Thursday, August 19, 2010

Helping You Understand Your Military

Well, with apologies to Amanda, Jean-Luc, Craziequeen, and others for whom it's not really your military...

The Secretary of Defense, Mr Gates, has announced plans to radically restructure the defense budget in order to free up money for higher-priority tasks. His recommendations include the elimination of a major military command (Joint Forces Command, or JFCOM...referred to jocularly as "jiffy-com"), cutting the number of contractors supporting defense efforts by 10% per year for three years, and eliminating about 50 general and flag officer positions.

General officers (in the Army, Air Force, and Marines) and admirals (in the Navy and Coast Guard) are often referred to as "flag officers" because they have their own flags. They can be pretty expensive, not just because of their salaries, but because of all the staff and support baggage to which they are entitled. This article from discusses what a general costs, and is generally pretty accurate, except that all but the very most senior flag officers actually do fly commercial (coach) when they travel.

But that's neither here nor there. How do you identify a General? How do you distinguish her from any other officer? The Department of Defense offers this handy chart to help you identify military ranks, but what's the real story behind our insignia of rank? As always, Bilbo is here to tell you the backstory...

When America was a new country and just forming an army, George Washington recognized a need to distinguish the various levels of officers so that soldiers could recognize their leaders. He did what Americans always do when faced with a problem ... he chartered a committee to come up with recommendations on the subject. The committee worked hard for many months, then finally reported back to Washington with these suggestions:

The lowest officer grade, the Second Lieutenant, should be identified by a single bar of gold, because gold is a soft, malleable metal - a good choice to represent the new junior officer who is being shaped and molded as a leader.

The next grade, the First Lieutenant, would wear a single bar of silver. Silver being a somewhat harder, if equally lustrous metal, it would indicate that the officer was a bit more firm and set in his development.

The Captain, the next level of rank, rated two bars of silver, on the theory that a Captain was worth two First Lieutenants.

The committee couldn't decide on the insignia for the "field grade" officers - Majors and Lieutenant Colonels - so they deferred those recommendations for later.

For the Colonel, the first of the very senior ranks, the committee recommended the majestic eagle, spreading its wings as it lorded over its domain. Washington agreed.

This brought them to the question of the Generals, and the insignia for those was simple: because Generals operated at remote and exaulted levels, far above ordinary mortals, they would be represented by one to four silver stars, with the number of stars reflecting the degree to which the particular General was removed from reality. Washington loved it.

But the question of insignia for Majors and Lieutenant Colonels still remained, and Washington sent the committee back to work for more study and deliberation. After a few more months, the committee reported back that they had finally found their answer in a study of ancient Greek statuary. They recommended that Majors and Lieutenant Colonels be represented by oak leaves - gold for Majors and silver for Lieutenant Colonels - because, as art historians had reminded them, the ancient Greeks always covered their pricks with leaves.

And there you have it. Another insight into history from your favorite purveyor of useless, if interesting knowledge.

Have a good day. Salute someone today. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Not my military but interesting trivia anyways. At least I'll be able to watch war movies with a teeny bit more insight.

Mike said...

Hmmmm, what was your last rank when you retired?

Bilbo said...

Mike - I was waiting for you to ask that question. Lieutenant Colonel, what else?

Bandit said...

Bilbo; you, Mike, myself and anyone else who wants to join in need to come up with some insignias for how many terms one serves in Congress. What do ya think?

Jean-Luc Picard said...

'Removed from reality'...a good way to define the stars.

KathyA said...

I'll never be able to look a leaf cluster in the face again...