Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Army Daze - How Boys Will Not Become Men

I thought it is time for my gentle readers to re-visit a post I wrote a while ago...

The army advertising machine is one of the most well-oiled and efficient system ever devised by man. The slogan , "Where boys become men", has become a mantra on the lips of millions that any advertising company would be over the moon should their slogans for their clients attain such a cult following. Yet, many should understand that a slogan is a mere advertising tool to appeal to the consumers and ensure that they remember a particular product due to its catchy phrase. In other words, it may not necessarily represent the truth and that applies for the army too - it does not make one become a man.

However, a 'man', like any other word, is a subjective concept and it benefits everyone should we stick to a particular definition. Being a man, represents an attainment of maturity, independence, rationality, humanity and morality; one that is able to provide for himself and others materially and emotionally. By that definition, the only semblance of being a man that the army could claim credit for would be bulking up the poor boys who have their lives coming into a screeching halt for two years. The physicality achieved, if the poor boy has any body mass to bulk up with, may offer his girlfriend either a sense of security or a fantasy come true as she is euphoric that she finally has a boyfriend that is as bulky as Hugh Jackman in Australia. Thoughts of her boyfriend washing himself like Jackman in that movie meant that the boy could finally "provide" his for his girlfriend emotionally - albeit in an erotic way.

At this point, most proponents of the slogan would demand that I do not ignore how serving national service is a rite of passage where one acquire survivor skills akin to the tribal initiation rites into adulthood or that it teaches values such as selflessness, cooperation and discipline. In response to that, I will thus address such naivety in two parts; the male initiation rites and the teaching of values.

With regards to the "rite of passage" argument, the person's naivety is revealed in the fact that he or she does not comprehend the significance of the tribal initiation rites but is only mystified by the whole affair. The tribal initiation rites is a spiritual, mental and physical training for the boys in order to equip them with necessary skills to survive and mature. The skill of hunting, outdoor survivor and resourcefulness is much needed in their community in the jungles to survive and in terms of providing for the whole tribe. Therefore, apart from the spiritual aspect which can be gruesome and not relevant in this discussion, these rites truly make boys become men in the sense that they are equip with necessary skills to actually survive. In relation to our urban landscape, if the army really sets out to transform boys to become men, the basic military training will therefore consists of cooking classes, teaching the boys how to clean, iron and sew and personal grooming courses in terms of appearance as well as etiquette. In addition, I believe that we are all equipped with an instinctive will to survive and that should a boy be left alone all by himself in the house where he has to cook, clean and wash his own clothes, I have no doubts that he will learn to acquire those skills and mature naturally as with millions of students who have studied abroad have done.

Furthermore, I can never subscribe to the idea of "breaking the boy to make a man" for it is outright barbarism. Hurling unnecessary insults and abuses during training only makes a boy into a baby where the recruit will learn that the only form of expression is through the use of expletives; relinquishing their ability to articulate their thoughts in a rational fashion. It will reduce communication into an orgy of distasteful utterances like a baby gone wrong. It never brings the willpower out of anyone. For willpower implies the perseverance out of one's own accord to endure whatever adversity one faces. Therefore, forceful imposition undermines this unique quality of the human spirit. This ideology therefore can never be a part of the training as a "rite of passage".

As for how the army teaches one good values, I am utterly disappointed at the parents who are hoping that the military would do their job. Also, I am disappointed at the little faith people have in the human spirit that we are capable of instinctive goodness. Why do one need to depend on the army to be taught such values? What about moral education in religious institutions and schools? Perhaps, the Ministry of Education needs to meet with the advertisers for the army to discuss on how to improve their brand name which results in people putting more faith in Singapore's education.

Aside from that, I would like to scrutinise the myth that military instills discipline. The concept of discipline is certainly severely misunderstood. The illusion of the soldiers marching in unison with precision does not necessarily mean that these soldiers have discipline. Discipline, like all other values, must be exhibited in a spirit of one's own willingness and not be coerced or forced into doing something out of the fear of punishment. True discipline is exhibited when the recruit actually wants to take on a strict regime in the earnest wish of becoming a highly trained soldier that has the ability to protect his country and fellow comrades in a time of war. Therefore, should the soldiers not have this self-willingness and do it any other way, one cannot say that the army has instilled a sense of discipline in them. Otherwise, dogs, slaves and prisoners are masters of discipline by that flawed equation.

As such, the army cannot claim any credit of making boys into men. Like all advertising gimmicks, we must see the product for what it really is and not be lulled into naivety by a catachy phrase - national service is merely a feeble solution to a problem of national security (a topic that must be left for another discussion as it is not directly relevant to this post). Like the recruits in Michael Chiang's hit movie, 'Army Daze', the military advertising machine has cast a fog and puts us in a daze.

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