We Americans love a lot of things about ourselves, and perhaps nothing more so than our military. Like many things about the U.S., it’s bigger than its international equivalents, with a budget that is larger than the next eight largest military budgets in the world combined. It has a footprint in all 50 states, most U.S. territories, and over 70 countries around the globe. It is ubiquitous. It is powerful. It is, as Vice President Biden might describe it, a big f*cking deal.
Our military has been particularly busy since entering the 21st century. The ebb and flow of America’s conflicts since 9/11 has brought more of our citizens into, and eventually out of, the armed forces. In spite of those growing aggregate numbers, however, less than .5 percent of the country’s population currently serves in uniform, and only about 13 percent overall are veterans. Those are some of the country’s lowest figures since the end of World War II.
As a U.S. Navy officer two generations removed from my family’s World War II veterans, I empathize with those standing on the other side of the country’s widening civilian-military rift. (For example: I grew up about half an hour from Port Hueneme, Calif., and had no clue it was the headquarters of the Navy’s SeaBees until I actually joined the service.) Knowledge gaps like these may seem inconsequential, especially given that I went on to serve, but it’s more common than you’d think. If ever there were a case for more civics and history classes in our schools, it would be to avoid questions like, “What’s the difference between a Soldier and a Marine?”; “How do I address a servicemember in uniform at the airport?”; and, “Wait, we have a Coast Guard?”
In this century, the Department of Defense has expanded its overall size and operational tempo while simultaneously becoming more concentrated within our society. There are about a million theories as to why this has happened, most proffered by men and women far smarter than I. Rather than add more fuel to that fire, I thought I might offer some rudimentary education about our armed forces—a boot camp, if you will— to answer as many common questions about the U.S. military as possible (including those above).
Disclaimer: This is basic training—elementary, accessible to all—and is not meant to be exhaustive or excessively detailed. So maintain situational awareness, keep your thumbs on your trouser seams, and never touch your face. Consider this your indoctrination to our armed forces.
The Department of Defense
The U.S. military is run by the Department of Defense (DoD) and is headquartered at the Pentagon, a massive building located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The Pentagon (a name that can either apply to the edifice, as a nickname for its daily workforce, or for the DoD overall) is one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world, with roughly 2 million people working either in uniform or as civilians. It is so large, both literally and figuratively, that it has not one but two dedicated stops on the D.C. Metro. (Take that, Smithsonian!) It is also in a deep, stable, long-term relationship with acronyms.
The Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces is the President of the United States (POTUS); following him in the chain of command is the Vice President (VPOTUS). The Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) is appointed by POTUS and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and his job is to oversee everything that happens at the Pentagon. From there the DoD is comprised of three branches: The Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy (which includes the Marine Corps), and the Department of the Air Force. Each branch has a civilian secretary, appointed by POTUS and confirmed by the Senate, who conducts all the affairs of that department and is advised by both a civilian deputy and the uniformed chief of that particular service (an admiral or general). There is also something called the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is an advisory board to SECDEF and POTUS; it’s made up of admirals and generals appointed by POTUS and approved by Congress. They don’t have direct control over troops or ships, but they do wield considerable influence over senior civilian officials and set policy guidelines for a great many things. Think of them like Hall of Fame players who have gone on to be GMs of their old clubs, like John Elway in Denver.
Enlisted Personnel vs. Officers
All uniformed personnel are governed by a set of laws called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) which apply to them at all times in addition to the laws of the U.S. or whatever country in which they find themselves. The specific statutes of the UCMJ can exist in parallel with civilian laws (think DUI, sexual assault, etc.) or anachronistically outside of them (infidelity to a spouse is still a punishable offense), but the purpose of the UCMJ is to enforce good order and discipline amongst service members.
There are two primary types of personnel who serve in uniform: Enlisted and Officers. In the civilian world they might roughly equate to labor and management, respectively, but the constraints and structure of the military don’t exactly allow for perfect equivalence. Officers receive commissions to serve at the pleasure of the President after completing some form of qualifying training (a service academy, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Officer Candidate School (OCS), etc.) that prepares them to serve in leadership positions. Enlisted personnel attend boot camp, which is much closer to basic tradesman training for the service they’re entering; after graduating, they complete additional specific skills-based training. Enlisted are the majority of DoD personnel—roughly 90 percent—and are generally responsible for the manual, grunt work in a command. A third group of personnel bridges the gap between them: Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs). An NCO is an enlisted servicemember who has advanced in rank enough to be in a leadership position over more junior enlistees, and are considered to have responsibilities similar to those of regularly commissioned officers. In fact, NCOs are often tasked with the training of new junior officers at a command, who are often clueless twentysomethings in need of guidance. As I was taught at OCS: Nothing is better than a good NCO, and nothing is worse than a bad one.
The UCMJ holds military personnel to very strict standards with regards to respect for, and separation among, ranks. Telling your boss he’s an idiot and can go to hell would likely get you fired from, say, the Home Depot; if you slept with one of the cashiers at the Panera Bread you managed, you’d probably get sacked as well. But being found guilty of disobeying a lawful order or engaging in conduct unbecoming of an officer can earn you a one-way ticket to Fort Leavenworth, Kans., home of the Military Corrections Complex; that’s the DoD’s only maximum-security prison, which currently counts among its inmates one very well-known Private First Class.
“So the difference between enlisted and officers is important; roger that,” you say. “But how do I tell the difference?” Let’s pretend you’re walking through an airport full of servicemembers (BWI, Atlanta-Hartsfield, etc.), or you’re in New York during Fleet Week. You see a cluster of dudes in uniform standing together discussing the minute-by-minute schedule of their next few hours, a favorite activity of military personnel. Who’s who? Well, broadly speaking, enlisted wear their rank on their arms in between the shoulder and elbow. Also generally, officers wear their rank on their shoulders; the Navy and Coast Guard occasionally wear a uniform with rank on the lower sleeve. Enlisted rank is denoted by an insignia combining chevrons (points), rockers (swoops), and various symbols in between them; increased rank is denoted by an increase of those elements. All officers across all branches wear the same insignia, even if their rank titles are different, and usually silver is higher than gold. It was once explained to me that gold is very malleable and thus symbolic of the younger, more impressionable officer, whereas silver is less so and thus the superior metal. Sometimes things make no sense.
By now this article has officially become a perfect metaphor for the way the Pentagon works: an avalanche of explanation and build-up for a short burst of activity. (This means I’m now going to tell you just what all these people actually do.)
Let’s start with our largest branch, the Army. A member of the Army is called a Soldier, and there are roughly a half-million of them in uniform today. Soldiers occupy a pretty central place in the human experience, particularly in America, where they have kept our country and your childhood bedroom safe for more than two centuries. The Army principally fights the country’s land wars. It does this in a variety of ways, including employing infantry (soldiers with rifles); cavalry (formerly horses, now tanks and helicopters); artillery (the big guns); signals (that one guy with the huge radio on his back); ordnance (bombs and ammo, not to be confused with an ordinance, which is a law); and irregular warfare (Airborne, Rangers, Delta Force, etc.). They support these operations with engineers, a supply corps, intelligence, public affairs, chemists and even psychics, who I think exist mostly to bore people to death. The Army is central to any country’s military, and ours is no different: It’s just better than everyone else’s.
The Air Force
Born as the Army Air Service in 1920 and renamed the Army Air Corps in 1924, the Air Force became its own branch of the DoD in 1947. I bring up all its names because the Air Force’s name is the most literal of all our service branches. What do all those Airmen do? Well, if it flies through the air, they have a hand in it: POTUS, fighter jets, bombers, tankers, command and control, helicopters, search and rescue, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA, or drones by another name), ballistic missiles, satellites, astronauts and, these days, cyber warfare (to tie it all together, I suppose). Hell, they even have aircraft that transport other aircraft. The Air Force, the force in the air, lives up to its name, and then some.
Third, we have the Navy, which has been patrolling international waters, guaranteeing safe shipping lanes, and projecting power ashore for over 200 years. Turns out we’re pretty awesome at all that. How awesome? One of our original six ships, constructed with funding from the Continental Congress, is still in service. Teddy Roosevelt was Undersecretary of the Navy before becoming our most badass POTUS. We invented the nuclear submarine. We brought the world into the Danger Zone. Sailors killed Osama bin Laden. We now have lasers on our ships and airplanes that fly themselves. So yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty solid Navy, and I am in no way biased in this opinion at all.
That leaves us with the Marine Corps. “Every Marine is a rifleman,” goes the motto, and it’s true to life. A part of the Department of the Navy, the Marines began as naval infantry. Back in the day, ships were extremely complicated, intricate, Master and Commander-type vessels, and it took all available hands to actually sail the damn things. So in the event of an encounter with another ship, the Marines would man guns, set up snipers in the rigging, and serve as a boarding party so the sailors could keep sailing. They were also used as an ad hoc land force from the earliest wars of the republic, and so effective were they at doing insane(ly tough) things that they remain to this day our expeditionary fighting force: They prize discipline and quick, light movements. In addition, they protect embassies, guard the White House, and fly POTUS to and from Camp David. Nearly everything about them is iconic: their hymn, their uniforms, their drill platoon, even their commercials. And they’re always first to the fight. Just don’t ever call them Soldiers.
True story: Once in my early Navy training, a Marine officer was teaching a class on the history, capability, and force structure of the Marine Corps. A reservist in the class, who thought he was being funny, asked, “So the Marines are basically like the Navy’s Army, right?” The instructor stared right at him, unblinking, and said calmly, “Don’t you ever associate me with any [redacted] Army ever again.” The reservist then exploded into a million little pieces. Seriously, true story.
A quick note: The Coast Guard is a uniformed service that has operated under various government agencies (Treasury, Transportation, Defense) since its creation in 1790; it was placed in the Department of Homeland Security when that agency was established post-9/11. Coasties have a bit of a little-brother complex with the Navy, but they do a hell of a job in all sorts of crazy environments. They chase down drug smugglers, break through ice, and save a ton of people who would otherwise never survive their ocean trips. And an interesting fact: You have to be 6 feet tall to be in the Coast Guard, so if your ship sinks you can walk to shore. KIDDING. Coasties are excellent.
Lastly, it should be said that nobody joins our all-volunteer service to win glory, or get a free meal, or have someone pick up their bar tab. There are plenty of reasons people join, but those just aren’t among them. We’re regular people just like anyone else, with hobbies, interests, and regular lives outside of work. Stakes, OPTEMPO, and number of acronyms may be high, but so too is our pride in our work. So if you see us around, “Thanks for your service” always goes a long way. It really is our pleasure.
Adam Reiffen is a naval officer stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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