Posted by: classyjacksonville | November 24, 2008

Officers Versus Enlisted

      The military being one of our oldest and most tradition bound governmental organizations is built around a hierarchical structure of different ranks which are set up sort of like a pyramid and which is further divided into officer and enlisted. This is the way our military has been run since the time of George Washington and in spite of massive changes not only in technology, society, and education, it is the way it continues to be run to this day. The idea that the military needed to be divided between both officer and enlisted grew from European society in sixteenth and fifteenth centuries and how they conducted warfare, there being peasants who were the enlisted foot soldiers, and the nobility and royalty which commanded these peasants as officers.  Our dominant culture and historical inheritance having descended from these European ideas were naturally transplanted into our new republic, where George Washington, a wealthy former soldier with large land holdings was given command of our nascent army of farmers and tradesmen. Washington of course adopted the standard operating procedures of the day, those given commands were those who not only showed leadership potential and combat experience but also those who were educated and could read and write. And since the only ones who were educated and had command experience were the rich landowners, this new nobility took command of our army. It was necessary in these days to draw our commanders from this pool, how could a man who didn’t know how to read be expected to read messages from the Continental Congress or orders from Washington himself? This was simply the way things were done back then, officers were educated and rich and naturally paid more while the poor enlisted private was merely a small time peasant or other citizen.


However, like a lot of things our founding fathers started this country off doing (like slavery, no woman’s suffrage, the electoral college), it may have fit their time and their culture, but it is out of place in the 21st century. It astounds me that here in our modern egalitarian society we have something as archaic and old world as separate officer and enlisted corps. America was founded as the land of the free and the home of the brave yet our basic command structure and how the military operates is based on antiquated ideas about class and who has the ability to lead and who doesn’t. That this continues to exist astounds me, as not only is it a remnant of a bygone era, it is hurting the effectiveness of our armed forces and their efficiency.


Officers and enlisted enter the military from two different sources. Enlisted enter the military after being recruited and by meeting the fairly recent basic requirement of a high school diploma. They are sent to a basic training course where they are indoctrinated into the ways of their service. They are then sent off to further training at another school where they learn the specifics of the job they enlisted for, be it infantryman or cook. They are then sent to units where they will be at the bottom with a non commissioned officer (NCO) above them and further above that NCO is a commissioned officer assisted and advised by a staff NCO. After being at the bottom for a while, this private or airman or seaman, will eventually be promoted to NCO. Promotions are based on a variety of factors and differ from service to service. Of course with promotion, comes added responsibility and the thought is that the higher you get, the more experience you have, the more leadership you should have demonstrated, and the more competent you should be at your job. However it has been my experience  that some individuals who were unable to perform their job properly, but who stay in, continue reenlisting, and stay out of trouble, will eventually be promoted. I have dealt with staff NCOs and commissioned officers whose incompetence has endangered lives, decreased productivity, and lowered morale (I’ve also seen SNCO’s save lives, increase productivity and help morale). A main reason they are this high in rank is because they stayed in, and many times the only reason they stayed would be their inability to hold a job in the civilian sector where being proficient is of the utmost importance. Instead of promoting on merit, skill and proficiency, they are promoted to higher ranks because they have been around the longest. 


Enlisted at all levels are paid significantly less then their officer counterparts and are also given different living quarters as well. An enlisted corporal in the marine corps with 4 years in can expect to share a room with 3 other enlisted, whereas a newly minted lieutenant will have his own apartment which is larger than his corporal’s shared room.


The path to becoming an officer is a bit blurrier. There are a few different options to becoming an officer. There are even programs to cross over from being enlisted to an officer. However the main and only distinction is a college degree, officers must have a bachelor’s degree, and enlisted do not require one.  This four-year degree is what can put a twenty two year old man or woman in command of a group of a people. Now education is an important pursuit and our military leaders should be well educated in order to lead and make wise decisions. However it has been my experience that hapless 22 year olds are put in charge of people doing tasks that they do not understand and have not done themselves. In fact most of the people they may be in charge of have more experience than they do and may also be older than they are. How is it that skill and experience have been tossed aside in order to allow men and women who are completely inexperienced beyond the halls of college command and control? Now being an officer requires intelligence and education, but this requirement for intelligence and education should not out weigh experience. Instead of starting at the bottom, officers are allowed to start at the middle, and instead of being given command based on experience, skill and proficiency, they lead because they earned a piece of paper. Instead of being a reward for skill and success, it is given without any prior experience. You wouldn’t give a kid straight out of college a big management position without prior experience in the civilian market? Why do we entrust recent college graduates with no experience the responsibility of leading our young men and women into battle? That this continues to go on is absurd, and completely out of date given our society today.


Our leaders in the military should be picked from those in the military who have demonstrated intelligence, leadership potential, and proficiency in their job. Instead placing command with those who were privileged enough to go to college, it should be given to those who merit it. Instead of having one elevated commander and an enlisted adviser, the commander could lead because he knows what it’s like to be on the bottom and has experience and reached where he is because he merited it. Command and leadership should be granted on merit and should not be based in antiquated ideas of class and intelligence. It is a travesty to our society that command is given to people who have no idea what they are doing, while many with years of experience languish in the lower ranks.


I propose an entire restructuring of rank and pay grade where merit and leadership potential is rewarded and mediocrity is kept at bay. First, I propose abolishment of the old division between enlisted and officer. Leadership should be given to those who merit it and have shown potential, not those who have either stayed in long enough or have a piece of paper from college. There will instead be one simplified rank chart, with those at the bottom those without experience or leadership potential, and those at the top in charge. There will be no saluting of superiors or segregation, just knowledge that those people are in charge of those below them and that their orders will be followed.


Second, I propose that these leaders and commanders be taken from those at the bottom that show the most potential, skill and merit. Those who joined the service already with college degrees will be sent to a sort of commissioning type school, that I will call “Basic Leadership School,” and will learn how to be leaders and will then be sent to units where they will take over leadership roles. Those without college degrees will be sent to either the service academies (the old system of academy appointments being granted by congressmen will be abolished) or if there is not enough room, to other universities, where they will obtain degrees courtesy of the US government in return for more years of service after their completion. After getting their degrees they will attend this same leadership school and will then be sent back to their units to take leadership roles. This will make sure our leaders know what it is like to be at the bottom and also have job experience in their field and knowledge of how the military works.


Third, I propose that the pay grades and ranks be restructured so that leadership is rewarded with command, but that it is independent of job competency and length on the job. The longer you serve, the more you will be paid, however, if you show no leadership potential and are not competent to be put in command, you will not be given it, but you will be allowed to remain on the job, given that you are at least competent at that, and serve with increasing wages. Being put in a leadership role will result in you being paid more, but if you are a skilled worker with many years under your belt that was never picked for leadership, you will also be paid well. This might sound confusing; so let me explain with some examples:


Example 1- Joe graduates from high school and decides to join the service. He was not a stellar student, however in tests prior to joining, he showed an aptitude for mechanics. He was assigned as a diesel mechanic, went though training and was assigned to a unit. Joe, through working and learning, proved himself to be a loyal servicemen and an excellent mechanic. However he really does not show any aptitude to lead and would not do well in college if given the chance. But he is an excellent mechanic. Due to his skills and abilities as a mechanic, he is boosted to a higher pay grade and makes more money due to his skills, but he is not put in charge of anybody. Joe stays in and continues to remain a loyal mechanic, and is paid more and more per paycheck due to his skills, knowledge and experience. He eventually decides to retire, having served loyally as a mechanic for 30 years. He was never given command of anyone as a leader, however his loyalty, knowledge and skill were well respected and rewarded.


Example 2- Jennifer decides to join the service after getting a degree in English from college. After taking several aptitude tests, she is assigned to intelligence and becomes an analyst. From her first day she shows eagerness and extraordinary ability, and her leader observes this. She is paid slightly more from the start because of her college degree, but she also rises quickly through the pay grades because of the quality of her work. She is picked out by her unit leader and is asked to attend Basic Leadership School after a year on the job. After completion of the school, she is reassigned as a leader and does well. She rises quickly through the leadership ranks through the years and his given command of a battalion. After 13 years of service, she decides to move on with her life and try working at another job.


Example 3- Taylor barely passed high school but decides to join the service. He is assigned to infantry but is not good at his job. He is lazy, found to be sleeping on duty, showing up late to work, and is constantly getting into trouble with his superiors. He does not get paid more than the basic amount and is not picked for a leadership role. After serving two years, he is asked to leave the service because he is incompetent and his leader fears that his continuing to serve might endanger others and is a waste of tax dollar money. Taylor gets out of the service and becomes a waste collector in Detroit, Michigan.


Example 4- John joins the service straight out of high school and is selected to be in a construction unit. He is proficient in his job, but is not spectacular. However after 12 years of service, his knowledge and experience begin to show and he appears to be a viable choice for a leadership role. The last few years, John had begun to work on his degree, but had not finished it yet. John’s leader picks him for a leadership role, which he accepts. John finishes up his degree and leadership school and is assigned as a leader. He serves a total of 23 years and gets out having risen fairly high up the ranks.


In this new system, job proficiency will be rewarded as well time served, so it is possible to stay in and make a good career in the military without ever being given command or leadership. However for those that posses both skill and leadership, they will be rewarded with both command and more money. Incompetence will throughout all ranks not be tolerated and those demonstrating an inability to work will be asked to leave. The new system will allow someone to start at the bottom and rise to the top based solely on their skill, intelligence, merit and leadership and rise as quickly as they are successful. It will also prevent those who have no leadership or intelligence to being made leaders based solely on the fact that they have served enough years for that rank. This system will also destroy the antiquated caste type system currently used and will bring the military into the 21st century and help better reflect the egalitarian nature of our society and allow those who merit it to rise to the top. This will result in a better more efficient military as unnecessary layers are taken away and old superfluous ways are done away with.


If one is good at their job, they should be rewarded, if they are bad they should be asked to leave. I believe by abolishing the officer/enlisted distinction we will destroy not only an antiquated relic of the class system, but help improve some of the socialist like malaise that the military now suffers from where hard work goes unnoticed and leadership is given to those undeserving. We need to adapt and change for the 21st century otherwise we as Americans will fail. 



  1. Thanks for this. You have put togther a strong argument for change. Next time I work with military officers (Brits) I will invite then to discuss what you have written.

    Much the same could have been said about the British system of elites in Government and Business.


  2. I am researching for this very topic when I found your post! I have to say you hit the nail on the head! I am currently in the service and find it extremely disturbing how the service is currently run. Good post!!!!

  3. Reblogged this on lgprospects and commented:
    Spot on!

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