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Monday, September 19, 2011

An Officer and an Officer

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you're certainly aware that Libya is in the throes of violent revolution, this in the wake of similar organic protests and revolts having broken out across the Middle East in what is now known as the “Arab Spring.” These protests are purportedly for greater democracy and freedom for the common people, but your faithful editor is skeptical. Notwithstanding my desire for everyone to enjoy the benefits of free, fair, and open elections should they actually result from these movements, I think it’s a bit much to expect people who have known nothing but tyranny and oppression their entire lives to make good choices, assuming they even have good options. I mean really, look at the kind of people we elect, and we’ve had generations of experience with democracy.

Too deep, Bruck, let’s talk about something funner.

Okay, today we'll discuss is an issue tangential to the aforementioned unfolding of history, something that’s been bugging me, and I’m sure you haven’t given it a second’s thought until now: (1) are there any General Officers in the Libyan army, and (2) if so, is Col. Muammar Gaddafi compelled to salute them and obey their orders? And BTW, (3) what about Colonel Sanders?

Col. Gaddafi has ruled Libya since achieving power in a 1969 military coup. Although Libya under Gaddafi has supported, directly or indirectly, numerous acts of terrorism since that time, Gaddafi didn’t show up on my personal radar screen until the mid-80’s when Libya was implicated in a bloody terrorist attack on a nightclub in Berlin, following which the US retaliated with a daisy cutter in his tent. Unfortunately, he survived, having been tipped off (Bruck believes, by the Cheese-Eating Surrender MonkeysTM) beforehand. He went on to support several other terrorist acts, most prominently the 1988 bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In recent years, Gaddafi morphed into a somewhat more responsible world citizen, forging tenuous diplomatic agreements with western democracies and coughing up restitution for the victims of some of the terrorist acts he sponsored. However, despite his efforts to improve his world image, he must have some shortcomings on the domestic front, as current events in Libya attest.

Meanwhile, you may be wondering, why the title Colonel? And for that matter, how did Harlan Sanders attain that distinction?

Prior to the 1969 coup, Gaddafi had achieved the rank of Captain in the Libyan armed forces. Following the coup, he accepted a ceremonial promotion to Colonel, and retained that rank. In 1976, he is purported to have been promoted to Major General, but accepted this only on paper and continued to use “Colonel” as his title, for tradition's sake.

Harland Sanders, aka Colonel Sanders, in case you were wondering, is a real person. I should say was; he departed for the great fryer tub in the sky in 1980 at age 90. Sanders' white-haired and -goateed, bespectacled visage still adorns the packaging and signage of the restaurant chain he founded, KFC, formerly (and for the most part still) known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Sanders' attainment of the title Colonel is entirely honorary; it was originally bestowed upon him by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon (nephew of US Representative Polk Laffoon) in 1935. Sanders was “re-commissioned” in 1950 by the less absurdly-named Governor Lawrence Wetherby.

Speaking of random Colonels, another one comes to mind: Colonel Tom Parker. Parker is best known for managing Elvis Presley's career, and is largely credited with his commercial success. He also was something of a lightning rod for criticism, for demanding an overly large share of Presley's earnings, and for standing passively by while Elvis drank, drugged, and ate himself to death. To wit: Elvis is purported to have consumed two “Elvis Sandwiches” nightly in his later years. The recipe for said sandwich:

1 medium-sized loaf of white bread

1 jar of peanut butter

1 jar of jelly

1 pound of bacon, cooked.

Cut the bread lengthwise, core out some of the middle of the loaf, evenly distribute peanut butter, jelly, and bacon within.

I get heartburn just thinking about it. But another part of me wants to, just once, make one and see how much of it I can eat. I once watched a video of a fellow on a food/talk show trying to eat one – he could barely even bite off a piece of it, and succeeded in downing less than a quarter of the monstrosity. And Elvis ate two of them. Every night.

Louisiana Governor and country/gospel singer Jimmie Davis honored Parker with the rank of Colonel in the Louisiana State Militia in 1948, in exchange for work on his election campaign. (I wonder how the real Colonels felt about this.) Parker permanently retained this appellation, and was known in later years simply as “The Colonel.” BTW, Parker was a Dutch national who resided illegally in the US, having actually passed up several opportunities to attain legal citizenship, adding a touch of irony to his sobriquet.

So... 3 Colonels (I know, I promised 2, but that last one just sort of slipped in): one fighting for control of his country (and currently losing badly), one a world-renowned fast food icon, and one a somewhat ignominious illegal alien responsible for the career of the most prominent pop star on the planet (at the time – Justin Bieber hadn't been born yet and Madonna was still a virgin). The question for my faithful readers (aside from those who are actively serving in the military and therefore have a formal rank): where do you fit in? To what unofficial rank do you aspire?

Help me out, Bruck!

At your service, sir/madam. First, an overview of the US military ranks:

There are three main categories of service personnel in the various branches of the US military: Enlisted, Warrant Officer, and Commissioned Officer. Most branches have 9 levels of Enlisted rank, 5 ranks of Warrant Officer, and 10 ranks of Commissioned Officer.

The top four ranks of Commissioned Officer are Generals, or in the case of the Navy and Coast Guard, Admirals. Commissioned Officers in the drier branches also include Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, and First and Second Lieutenant; corresponding ranks in the salty services are Captain, Commander, Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant, Lieutenant Junior Grade, and Ensign. The Army/Air Force/Marines rank of Captain being a few notches lower than that of the buoyant branches does produce the occasional moment of confusion and consternation. Likewise, a nontrivial measure of ambigusion is provided by the overloaded term “Lieutenant.”

Warrant officers are a bit less confusing – from the bottom up: Warrant Officer, Chief Warrant Officer 2, Chief Warrant Officer 3, Chief Warrant Officer 4, and Chief Warrant Officer 5.

I won't go into detail the enlisted ranks as things get really complicated, especially in the Navy, where Petty Officers (the briny equivalent of Sergeant) take on a dizzying array of titles based on relative ranks and occupational specialties. I suspect it's a game they play on us – once we figure them out, they change the rules again.

Fortunately, things are a bit simpler when informally addressing holders of these ranks. All four levels of General are referred to verbally as “General,” likewise for Admirals. Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels both answer to “Colonel,” and Major and Ensign, plus the various levels of Lieutenant, Captain, and Commander are referred to as such.

I don't have any experience with referring to Warrant Officers, but in a pinch would simply say, “Warrant Officer [surname].”

References to enlisted ranks are a bit simpler as well – Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Sergeant Major, Seaman, Airman, Fireman, Petty Officer, Chief, and Gunny should cover most of your needs.

Of course, we’re not limited to US military ranks – some additional ones, past and present, from other English-speaking countries include Field Marshal, Brigadier, Subaltern, Cadet, Cornet, Commandant, and Commodore. While many such countries also use Lieutenant, they often pronounce it “Leftenant,” causing us immediately to wonder what the “Right-tenant” is up to, haha I slay me.

Okay, Bruck, so basically you've given me a bunch of military designations that I can apply to myself in order to appear more authoritative, intelligent, interesting, and capable, or otherwise try to get some point across. But what do they really say about me? How do I choose?

General: authority, seniority, wisdom, but can also have some negative connotations such as overbearing, or possibly pushing the image a little too hard.

Admiral: similar to General, but with an endearingly archaic, crusty edge – I picture an old English naval officer with an untidy mustache, smoking a huge pipe.

Field Marshal: The grand-daddy of all titles, commanding respect from all comers. Care should be exercised in using this title, however; if you don’t actually merit the implied respect, you’ll come off like a Liberian warlord or a moronic, pot-bellied member of the Michigan Militia.

Colonel: Respectable and genial in a southern US sort of way, with just a hint of tyrannical, bloodthirsty dictator. Seems to be the honorary title of choice for a wide variety of users.

Captain: Similar to Colonel, but a bit saltier, but could possibly indicate mild derision.

Commander: I think a civilian would only use this in specific circumstances of leadership, but it wouldn't make a very good honorary title.

Commandant: A bit too Argentinean Nazi-sounding for my taste.

Commodore: Similar to Admiral, but more English; may invoke images of furniture or toilets.

Brigadier: Strength and authority, no-nonsense leadership, but could also be a good brand name for malt liquor.

Major: Not bad overall, somewhat authoritative and yet down-to-earth with a slight, but discernable flamboyance. Could be used as a superlative for something negative, however, so be careful. I once met a Major Dyke; fortunately at least he was a he.

Lieutenant: Although perfectly respectable in the military world, Lieutenant carries a gangster-like connotation in society at large; therefore I would not suggest using it unless that's what you intend.

Leftenant: Respectable, English-sounding, implying medium-level authority with a degree of wackiness.

Cadet: I don’t recommend the use of this title by non-Girl Scouts.

Subaltern: Don’t use this. It will make people thing you’re lower than an altern, whatever that is.

Cornet: Miniature trumpet. Don’t use.

Ensign: A little too specific and not carrying much import. Brings to mind “Gofer,” the character played by Fred Grandy on the penultimately cheesy Love Boat TV series.

Warrant Officer: Not a very good honorary title. Most people have no idea what they even are, and would assume you’re here to serve them a summons.

Private: Connotes humility, respectful obedience, but with an unfortunate twinge of half-assedness.

Seaman, Airman, Fireman: These can also refer to female soldiers and sailors, but in the civilian world have very specific connotations which render them useless as honorary titles.

Corporal: Not real impressive, and further ruined by association with the fabulous Corporal Klinger on the TV show M-A-S-H. Definitely don't use this if your last name is Punishment (slapping knee).

Petty Officer: This might draw some respect within military circles, particularly among those who swab decks for a living, but outsiders would tend to focus more on the word “petty” than “officer,” and therefore I proscribe its use.

Chief: Short for Chief Petty Officer, so a bit higher than same on the Bruck perceptron, but recommended only for those who sleep in conical tents.

Sergeant: Connotes working-level authority and experience. Instills confidence in a non-threatening way.

Gunny: Short for Gunnery Sergeant; an improved version of Sergeant, but may cause non-Marines to subconsciously append the word “sack.”

Master Sergeant: Although a step above Sergeant on the perceptual ranking structure, it's a bit cumbersome and may convey a bit of conceit.

Sergeant Major: Combines the perceptual effects of Sergeant and Major, but with the slight inconvenience of multiple words.

What's your new title? We can't all be Colonels, you know! Does Sergeant Major Bruck have that certain ring to it? Have some fun, but don’t get carried away like the late Uganda Dictator Idi Amin, who, despite having declared himself King of Scotland, preferred his official title: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”



  • At 12:28 AM, Blogger Phil Arbeit said…

    Very amusing overview of rank structures. Two minute points, if I may. Having spent many a year working with and for Army warrant officers, the unofficial nomenclature for warrant officer 1 is "wobbly one", indicating their relative inexperience in all things warrant. WO2 through WO4 are referred to simply as chief in normal day-to-day function. Officially, all warrant officers may also be called "Mister" (a-la Star Trek), even if they lack the specific plumbing historically associated with the male gender. For the WO5, you better use Master Chief...and smile when you say that, pilgrim.
    As for "gunny-sack", I hope your anonymity is iron-clad because one thing that Marines don't joke about is their rank, ever. (It was hilarious, however.)
    One last thing, a little mnemonic device you can use to keep track of the relative rank of the general officers is Be My Little General for Brigadier general, Major general, Lieutenant general and full general officer. Also, for lieutenant colonels AKA LTC, we called them "little tiny colonels".
    Carry on.

  • At 8:09 PM, Blogger Bruck said…

    Phil - sorry for being so slow to get around to publishing your insightful comment, & tnx for the clarifications!


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