The basic civilian's guide to NCOs vs. Officers
Enlisted people always talk about their officers. Every officer is constantly scrutinized by their subordinates — from how they talk to how they present themselves to how well they lead. This is, generally, a good thing but, sometimes, it can go bad. Many enlisted feel as though there's a huge disconnect between themselves and the officers residing somewhere up the chain of command. But there is an important buffer between them: the non-commissioned officer.
The NCO is the go-between for the two groups, especially non-rates (E-3 and below). If we take the name by its literal meaning, then every E-4 and above is, technically, an NCO because the President of the United States has not commissioned them.
A newly-commissioned Marine officer.
To be 'commissioned' means the officer received his status from the President himself. To even be a candidate for officership, you must have at least a bachelor's degree — unless you've received a battlefield commission, which is rare (this exception has only been used a handful of times).
Why is there such an emphasis on education? Officers handle a lot of advanced roles and "bigger picture" planning, among other things. This makes a foundation in education extremely important.
Enlisted, conversely, can join the military straight from high school using a diploma or a GED. Being commissioned as an officer gives young, new lieutenants a degree of status over a young, new airmen, privates, or seamen — but not the NCO. NCOs have years of service and have developed a focused, on-the-job expertise in their field. More than that, however, they know their people, the junior ranks who will be doing the bulk of the tactical work on the ground. In truth, a good NCO is an invaluable asset to any an officer.
That (right) is Master Chief Boatswain's Mate, Navy SEAL retired, Rudy Boesch. The Stripes on top are his rank, the stripes on his sleeve represent his 45 years of service. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki)
Once upon a time, having a bachelor's degree created a concrete distinction between enlisted and officers. Now, however, times have changed and many people come to the military with post-secondary education. This leads some enlisted to believe the commissioned-enlisted divide is a sham — or, in extreme cases, enlisted use this as an argument against authority. Regardless of how many degrees are among the ranks, higher education is an essential element to becoming an officer in any branch — it just won't earn you any automatic respect from enlisted, so don't lean on it.
When it comes to command, officers command other commissioned officers of lesser rank. The NCO cannot command a commissioned officer unless that officer is under the care of the NCO for training, such as at The Basic School of the U.S. Marines Corps.
Saluting isn't about making someone submit. It's a custom of respect. For example, no matter what rank, military personnel salute a Medal of Honor recipient.
While some NCOs question whether an officer corps is necessary, there has always been a divide between enlisted and officers, and there will always be. The reason for this is simple: there may be a time where an officer has to send one of his men into the jaws of death. They can't be shy about doing it when the situation calls.
But trust is important. NCOs grow as leaders, both in age and time in service. They learn tactical control of the battlefield, and they know when an officer looks at the enlisted as a way to climb the political ladder, or worse: as cannon fodder.
The officers outrank the NCOs: They make more money and they get more fringe benefits. But the NCO is the true backbone of the military, carrying out the officer's orders in the most efficient way possible. The two need each other and that's what makes a military operation so effective.