Abolish the Officer-Enlisted Divide? Negative

The following is an enlisted response to It’s Time to Abolish the Enlisted-Officer Divide at Task and Purpose.

Task and Purpose published an article by former active duty Marine William Treseder titled, It’s Time to Abolish the Enlisted-Officer Divide”. As an active duty enlisted member that would like to see some changes to the current regulations, I was disappointed by both the arguments and the lack of a solution presented.

Early in the article, we see this: “Despite significant changes in almost every aspect of the defense department, however, a lot of outdated practices remain. The worst offender is the distinction between enlisted and commissioned personnel.”

The worst offender is the distinction between enlisted and commissioned personnel? Why? What makes it the worst offender? I can think of any number of gripes and complaints I’ve heard from my shipmates (both officers and enlisted), and the enlisted officer divide is at the bottom of that list, if on the list at all.

The fundamental divide between an officer and an enlisted member deals with Responsibility, Authority, and Accountability. Simply, an officer is given more, and more is expected from him/her.

Many junior enlisted (myself included when I was but an ET3) look at an Ensign and don’t have an understanding of what accountability is. When junior enlisted make mistakes, the consequences are generally small. Treseder mentions his job as a corporal in charge of a fire team of six Marines. Yes, that is an enormous responsibility, but fundamentally different from the level of responsibility an Ensign standing Officer of the Deck underway has. While both have control over life and death, the impact is different. National security is impacted when a ship runs aground, if a fire team loses two Marines it is a tragedy for their families and teammates, but the mission will still continue, and national security is very likely to be maintained.

Furthermore, an Ensign’s mistake is likely to be the end of their career, while a junior enlisted’s mistake will generally result in reduction in rank and restriction…but a career-even a very successful one-is still possible.

Interestingly, Treseder points out a great explanation of what the difference between officers and enlisted is that came from Quora. I recommend following that link, because former active duty Marine Jon Davis explains the differences very well. This is waived aside by Treseder, however, by saying the difference between the two groups is “imaginary…convenient system we keep using because it is easier than trying to reorganize”.

As an Electronics Technician with 11+ years in the Navy, let me be the first to say that while I have no problem regularly scoring in the top 10% of my shipmates on the advancement exam, and a qualified Junior Officer of the Deck underway, I have very little knowledge on how to be a Department Head on a US Navy warship. Could I learn? Absolutely. But I would first have to learn how to be a Division Officer, spend at least one deployment as Officer of the Deck, learn how to think and act like an officer instead of an enlisted person, etc. Troubleshooting radios and ensuring communications work is vastly different from running a department.

To say there is a difference between the two groups is not to say that one is superior to the other. Only you can make yourself feel inferior to another human being. Anyone with military experience knows the difference between a leader who can make things happen, and one who can’t. I’ve met boot Ensigns that were better leaders than some Chiefs, although the opposite is generally the case. No leader relies on rank to make things happen: leaders get it done; rank follows. Both officers and enlisted use the same basic tenets of leadership, but each lead in different capacities. It is a disservice to each to pretend there is not separation of responsibility, accountability, and authority.

This reminds me on another thing I hear on occasion from junior sailors: “we should salute Chiefs”. The mistake made there is that a person requires a salute to be respected, or that a salute somehow solidifies their leadership role. But as a service member moves up the ranks, it becomes more obvious that Chiefs don’t need a salute to be effective. Their ability to get things done, which was rewarded with anchors (not created by them), commands respect.

Here’s the money quote, which directly contradicts the first paragraph of the article: “The military currently organizes, trains, and equips its personnel based on the assumption that everyone — save a select few — is a conscripted idiot who needs constant supervision.”

In case you forgot the first paragraph: “Our services are better manned, trained, and equipped than ever before.”

Which is it? Are we better trained now, or not? Why did the author put that line in the first paragraph, if he doesn’t believe it to be true?

jopa-patchI’m going to go out on a limb and say if you’re treated like a conscripted idiot, you’re probably creating that reality for yourself. And that is a reality that is neither confined to the enlisted nor the officer ranks. And if you don’t think that new officers are frustrated by their superiors, I’d suggest you find out what JOPA stands for.

Let’s stop fiddling with our military for five minutes and appreciate some of things it actually does correctly.

ET1(SW) Jeff Anderson is the San Diego CIMSEC chapter president and currently is assigned to LCS 2 (USS Independence).

20 thoughts on “Abolish the Officer-Enlisted Divide? Negative”

  1. Having spent 42 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, I had one basic principle that served me well as an enlisted member and an officer. Respect exists in two pieces, we have to respect the rank in order that the system continue to function. As far as respect for the person in any given rank, that is earned. Each of must demonstrate to those we work with that we are competent and worthy of that extra level of respect.

    Les Newman LCdr (Ret’d)

  2. ET1,

    A well-written rebuttal. Nicely done. Keep writing.

    All the best,
    LCDR Chris Nelson, USN

  3. Throughout centuries of military experience, I’ve heard of very few attempts to eliminate the officer ranks, and even the communists all gave up, so there must be some reason for the system.

    My suggestion, if any change needs to be made, is to reevaluate which jobs truly need command-track officers in them. The Army has warrant officer pilots, maximizing the time these flyers spend flying. The Navy only allows commissioned officers to fly, requiring that they take non-flying billets for career milestones, and forcing aviators out who do not promote.

    Kicking people out because we cannot envision a different pipeline is a waste of valuable experience, and in many cases a clear waste of money as well.

    LT Eric Beaty, USN
    NFO, E-2 Hawkeyes

  4. Great response to a flawed argument. Nice work ET1. Now go talk to the nearest MC and volunteer to write some stories.
    Scott Boyle, MCC(SW/AW) Ret.

  5. Mr. Anderson,

    Thank you, for such a great rebuttal…I’m Air Force and I even understood all your points!

    Raquel C

  6. As a career Army officer, I know that officer leadership mirrrors that of enlisted leadership – implementation is just different based on roles/responsiblities. There are differences in implementation for a reason. I, for one could not ever do what my NCOs did, nor would I try – they were vastly superiior to me in their roles. Could they do what I did? I dare say not. However, did we each have the intellectual capacity and drive to switch places early in our careers and advance through the other’s ranks? Quite possibly so. But choices are made early in life.
    As for saluting, I viewed the protocol as merely the enlisted must initiate the salute. I did not “return” that salute, I saluted back as a sign of mutual respect. They earned it.

  7. Outstanding ET1. Great rebuttal.
    To the original author: As a retired ETC(SW)-CWO3-LT I’ve seen both side of the fence both as a junior enlisted and a LDO/CWO. I’ve qualified as TAO, OOD, CDO and I think a couple of other 3-letter titles. Your career can go as far as you want it to on either side of the officer/enlisted fence; just respect the other side before you speak of what you do not know about.

  8. As a retired USMC Mustang commissioned officer I recognize the “new school” idea that we all should wear commies, even in a water borne environment, spend millions on new commie colors time after time & now erase the command recognition that some are tasked with responsibilities much more demanding than others and are therefor in a distinct category recognized by a unique suit of clothing & perhaps a hand salute.
    Next is toasting marsh mellows & making somores (sp?) at friday evening “mutual joy hour”.
    Retired is good.

  9. I’ve been an enlisted Marine and Navy Officer, and see merit to both sides of the issue. I think all service members should enlist first, then we take our best and brightest and send them to the service academies, ROTC, or OCS for commissioning (depending on if they have a college degree or not), NCO schools, or discharge them, based on performance and potential.

    1. 30yrVet has the right of the “idea” behind the original posters message, I think.

      Everyone joins enlisted… Appointments to the Academy/ROTC, et al. Should be based on merit, military understanding and leadership potential. This would thin the line but allow for the different overall focus while maximizing the likely quality of leaders. Those leaders would also likely better understand those that work for them. This structure would also allow for more upward mobility for the best qualified/performing individuals.


      Let’s see if we can evolve.

      Chief Navy (Career) Counselor
      24 years

  10. Disagree. If the Officer/Enlisted model were effective, why haven’t ANY civilian corporations picked-up on it? It isn’t rocket science:hire and promote based on ability.

  11. I am an E8 with about 19 1/2 years. The average for E7 in the Navy is 14 years, generally at the E7 level you are responsible for a division of between 5-40 people depending on command or at times a department consisting of about 50 – 100. (on average, can be more at times)

    Compare this with the time it takes to make LT (4 years) and you are handed nearly identical responsibilities.

    You are making the argument here that the 4 year LT at 26 years old has as much experience and knowledge as the E7 at 32 years old. It just doesn’t bear out.

    Forget the fact that 4 years of the experience of the 26 year old was likely at a military academy. Forget the fact that that 4 year LT has been to 1 command. They lack in the actual real world experience that the E7 has.

    Want to know what the difference between them is at best? a piece of paper that says the LT went to school somewhere. That divide is also starting to crash hard as the services begin to push degrees from the senior enlisted. What happens when that becomes required to make E7 and beyond, what is the difference then?

    Sorry ET1 you lack experience, the services do need a re-alignment in terms of how the leadership structure is handled. they need to look really hard at the structure required to lead. I would much rather see leadership paths that take you more like the civilian world does it: Command (aka management), technical (Engineers and the like), and tradesperson (welders, etc.); use that as the basis and develop talent that can all attain the same pay scale at the highest levels of each path.

    Oh, there is a system like that in place that the government uses. Know where they use it? GS and WG workers in federal jobs like at shipyards.

  12. I read the article in question and it does bring up some good points however this article is very well thought out and I enjoyed how the author presented his arguments. As a career soldier I was a vehicle tech and that job is far away from what the officers did. Just because I was a good mechanic does not mean I’d be a good officer nor does it mean that I wouldn’t. In Canada all officers are required to hold degrees and I have always felt this was mistake as there used to be some incredible leaders that rose through the ranks. I think this is why our officer corps are very elitist and self serving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.