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My Life as a Soldier

Dawen Choy

Before I came to MIT in the fall of 1996, I spent eight months in the Singaporean army undergoing basic infantry training and subsequently officer cadet training. I didn't do it voluntarily; rather, like every other male Singaporean aged 18, I had to serve at least two years in the military after graduating from high school.

You can probably guess that, for someone used to 18 years of a sedentary civilian life, in the beginning I didn't quite enjoy the rigid discipline and tough training conditions in the army. Save for a few gung-ho types, I think, neither did the thousands of other 18-year-old draftees in my cohort.

Human beings being highly adaptable, however, I guess the military training became easier for all of us once the initial shock of transition began to wear off. We slowly became accustomed, or more likely inured, to sleeping only a few hours every night, eating mass-produced meals at the cookhouse and being kept on a grueling training regimen day after day, week after week -- which, come to think of it, isn't all that different from my life now at MIT!

But looking back on my army days, I've realized that although I had to endure a considerable amount of hardship in those eight months, I also learned many valuable lessons from the experience. Unless actively engaged in war, an army is in many ways really just a big school where, besides learning the trade of a soldier, one can acquire, among others, a sense of personal discipline and responsibility, an awareness of the importance of teamwork, and an ethos of community over self. But these are highbrow stuff; simpler lessons can also be derived from being in the military.

One of the lessons I took away with me was an appreciation for the basic things in life, things we sometimes take for granted. It's like that episode of Frasier when Niles describes the look of pure happiness on the destitute boy's face when he is handed a new pair of shoes by the Salvation Army. After a sweltering afternoon of intense training in the field, even a drink of plain canteen water can bring greater pleasure than dining at the Top of the Hub restaurant on top of the Prudential Tower. You can probably also deduce how the extremely dilute cordial drink occasionally available during lunch, known affectionately to us as colored water' because that's how it really tasted, raised our spirits and lifted morale after a morning of strenuous physical training. Or how we would treasure a thorough bath at the end of a week of survival training in the jungles of Brunei without food and shelter.

I also learned to appreciate nature while in the army, because in land-scarce Singapore, about the only areas still untouched by urbanization are the military training grounds. Before I enlisted, I didn't even know natural landscapes still existed, and not being much of a nature' person I wouldn't have gone even if I knew. It's amazing, however, how close you begin to feel to nature when you're always crawling on your belly through the mud, prowling through thick primary forest in the middle of the night or charging up a hill to secure the top. We witnessed invigorating sunrises while waiting at the rifle range for our turn to shoot; we caught glimpses of the myriad constellations of stars in the sky as we conducted our night training. I would especially enjoy the many navigation exercises where, after trekking several miles from checkpoint to checkpoint, the final objective was a hilltop where we could sit down and savor a meal of field rations while we watched the setting sun drop below the horizon. Many have been so moved by the beauty of the surroundings that after finishing their military service some would drive back to the training areas with their girlfriends in the evening to relish the view from one of the last few untouched spots of nature in Singapore.

The brief stint in the army was also enough to teach me the value of freedom. Maybe we were already fortunate enough to be allowed to return home almost every weekend, but I think that only made us cherish all the more the temporary return to civilian life. We usually "booked-out" on Saturday afternoon and had to "book-in" by Sunday night, giving us on average only about 32 hours per week of relief from the military, 32 precious hours in which to do anything we wanted. Sundays I would usually spend at home with my family, recuperating from the strain of the previous week and preparing for the next, but on Saturdays I would sometimes go out with friends for a meal. Perhaps this was also when I developed a liking for parking myself at a caf or restaurant with a novel and reading the afternoon away. It may not sound like much now that I can do this anytime I want, but it was for me then a rare luxury that could only be experienced during the weekends.

In a way, I guess the restriction of our freedom during military service is an apposite way of educating us about its price and demonstrating in concrete terms just what we were training so hard to protect. Like the air around us that we never notice until we don't have any, perhaps the true value of something can only be revealed when it is taken away.

I am taking a course on Defense Politics this term, and during class a few weeks back the professor asked some of the attending military fellows why they had joined the military. I didn't voice my opinion then, but if I had, perhaps I would have said that I joined the military because I had a good time in the army after all, despite the hardships suffered; that I had learned a lot about life from my eight months there.

Yes, you read me right -- even though I was drafted involuntarily, after about eight months I accepted a scholarship from the Air Force which allowed me to pursue my undergraduate studies first, after which I would return to Singapore and serve the air force for eight years. Perhaps after having learned so much from the military, I'm hoping to learn more.