Some rank observations

Why is the lowest rank in the army, which affords its holder no privacy whatsoever, called private? The corporal, at least, seems reasonably preoccupied with bodies. But what is a sergeant? Someone bedecked in serge? A warrant officer, I suppose, is the person in the office which processes warrants, but you’d never know it from their duties.

I get lieutenant; he’s a tenant in a place, and the captain is surely the head man. But if he’s the head man, why are there ranks above him?

To be sure, in the navy, there are fewer ranks above captain, but that’s the navy, always going their own way, doubtless from spending so much time on the bounding main, far from civilization. A friend, and ex-submariner, once told me they left port with 150 sailors, and returned with 75 couples. I guess that explains the ranks of mates; very chummy, these sailors. Perhaps it also explains admirals, presumably persons most to be admired. As for the rest of them (only some of whom are able bodied), they are seamen. Very clear and to the point, much like the airmen in the … air force. Someday soon these basic descriptive ranks will have to be modified to reflect the modern military: seapersons and airpersons.

But above the captain in the army there are majors and colonels before you even get to the highest ranks. Majors, I believe, are self-explanatory, but what on earth is a colonel? Something to do with columns? If so, why is he allowed to lord it over the head man?

The generals, those with the highest ranks, presumably do not have any specific duties, like the lower ranks, with the exception of the lowest of them, the brigadier, who mucks about with brigades. Yet they feel compelled to recapitulate practically the entire officer rank system among themselves, from lieutenant to major, skipping colonels, perhaps because generals get nowhere near any columns except during parades.

Don’t get me started on unit designations; that’s something only a very admiral general could explain.

A post for Military Day

As a veteran, and certainly not a hero of any kind, I am increasingly frustrated by the complete lack of understanding of military life by people who never served but who profess to honor it.  Apart from the obvious (if you think so highly of it, why don’t you join?), there is the near deification of soldiers, regardless of what they have or haven’t done.  Heroism is, by definition, a rare thing; to me, calling everyone a hero erodes the accomplishments of the true heroes, of which there are but few.  “Beyond the call of duty” means just that.  You don’t get to be a hero by doing your duty, however dangerous and however rare such a thing has become these days, when few even acknowledge that it exists. Never mind that the military has the same percentage of scoundrels and backstabbers as the rest of the population.

But enough preaching.  Here’s a little story about the military which I think hints at the real nature of soldiers everywhere.

Years ago, when Fort Benjamin Harrison was still a functioning military post, I happened to be passing through Indianapolis and stayed at a motel on the Eastern outskirts of the town.  It was one of those places that offered a free “continental” breakfast: cheap, sugary puffers the like of which the continent has never seen.  But there was a small group of National Guard soldiers staying there, on their way to weekend training, and soldiers never pass up free food.  They filled the breakfast area while I was swilling down bad coffee the next morning.

At one point, a young woman stood up and introduced herself as Sergeant Johnson, their guide to Fort Harrison, since apparently most of them had never been there.  In a typical crisp military vernacular, she proceeded to delineate a long and complex series of instructions on how to get there, complete with road intersections, traffic lights, and, in one case, UTM coordinates.  As she finished and sat down, a young lieutenant near me turned to his companion, an old, grizzled sergeant.

“You get that?” he asked, in his best command voice.

Yes sir,” the sergeant replied, “Follow Sergeant Johnson.”