you a three day holiday. Obviously as a lazy person, I wanted that so badly. I went for a run every night and did push-ups every morning. It wasn’t the easiest, but somehow I got it.”

Victor now believes that your mind gives up before your body gives up. “I feel better than the person I was yesterday. I was a fatty before I left.  People talk shit about the army but one thing you can’t deny is when you go, you get fit.”

Where Victor’s gained bulk, Steve has gained a new perspective.

“Not necessarily a helpful perspective, more just a perspective of nobody really knows what they are talking about. Even the people on the ground, they don’t really know what they are talking about. It is just one big convoluted mess. Nobody is necessarily right. Everyone has bits of wrong.”

***

Many USyd students claim a gap year enriched their lives. It probably did. Though these adventures are well-documented on instagram and ‘casually’ dropped in conversation, the more interesting stories tend to remain untold.

While some students struggle with their personal finances at the Marly on a Saturday night, others have been responsible for billions of dollars in advanced warfare machinery.

While some students stress about conjugating verbs in a language lab, others have translated military secrets to two-star generals.

While most students only study the Israeli-palestine conflict in their Government tutes, others have guarded settlements on the West Bank.

These students have thrown grenades instead of tantrums.

You never know who’s sitting in the seat next to you.