NCOs in the American Army

Our work aims to research the role of NCOs in the American army in 1775-1865. NCO  means non-commissioned officer in United States Army, it’s the same as sergeant (Allen 118). Within the context of the Army rank system, however, there were often mitigating circumstances and a maze of variables that altered the hierarchy and the privileges associated with rank. Although the rank structure was essentially rigid, occasionally a “billet” or specific job could be of greater importance for the actual display of power. For example, a commander of any rank was shown more respect and admiration than a staff officer of the same rank.

Commanders were often given special privileges because of their positions rather than their rank. Additionally, officers of lower rank and some enlisted soldiers sometimes had responsibilities that provided them with more respect, or at least more power. For example, an enlisted soldier who was post quartermaster wielded unusual power due to his ability to determine who received coveted government supplies and equipment. However, regardless of the billet or display of power, the enlisted soldier who temporarily held the reins of power within a certain area never ascended to the higher social class of the officers. Social standing–or class association–was never altered by mere power or position. The enlisted soldier who was the quartermaster was still regarded as a member of the enlisted ranks and thus part of the lower class.

On the Western frontier the Army’s rank system remained unremittingly intact because it was the only structure there was. The post commander was the supreme authority in all matters, and every form of official military etiquette was respected and enforced. This disparity between officers and NCOs disappeared only very slowly as one moved up the rank structure, and it was a very foolish battalion commander who angers his own or a higher commander’s sergeant major.

At battalion level the sergeant major served a useful unifying function, assisted the commander in dealing with troops and serving as a trainer for the unit’s first sergeants. Above battalion, command sergeants major interfered with subordinate units, contradict local command guidance, and provided a disruptive back-channel for political maneuvering by NCOs dissatisfied with their commanders or their positions in life.So officer could place himself under the tutelage of his senior NCOs and act, in effect, as his platoon sergeant’s subordinate and as the unit’s mascot.

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The main task of NCOs was train  soldiers. Ideally, all cadets should be prior-service enlisted personnel, and those who are not should go through a regular-style basic training course, with regular drill sergeants, among normal trainees. At least in the past, trainees have often been terrified of the Army, particularly in the early weeks.

They are also physically tired during basic training and only want to relax or perhaps explore their new environment during their off-duty time. Recruits do not know each other well enough at this period to develop the relations of trust and affection that are necessary for organizing a resistance movement. The Army appears to watch the trainees most closely during basic training, and it seems to give noncommissioned officers ( NCOs) and officers more license to use their power and authority than at nearly any other time during a soldier’s experience in the Army.

The NCOs keep a close watch for possible chargeable offenses, and there are many extra, stiffer inspections and vague threats of violence. In marches, the resisting soldier is continually called for being out of step, even if he is marching perfectly. Physical exercise is also used as a punishment. Officer couldn’t holler at nobody.  And if he didn’t get the job done, the man who didn’t do the job, they didn’t say nothing to the private over there. They ask the NCO why the job didn’t get done.

Many times there is a conflict between loyal service to one’s immediate commander and improving one’s image with his boss. The senior rater is rarely directly aware of a junior officer’s work. This leads to another baneful effect, perhaps as crippling as any already discussed. Although the senior rater may have his own opinion of the junior officer, and will take the immediate rater’s assessment into account, there is another source of input. That is the information fed to him by other members of the unit, including the rated officer’s subordinates or, if he is a staff officer, people who are subject to his inspection. Many “subordinates,” such as senior NCOs, actually have far more prestige and credibility than the rated captain or lieutenant. Many times the senior rating amounts to nothing less than a peer or subordinate rating.

A lieutenant or a company commander who has a bright idea is seen as trying to override his NCOs or to step on what they conceive to be their territory. While the rated officer’s immediate boss may appreciate his innovations or unusual accomplishments, the senior rater will hear a lot more from the many wounded parties involved. The senior rating becomes a means of social control. Battles are not won by leaders who have adjusted to this kind of groupthink. This is probably why 49 percent of army officers felt that “the bold, creative officer could not survive” in the army.

In the American army NCOs  allowed to take some responsibility in organizing the men, such as during recreation. This technique has the advantages of giving subordinates the experience in leadership they will need should the officer be missing and creates for them a more extensive sense of commitment to the unit. NCOs who take an interest in their squads have had an enormous effect in boosting morale and in creating a link to the officer.  NCOs are always to be backed up and never criticized in front of the men. Officers are less subject to the normative pull of enlisted men and hence do not suffer the conflicts between enlisted men’s expectations and military expectations to the extent that NCOs do. Good relations with NCOs is a mark of a professionalized officer.

When American soldiers went in combat action, they listen to their NCOs. Sergeants  are the ones who know what’s going on and they could give officers a lot of help. In combat the officer in charge of the company, the company commander, is a commissioned officer who is likely to have little close contact with the men. He is concerned with logistics, but he is not primarily concerned with assessing morale. That information he gets from his senior NCOs, who are in close contact with the soldiers and are enlisted men themselves.

Thus an NCO must have a great deal of experience in combat, whereas the officer need not have so much field experience. This is why the Army can function with a man in a higher command position. The Army places great importance on these morale indicators. They are easily observed and thought to be valid measures of leadership abilities and are therefore important in the evaluation of officers and NCOs for promotion.

Many officers and NCOs respond to their accountability by trying to boost the indicators while paying little attention to the proper leadership techniques. Morale is the cornerstone of professional paternalist control, and paternalists have ways to assess morale; the NCO’s function and the use of indicators come to mind. American officers consistently proposed less severe corrective action than NCOs. NCOs became more severe as they grew older and as their length of service increased. Interestingly, officers gave their highest effectiveness ratings to those NCOs who were most punitive and least like themselves.

Inspector General’s report, Sergeant Major Robert D. Easterling was scathing about Guard noncommissioned officers in the three roundout brigades called up, including the 48th: As a whole, the NCO corps within the National Guard Roundout brigades fail to meet the traditional standards expected of NCOs…. Most of the NCOs do not demonstrate an understanding or use of leadership principles. Although the NCO may know his strengths and weaknesses, countless interviews with NCOs reveal no real desire to seek self-improvement.

The NCOs see no incentive to put forth additional effort for self-improvement…. Most immediate supervisors do not understand the need to care for their subordinates’ physical and safety needs, as well as the need to discipline and reward them fairly…. There is little evidence NCOs in the brigades strive to develop a sense of responsibility in their subordinates (Appendix D 64).

Those not in units will perform meaningful staff work and a decision will be made regarding a “command track” for those who are gifted with soldier leadership skills. When a combat arms officer or NCO scrambles to get back in a unit, then we will know that the culture is correct. Officers and NCOs who have relied for years on coercive techniques may experience a great deal of stress as the Army limits their techniques. They feel discipline is eroding and that new soldiers will be ineffective and vulnerable to great losses in combat.

Works Cited Page

Allen,  Edward Frank. Allen’s Dictionary of Abbreviations and Symbols. New York: Coward-McCann, 1946.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America: 1775-1783. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

“Special Assessment Dept. of the Army,” Appendix D,1965.

Volo, Dorothy Denneen. Daily Life during the American Revolution. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Werner , Herman O. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956.

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