by Keith Morrison
©2010 Keith Morrison
Lets talk about the military.
Not a specific military, but the military in general. Im bringing this up because recently Ive been reading various stories here and theresome professional, some amateur, in a wide variety of genresand, man, some writers really Do Not Do The Research. Im not talking about screwing up the calibre of an M-16A2, or the cruising speed of whichever specific ship or aircraft; those are technical issues. What bothers me is the examples of simply not understanding the military, why it looks like it does and why it works the way it does.
Now obviously, much of this will depend on the time and place your story is set in; its not fair to expect the Egyptian army at the time of the Battle of Kadesh, the Roman legions at Zama, the Chinese armies at Red Cliff, the English army at Agincourt, the Union army at Gettysburg, or the German Wehrmacht at Kasserine Pass to be identical. A military organization is a reflection of the technological ability, economic power, and sociological make-up of the civilization it comes from, and since civilizations are not the same in any of those three areas, one cannot expect the armies they field to be the same. Still, there are some things they have in common, issues that have been consistent in the past and will be the same in the future, which is why a modern military officer receives instruction in history. It might seem absurd for a modern commander to be taught about the Battle of Cannæ, but there are reasons and well get into some of them over the next few columns.
For the moment, lets take a modern Western-style military force as a baseline, as that is the type most of us, whether you have served or not, are familiar with. This type of military organization has also proven to be the most successful type, with pretty much everyone, even rivals and outright hostile nations, using it. To begin with, were going to look at why lieutenants should be listening to sergeants.
At first, one might wonder why theres a division between officers, enlisted men (or whatever the terminology for not officers is in a particular military) and non-commissioned officers at all these days. After all, while anyone with some historical knowledge would identify the fact that officers used to be members of the aristocracy/nobility while the ordinary soldiers and sailors came from the lower classes, why has that division been maintained even though, at least in the western democracies, theres no official reason preventing someone from a lower class background going to a military academy and getting their commission? Why cant everyone start out as private and then work their way up?
As it turns out, those who developed a system where what rank you were was a matter of class and privilege accidentally stumbled on to something useful.
Lets imagine a hypothetical modern military with a simplified rank system where everyone starts off as a private. Assume no major wars to cause massive casualties (and the quick promotions that typically result) and then figure out how long someone stays at a given rank before theyre promoted. In that scenario, you quickly realize that by the time any given ex-private makes their jump to officer rank, theyre in their mid-30s. So youve got junior officers who are supposed to lead in the field, but who are quickly approaching (if not already past) the peak of their physical capabilities, not only because of their age but because theyve spent the better part of two decades already doing it. And youve got colonels being promoted to generals who, in normal circumstances, should already be retired.
With the officer/enlisted distinction, what you get instead are officers learning their skills while they are still young and adaptable. And youve trapped competent soldiers at levels where their skillset is still applicable.
Think about a factory, or a mine, or some other business where there is a difference between people who do stuff, and the people who administer or plan stuff. Everyone loves the Horatio Alger stories about the guy who starts at the bottom and works their way up, but in point of fact there are some very different skillsets required in many types of organizations. Someone might be an excellent miner, but be a lousy negotiator or administrator. Ive worked with people who are excellent firefighters but dont have a firm grip on how to properly handle a large incident and the coordination and logistics required (and have zero interest in the politics that being a fire chief requires you to be involved in).
So someone who might make a lousy infantry private might be an outstanding logistics officer, while the best marine sergeant in the world could be befuddled at having to manage equipment acquisition. If everyone had to work their way up, you run the risk of trapping some people below their level of competence and on promoting others above theirs. So what does the current system do instead? It splits them. The enlisted learn how to be specialists and get really good at it. The officers are trained to be generalists, and to focus on that. Theres obviously some crossover in knowledgeas privates become sergeants theyre obviously looking at a wider scope of duties, while a lieutenant should have some idea of the skill sets of the people shes commandingbut you dont have to worry about making them switch their mindset mid-career.
An example of where this failure to switch mindsets can go horribly wrongfrom a strictly military point of view, at leastis Adolph Hitler. By all accounts he was a good soldier, but when he was given possibly the best trained army in Europe to command, he made a horrible general, and one of the reasons was that he could not get his mind off the minutæ of war. He was one of the worst cases of Backseat Generaling in modern history, obsessing about where individual units were going instead of looking at the big picture, focussed on holding square meters of ground when he should have been looking at lines hundreds or thousands of kilometres long, taking delight in the new toys coming off the assembly lines while not concerning himself with the massive inefficiencies those production lines were experiencing.
As a soldier, its okay to want the best tank around with the best gun and best armour, because youll be fighting beside (or in) it and its critically important to your life. As a general, you have to make a cold cost/benefit analysis of whether you should be pumping out a few of the best tanks in the world, or a lot more of the not-quite-as-good (but still adequate for their purposes) tanks. The western Allies made the latter choice, resulting in tanks like the Sherman that were significantly inferior to the Tiger and the Panther in any one on one fightbut because of the decision to go for quantity rather than quality, it rarely ever was one on one.
So thats why the officer/enlisted divide is good from a mindset and training standpoint. In addition, it has one extra benefit that I alluded to which has been the single greatest reason why the best armies in the world right now got that way: You trap enlisted in the non-commissioned officer (NCO) levels, giving them the opportunity to become, not just really good at their jobs, but also (and just as importantly!) the trainers and mentors of the new recruits coming in.
Its the NCOs (or the equivalent) who make or break an army. Going back to the factory analogy, the NCOs are the equivalent of the shift supervisor: People who have worked their way up from a regular worker.
If everyone was promoted upward (as in the hypothetical example I postulated), then the only people who would be filling the non-commissioned officer ranks would be either those who are still fairly new to the system and havent had that much experience, or the ones too incompetent to be promoted. Neither is desirable. Instead, what happens now is that someone might spend quite some time at those positions, getting better with their skills, getting experience, and passing that on. They become the wise old men (or women) of the military; seen it all, done it all. They know how to make things happen, and they dont have to worry about all the big picture stuffthats for officer country. And when the fresh-faced young lieutenants who think they know everything show up, well, part of the NCOs unofficial job is to train them, too.
When I was one of those young, fresh-faced officer wannabes, the most important unofficial lesson that was passed on to me was that, when you get to your first posting, the first thing you recognized was that the people you were in charge of knew their jobs better than you did, theyd probably been doing them longer than youd been in the military at all, and if the sergeant made a suggestion you should damn well listen. Theres a joke that the career of a smart officer had the following steps: