Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Purpose of Officers

Officer cover, from the Marlow White catalog
If you haven't read the recent Task and Purpose article on abolishing the officer/enlisted haven't missed much.  William Treseder attempts to present the point that the division between officers and enlisted needs to go in order to enhance the military.  He argues that officers are a construct of the British system, harking to days gone by of nobility that doesn't have a place in rebellious America.  He also makes the point that because there are so many people knocking down the doors to the military academies it actually drives away people from enlisting.

It's in short, completely absurd.  I read it hoping for more, but it's actually sad enough that it merits an in-depth response. 

First, the idea that officers are an extension of nobility was on its way out the door by the time America was being formed.  The British were removing the ability to purchase commissions as early as 1871, as they noticed that it often resulted in officers that lacked good decision making skills.  Officers in the Navy were no different.  From "Commissioned Officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690-1815":

"Meanwhile, throughout the period we are studying, Lieutenant remained the basic commissioned rank. All officers, whatever their origins, had to pass an examination in seamanship in order to qualify for it, and they had to prove that they had served a minimum period of sea time. From 1677 this time was three years, of which one year had to have been spent in the rating of midshipman. In 1703 the requirement was increased to four years, two of them as a midshipman or master's mate, and in 1729 the total sea-time was increased to six years, which it remained. The regulations were ambiguous on whether all this time had to be served in the Navy, but in 1745 the Admiralty officially declared that service in merchant ships was acceptable for the four years of 'non-rated' time."

If you don't like history books, you could try watching the new series Turn.  In one of the recent episodes, Major Andre reveals that he isn't of nobility and had to earn his way in the British Army.  
I sympathize...that's about how my first in-law meeting went. (image courtesy of
The notion that people won't enlist in the Navy because they can't be officers is also questionable.  First, the selectivity of the academies has come into question, since it may have counted incomplete applications to inflate its numbers.  Secondly, there is no data correlating a drop in enlistment with selectivity of the academies.  That would be hard to do, considering we've had fairly high enlistment success and given the fact that around 75% of Americans can't even qualify for the Navy based on health reasons.  The last point is also fairly obvious: the service academies are four years...boot camp is not.  You can be the judge of which will wear you down over time.

The biggest problem I have with the article is that it misses the point on why the military has officers at all.  Let's start with the fact that Congress requires officers and in particular, that a commissioned officer be assigned to commissioned ships.  It makes sense, since Congress has spent the money to purchase a vessel, it should put it in the hands of someone that can be trusted to execute the mission.  Although the officer must be commissioned, his crew is not.  Back in the day, captains were required to find their own crews, many of which were recruited at the bars in port.  The captain was given money and could bring on a crew, but officers were assigned by Congress.  This is why you often hear the phrase "officers and crew," which has sparked all sorts of debates about whether officers are Sailors (I consider myself a Sailor, by the way).

With regards to the academies, realize that to enter the academy you have to seek an appointment from a Congressional Representative or Senator.  This isn't a formality, because it serves as a check on Executive Power.  If the President was the only one making appointments, he could build a military that was uniquely loyal to him and potentially dissolve the government.  If this sounds far-fetched for today, you need only check out Thailand, where you can now be jailed for liking something on Facebook.  This also ensures Congress has some skin in the game, because they are most likely appointing people from their Congressional district.  It should be harder to go to war knowing you may send a constituent's son or daughter to die in the process.

The oath that we take isn't even the same.  Enlisted members take oaths to obey the orders of those above them, while officers take an oath only to the Constitution...yet another check on Presidential power.  Enlisted members, with rare exception, are free to leave after their enlistment, but officers may be called back to service.

I realize that Mr. Treseder probably didn't meet a lot of more senior officers, likely dealing with Second and First Lieutenants that were just getting oriented to their jobs.  We should keep in mind all people in the service, officer and enlisted, are human beings first.  They are all owed basic human rights, including fair treatment.  Just because someone has a commission doesn't mean they are superior to others, nor does it excuse them from treating enlisted members like dirt.

These same people also make human mistakes.  I have worked with plenty of great officers and great enlisted, and unfortunately scum bags in both areas as well.  As a department head at my last command, I met lots of Sailors fresh out of language school.  They made plenty of mistakes as they progressed towards becoming great Sailors.  It would be silly to make judgements about the entire enlisted force based on the sampling of new E-4s that I saw.

I do agree that there is nothing that says leadership is confined to the officer ranks.  We have great enlisted leaders at all ranks that take the groups of people they are assigned and accomplish their mission.  However, the scope of leadership and responsibility to the nation sets officers apart.  Our officers fight our nations wars, expending the blood and treasure entrusted to them.  You can have the greatest military force in the world, but poorly executed at the operational and strategic level, it will not win in the end.  This trust requires more training and a more career focused person (who has a harder time leaving the service), hence paying them more while demanding more of them...and relieving them when they fall short.

It doesn't make the job of enlisted personnel any less important, any more than saying that a nurse's job is less important than that of a doctor.  It simply means we should pay particular attention to the amount of trust our nation places in officers, something that can't be summed up by cute cliches about coaches vs. players.