Best Defense

Should all officers be prior enlisted?

The Council of Former Enlisted was asked: “Should every soldier, sailor, airmen, and Marine start off as an enlisted?



By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

The Council of Former Enlisted was asked: “Should every soldier, sailor, airmen, and Marine start off as an enlisted? Then, after two or three years, you could apply/be invited to try the officer track.”

My initial gut reaction was, “Yes. Absolutely. The officer-enlisted distinction is an archaic holdover from an outdated social order. Officers should know more about how the enlisted ranks function if they are expected to lead.” This opinion isn’t surprising or new among enlisted veterans. William Treseder, a former enlisted Marine, argued in Task & Purpose that, “The difference between the two groups is imaginary, a convenient system that we keep using because it’s easier than trying to reorganize in a more effective way.”

Admittedly, a Second Lieutenant, newly minted from Officer Candidate School (OCS), is typically nothing more than a college graduate in uniform — woefully inexperienced in combat and the inner workings of the military. Furthermore, a college degree, the key requirement for OCS, has no correlation with being a good officer or leader in the military. A bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard doesn’t inherently transfer into proficiency as an artillery officer. The two have almost no connection. Consequently, Second Lieutenants are commonly referred to as “butter bars,” a derogatory jab at their rank.

In contrast, prior enlisted turned officers, also known as “Mustangs,” garner a special degree of respect. Typically a former NCO or Staff NCO, Mustangs combine their deep reservoir of knowledge and experience to inform their actions as an officer. For instance, a former infantry Sergeant would bring the weight and berth of his experience from the frontlines to his new role as a platoon commander, providing time-tested insight.

So, why not make all officers serve an enlisted tour? Realistically, a mandatory two to three years of enlisted service is organizationally unsustainable — regardless of its merits.

From the Army’s inability to meet recruiting goals to the pilot shortage for Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs), the military is already in the throes of a personnel management crisis. Presently, the rigidity of the military personnel system is systemically unable to effectively leverage, cultivate, or retain talent. Thus, adding a mandatory enlisted tour will only exacerbate an already dysfunctional force structure. The enlisted ranks will become bloated by both enlisted and intended officers, while the officer corps will become anemic, bleeding talent while unable to commission new officers fast enough.

So instead of pushing officers through the enlisted ranks, the military should focus on building more effective bridges across the officer-enlisted divide. Enlisted to officer programs like the Seaman to Admiral-21 Program (STA-21) and the Enlisted Commissioning Program (ECP) should be boldly expanded and heavily incentivized. The number of enlisted brought into the officer ranks should be multiplied, instead of trying to force-feed an enlisted tour to the officer corps.

Meanwhile, commissioning programs like ROTC and Platoon Leaders Class (PLC) should emulate a version of the “Plebe Summer” hosted at the service academies. Plebe Summer, a six-week long program, gives first year academy students a taste of the rigors and demands of enlisted life. Although short, the Plebe Summer is a useful tool in imbuing a bottom-up perspective of the military for future officers. For in the end, you don’t want officers to imitate the enlisted. You want officers who can lead more effectively because they understand what it means to follow.

And in no measure are these options the best or even the only choices to leverage more enlisted talent in the officer corps. The military has never been an agile organization, more akin to a 20-ton T-Rex than a fleet-footed raptor. So, change will be incremental and painful, but the military will plod away as it always has – inching towards a solution.

Sebastian J. Bae, a major contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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