Military Secrets may be Lost, but Military Memories Remain by Tien  Yu Hua

1 – 10 November 2019

Introduction: Military Secrets may be Lost, but Military Memories Remain 

In November of 1995, I was a soldier serving on the outer islands of Matsu, with around half a year left before my discharge. My unit – the Nankan (南竿) artillery battalion, held a party for the soldiers. Amid the activities, I was lucky enough to draw a prize from the battalion commander: a Kodak camera. Though this was the top “prize”, it was actually a cheap 35mm fixed-focus low-end point-and-shoot camera, and came with a roll of ASA100 color negative film, as well as two batteries. However, this prize from the battalion commander allowed me to record military life on the outer islands, and I sincerely thank the battalion commander for this unexpected gift.

A fantasy of military life, images from the past like smoke

There is a saying: “Getting there at just the right time is better than being early.” At that time, it had only been three years since Matsu had ended the world’s longest period of martial law on November 7, 1992, moving towards opening up and demilitarizing the islands, so cameras and photography were still limited to certain tasks and conditions. Also, since martial law had only recently been lifted, the battlefield landscape had not yet vanished, so I was able to capture documentary images of life on the former front line. Later, after the demilitarization of Kinmen and Matsu, the disarmament, the Small Three Links, and other policy changes, there are few images left from that era, let alone actual physical objects and facilities.

The Matsu Nankan artillery base where I served was a typical example. It was a “secret” base hidden in the mountains. We supported fortification building and engineer corps training. Less than three years after my discharge, in February of 1999, the base was dismantled, and only overgrown ruins remain today. It’s rather sad.

At least I was able to photograph it!

The point-and-shoot camera pushed me to record military life. I began to carry it with me, loaded with black-and-white film, recording the company’s life bit by bit. I took photos at building sites, during classes, while eating, even when the sergeants were training soldiers! At first, the soldiers weren’t used to my “paparazzi” tactics and hid from the lens. But after seeing me shooting all the time, they became less hesitant about being in front of the camera, naturally making a variety of gestures for me to photograph. “Sir, please remember to print a photo for me as a memento!”  So I had entered into a kind of agreement with my brothers in arms, and I found that I couldn’t stop shooting; it was like my mission, all the way up until I was discharged. My compositions included the various elements of military life: physical training, camp construction, etc. My emphasis was on capturing candid, natural reality via the principle of documentary shooting, showing soldiers working together, training together, and living together. Of course, the image content is quite unique; we can see that the images are of life on the outer islands, long shrouded in the mysterious veil of the Matsu battlefield. In the year and nine months I spent as a soldier on Nankan island, I encountered many situations: physical training in the barracks after evening roll call, doing a thousand pushups; marching around Nankan in full battle gear all night without sleeping, which was when I discovered that I could doze off even as I walked; guard duty on cold nights, working all night on Yuntai Hill(雲台山)to meet deadlines… there are just too many incredible experiences to mention. It was like a nightmare that lasted a year and nine months. It is no wonder that, when Taiwanese men recall their times as soldiers, each story is more bizarre than the next. I am fortunate in that I at least have some pictures to back my stories up. It is a record of my life and my comrades’ lives in the company, and I will always treasure this vivid history.

As the battlefield becomes history, photographic evidence of defending the nation

The random photographs taken at that time, after twenty years of catalysis, have in the twinkling of an eye have become a bottle of precious old wine. It is difficult to imagine, after the heyday of 50,000 soldiers on Matsu, that today there are fewer than 2,000, and yet each year more than 100,000 tourists visit Matsu, where soldiers and their memories have since fallen out of favor. Each May, tourists from around the world rush to the island to behold the “Blue Tears” (藍眼淚, said to be one of the 15 natural scenic wonders of the world), along the way buying some old wine to take home (the dense tunnels that were once full of soldiers are now full of wine). The soldier has become a rare animal, an object for sightseeing, and perhaps soon will become a term relegated to history. As for me, I have been working on news photography for many years knowing that “news” will soon become “history”. If there is no image preservation, time will ruthlessly wash away everything and blur the truth. Twenty years after my discharge from the military, I returned to Nankan in 2016, looking for traces of my old company. Standing before the roadside sentry post, seeing the broken old base submerged in overgrowth, a feeling of loss struck me like the bloody cut of a knife. Here, once upon a time, we brothers in arms had been working together through joy and sorrow, hard work, doing our duty. The reason I took these photos was to prove that here was a group of men from different backgrounds, from all over Taiwan, brought together on this small island so lacking in resources, having dedicated their youth as well as their blood and sweat to defend these outer frontline islands and their lives to protect the nation…what a glorious thing it was! United States General Douglas MacArthur was said to once say, “I wouldn’t do military service again for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t sell my army experiences and memories even for a million dollars!” These words on the value of historical memories sum up my feelings about my time as a soldier on Nankan island, how it cannot be measured in money. I was at least able to use photography to make a faithful record of that time; the memories of my time in the military with my brothers in arms will now be preserved in this collection of photography, never to be erased or forgotten.


The Soldiers 

1949년 말, 중화민국 정부는 공산주의와의 내전에서 패배한 후 대륙에서 대만으로 피신했다. 한때 대만에 자리 잡았던 중화민국 정부는 같은 해 12월 28일 의무 징병제를 선포했다. 정부가 발표한 법안에 따르면 18세에서 40세 남성 시민에게는 2년 동안 병역 의무가 주어진다. 2008년 1년으로 기간이 줄어들었으나 국방부가 징병제로 모집한 마지막 군사 부대를 제대시킨 것은 2018년 12월에 이르러서였다. 모든 남자 성인 시민이 병역 의무를 졌던 징병제는 68년간 지속되었다. 하지만 이에 관련한 재미있고 진실된 사진을 본 적이 있는가? 그에 대한 대답은? 아마 없을 것이다. 이유 중 하나는 군대 내 사진 촬영이 금지되었기 때문이다. 하지만 1990년대, 사진에 열광하던 세 명의 대학 졸업생들은 입영한 뒤 이 제한을 넘어설 수 있는 방도를 찾았다. 셋은 모두 막사가 달랐지만 계급과 운이 좋았던 덕분에 취미생활을 이어갈 기회를 찾았고, 징집병으로서 직접적인 경험이 담긴 사진을 찍을 수 있었다.

많은 사람들은 대만의 징병제를 성인식, 남자가 되기 위한 절차라고 생각했다. 반세기가 넘는 기간 동안 징병제가 유지됐는데, 만약 모든 사람들이 2년(특정한 나이인 경우 3년이었다)을 바치는 일이 의식 절차라고 생각했다면 이 국가는 정말 암담했을 것이다. 병역 의무는 우울하고 좌절스러우며 힘들고 슬픈 경험이기 때문이다. 선택지가 주어졌다면 입영하지 않을 것이다. 몸과 의지 단련이 잘못된 것은 아니지만 허가될 만한 이유가 없다면 강제되는 병역 의무는 강압적이고 성가시는 관료주의적 문화, 권력 남용, 부패, 자기기만, 정치적 최면에 굴복함을 의미하기 때문이다. 청춘들은 사회에 나서기도 전에 진을 다 빼고 포부를 잃어버린다.

일각에서는 군 복무 덕분에 여러 세대의 남성들이 공통된 젊은 시절을 공유한다고 말한다. 그러나 군 복무는 사실상 “시간 낭비”라며, 의식 절차로 보기에는 어렵다고 주장하는 사람들도 있다. ‘군인들’ 시리즈는 이미지를 통해 군 복무의 영광을 신비화, 신화화하는 사람들에게 자각심을 깨워준다. 세 가지 관점을 담은 세 대의 카메라는 주관성이 사라진 시공간과 군 내 규정을 알아보고 따르는 군인들의 태도를 기록했다. 다시 보면, 징병제를 담은 이 사진들은 지나간 역사를 상상하고 탐색할 수 있는 수단이다.


About The Artist:  Tien  Yu Hua,Age 49, was born in 1970, Taoyuan City, Zhongli District, Taiwan. Enrolled in the Journalism Department of the Chinese Culture University in 1990, Tien Selected photojournalism as his major in sophomore year. Tien was trained and specialized in documentary photography, using picutres instead of words to interpret news events. Right after graduating from Chinese Culture University in 1994, Tien joined the army as a private of an engineering company located at the Matsu Nankan Island. In the end of 1995,  Tien was awarded a camera as a prize in a party held in the company, an unexpected gift from the company commander. Tien then started to record the daily lives of his company with his camera !   

田裕華1970年生,今年47歲。出生於桃園市中壢區,1994年文化大學新聞系畢業 。大二時選擇了影像組當主修!覺得用攝影取代文字來詮釋解構新聞, 是比較擅長的語法與強項。1994年畢業後隨即入伍,分發下部隊至馬祖南竿工兵營工一連。1995年底在部隊的一場聯歡晚會中,意外的抽中一台傻瓜相機,就開始拿著它,記錄拍攝起連隊的工兵生活影像。


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