Rank in the Army, in theory, is based on merit. In some ways, this is true. Certainly merit matters more than race — the Army is one of the few places in our society, even today, where I consistently see black and Hispanic men promoted to positions of responsibility and power. That there is a large proportion of minority first sergeants and sergeants-major indicates that this has been going on for decades, as opposed to the society at large, where the whole chain of promotion — from first hiring to induction into the managing elite — still retains bitter traces of prejudice.
But in another, more catastrophically unfair sense, promotion in the Army is not based on merit at all. Promotion in the first few grades (E-2 through E-4) is essentially automatic — don’t screw up and you’ll be promoted essentially on a calendar basis. But promotion to the rank of sergeant (E-5)has two parts — attending the Promotion Board, and the points system. Everyone has an opportunity to attend the board; after you reach the “primary zone for promotion” (in other words, once you’ve been in for three years), your supervisor is required to counsel you each month if he chooses not to send you to the board. This counseling is supposed to lay out exactly why he doesn’t feel you’re ready and what you need to do to improve: raise your PT score, attend the Warrior Leader’s Course, or whatever. The system is well-designed to ensure transparency and minimize favoritism, while still allowing leaders to see that only prepared soldiers get promoted.
Once you’ve attended the board, you are considered “promotable.” You then submit a promotion packet to the Department of the Army. This packet contains records of all your notable achievements: civilian and military schooling, awards, PT and marksmanship records, as well as your board results and your commander’s recommendation. Each of these is assigned a certain point value, and you are given a point total. Each month there is a “cutoff score” for each MOS (job code), and if your points are higher than the cutoff score, you are eligible to be promoted to the next rank. (The final decision still rests with the commander, but in practice it almost always happens. The command wouldn’t have recommended the soldier to begun with if they didn’t want to promote him.)
This sounds straightforward, but in fact there are a few kinks. The Army, naturally, wants to keep the NCO ranks from swelling needlessly, because each unit only has a certain number of leadership slots. You don’t want a unit full of chiefs with no braves. There is, for each MOS, a kind of master number kept somewhere at the Department of the Army, and the cutoff scores for promotion are set based on meeting that target number of E5′s, E6′s, and so on in each job. So in jobs where there’s a high turnover, or where there’s always a need — infantry, cooks, interrogators, admin — points are consistently very low. Points for some MOSes rarely rise above 350, the minimum. On the other hand, certain other MOSes almost never drop below 798, the maximum.
98GKP, Korean linguist, is one such MOS. A few years ago, realizing that 2nd-generation bilingual speakers inevitably make better linguists than people trained at a language school as adults, the Army began offering the “Skills for Stripes” program for people who could demonstrate language proficiency before entering the Army. They would skip language training at DLI, proceeding directly to job training and then to their unit, where they could be promoted in as little as three months without attending a board or, really, proving their mettle as soldiers. Combined with a hefty bonus, this proved a pretty good deal, and the Army is now more-or-less flooded with Korean-speaking NCOs. At the same time, of course, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted the Army’s emphasis away from Cold War missions like Korea. As a consequence, points are pushed to the roof, and it is nigh on impossible for even the brightest and most motivated DLI-trained Korean linguist to get past E-4.
Fortunately, I have wiggled out of this problem by becoming an Arabic linguist. It took a year of language school and many foolish conversations with our personnel section (“Oh, you’re qualified in both languages? Then it doesn’t matter. You can be either one.” “Yes, but it does matter for promotion.” “Okay.” “Okay, so, you’re going to fill out the paperwork to make me an Arabic linguist, right?” “Oh, yeah, it doesn’t matter. You can be either one.”), but eventually they seemed to get it, and they filled out the personnel action to change my language code. The only hill left to climb was the board.
Promotion boards probably reflect the nature of the unit where they are held, the personalities of its enlisted leaders, the tenor of its command. I went to a few soldier-of-the-month boards at a military intelligence training unit, and they were very by-the-book, concentrating heavily on the rapid verbal delivery of large amounts of memorized information. MI soldiers, correspondingly, tend to play to their own strength, studying.
The board at our unit, a cavalry squadron, also requires soldiers to recite military facts in response to questions from the ranking NCOs in the unit. But the emphasis here is less on actual knowledge than on poise under fire. The cav culture is famously cowboyish, and cav scouts are valued more for their mental toughness and endurance than their book-learning, so the board is largely an exercise in intimidation and exhaustion. Questions are rapid-fire, with the first sergeants often not waiting for the end of the soldier’s last answer before launching the next fusillade, and I’ve heard of sessions like this going on for an hour or more.
I’ll be honest — I’ve been ducking this board. One month when my squad leader was out of town, I ended up having to sponsor another soldier who was going to a soldier-of-the-month board, a kind of practice for the promotion board. I went in ahead of him to introduce him, but because I was only a specialist, the sergeant-major thought I was the soldier coming in for the board. I didn’t salute him, because I wasn’t, and he and I looked at each other for a while. It went downhill from there.
So I wasn’t eager to meet with that sergeant-major and those first sergeants again. For a while, it wasn’t an issue — several of us were in Arabic school, and our platoon sergeant postponed the board so we could concentrate on our studies. After graduation, though, I began to worry. I wanted to get promoted — hey, more money! and not being treated like quite such a moron! — but not enough to go to the 2/1 Cav board.
There was a fine art, I soon perceived, to ducking the board without appearing to duck the board. Perpetual disarray in the unit, and the general disdain the squadron manifested for our troop, made this easier: often we wouldn’t get word of the next board until the very day that paperwork was due. When that happened it was easier for us all just to postpone things to the next month, and months sailed by like this, aided by the occasional field exercise, and then we were packing and then it was time to say goodbye.
I’d heard that when you go to the board overseas, it’s much easier, partly because they know you don’t have a lot of time to study, and partly because once you’re there you’re given a certain amount of respect on credit; the very fact of having been deployed buys you a kind of legitimacy that makes memorized military trivia irrelevent. I’ve heard of people going to the board in Iraq and being promoted without even having to answer a single question. I didn’t expect that kind of luck, but all along my stalling campaign had been designed to get me to a field board in Iraq. In this I’ve succeeded beyond all expectations — during deployment, our platoon ended up attached to an entirely different unit, on an entirely different FOB, and although on paper we were still under the cav squadron, in practice we would end up doing promotion boards under another battalion altogether.
This battalion’s sergeant-major is apparently a good deal more creative than most. Rather than a straightforward stand-and-deliver board, he designs a board around hands-on activities testing real soldier skills. Instead of reciting doctrine from the first aid manual, the soldier actually performs first aid on a dummy. (Well, “dummy” is being extravagant — it’s a board with a face drawn on it.) Instead of spouting memorized formulae about physical training, he leads a PT session. (This includes a seven-mile run with the sergeant-major.) Instead of quoting AR 670-1, he walks past a line of soldiers and corrects various planted uniform deficiencies. And so on.
This is really working to my strengths. I’m a pretty good memorizer, but it’s far easier to do a thing, especially something you’ve been doing for four or five years, than to reel off the steps to doing it.
But the board isn’t just about what you know. It’s about standing in front of your superiors and not letting them rattle you. This is not easy for me. I don’t like being tested or asked to perform on demand; I gave up acting because, although I liked being on stage for an audience, I hated auditioning. So for the first time in four years, for the first time ever, I fuck up with a weapon.
Some of the practical tasks we get out of the way in the days leading up to the board: equipment maintenance, a seven-mile run with the sergeant-major, first aid. Weapons disassembly is one of the first tasks we do on the final day. We file into the room where the board is being held and stand in a line. We are told to put our weapons on the ground in front of us, and they send us out of the room again. Then they bring us back in and the sergeant-major explains that we’ll have a minute and a half to disassemble and reassemble our weapons. “Included in this are some implied tasks,” he says. “Does everyone know what I mean?” We all nod. He’s hinting strongly that we need to remember to clear our weapons before disassembling them. This is obvious.
When you pick up a weapon for the first time, or are handed a weapon, or your weapon has been out of your control, you “clear” it. Check to make sure the weapon is on safe. Drop the magazine. Pull the charging handle to the rear — if there is a round in the chamber, it will eject. If you know what you’re doing, you can drop the round out through the magazine well and catch it in your hand. Visually inspect the chamber. Release the charging handle and close the ejection port. (Normally, at a clearing barrel, you will also switch to semi and dry-fire into the barrel to show that there is no round in the weapon.)
I look down at the weapons. Some of the selector levers have been switched to semi. My weapon is still on safe, but there is a magazine in the well. I take note of this and mentally prepare myself to drop the magazine when I pick the weapon up.
Now comes the part that fucks me up. They send us out of the room again, then bring us back in. I stand in front of my weapon. I’m looking straight ahead as the sergeant-major repeats his instructions. My forebrain is thinking, “They’ve done something to the weapon. Check it again.” But another, more anxious part is already revving up to launch into this thing and get it done. And that part wants to run fast, on autopilot, using what it already “knows” — the state of the weapon the last time I was able to look at it.
The sergeant-major says “Go.” I kneel down and scoop up my weapon in a smooth, fluid motion. My thumb is already feeling for the selector lever, and as it finds it (wrong place) I drop the mag and put it away, turning (wrong place!) the weapon and getting ready (why is the selector lever so far away?!) to pull the charging handle when I know exactly what’s wrong. I had felt to make sure the selector lever wasn’t turned up 90 degrees to the semi-auto position. It was lying flat, so I proceeded on. But the lever can also being lying flat when it’s been turned 180 degrees to the burst setting. I went halfway through the clearing procedure with my weapon on burst.
I quickly flick the lever back to safe, but the sergeant-major, who up to now has not been noticeably watching me, says, “Specialist F_______, put your weapon down.” I do, and stand stewing in my mistake while everyone around me takes his weapon apart. The sergeant-major eyeballs me with open disdain, and after a minute or so all the other soldiers have put their weapons back together and it’s time for the lecture.
Here are the bullet points:
1) Forgetting to check that the weapon is on safe is an indication that you take shortcuts, that you don’t care about doing things the right way.
2) Not doing things the right way, every time, gets people killed.
3) We don’t need leaders who shortchange their soldiers that way.
4) Also, we told you what you should be looking for.
The sergeant-major regards me for a long time, trying to look through the uniform and the flesh and into my soul, trying to read the future in me. Finally he says, “I am very close to sending you back to your unit.”
Outside the conference room, my platoon sergeant’s eyes are bulging out of his head in amazement. But he lets it go quickly, and we move on, strategizing. They haven’t kicked me out of the board yet, bizarrely, so the only thing left is clean house on the rest of it, to prove myself so thoroughly that the initial screw-up only serves as a measuring-stick by which to gauge my later success.
The next part of the board is uniform inspections: a line of soldiers wearing various configurations of uniform stands in front of the board table. Each has, potentially, one or more discrepancy — a deviation from the standard, to be corrected. Shirts untucked, PT shorts hanging down too low, dog tags hanging out, nametapes and unit patches on the wrong side or upside down, a female soldier’s hair hanging down past her collar, trouser leg unbloused, boots unlaced. There’s a minute-and-a-half time limit, and I zip down the line, coolly dispensing corrections as a first sergeant takes notes. I don’t quite make it to the end before time is called, but I’ve caught a pretty astonishing number of uniform problems on the soldiers I do have time for, including a few that weren’t intended.
The sergeant-major gives me the all-seeing eye again, re-appraising. “That was very impressive,” he says. “I would say you may have turned this thing around.”
The rest of this thing is the traditional board — questions, put rudely, and answers, delivered in a rigid monotone. Fortunately, because of all the practical tasks, this part is much abridged. In fact it’s so abridged that only a few subjects have been selected, all revolving around caring for soldiers and NCO professional development: Army programs, counseling, NCO evalutions, and the perennial board favorite, current events.
Several people go ahead of me, and when they come out we hound them for information, especially about the current events. I find out, for example, that China is having trouble with security at its Olympic site and that the International Olympic Committee is concerned about it. Mostly we wait.
When I enter the room, the sergeant-major and the two first sergeants are doing paperwork. They don’t look up. This is a psychological tactic, and it works — it’s hard to know where to look when delivering my bio, a short speech about myself and my accomplishments in the Army. I end up deciding to give each member of the board equal eye time whether they returned it or not. The other two members of the board, a master sergeant and a sergeant first class, nod encouragingly.
When I finish, there’s a silence while the senior NCOs finish their paperwork dumbshow. Then the questions begin.
“What are the three types of counseling?”
“First sergeant, the three types of counseling are directive, non-directive, and combined.”
“What or who does an NCO’s rating chain consist of?”
“First sergeant, the rating chain consists of the rater, the senior rater, and the reviewer.”
“What is the form used for counseling?”
“First sergeant, the form for counseling is the DA form 4856.”
“Name five Army programs.”
“Sergeant, Army programs include the Army Substance Abuse Program, Army Emergency Relief, Army Community Service….”
This goes on for a while, though not nearly as long as it would in a conventional board. I get the China question, but I deliberately eat it — there’s something a little weird about getting your answers from the guy who went ahead of you, and I don’t need it. When they ask me for the seven different types of NCOER, and I actually name them all, all the wind goes out of the board members for a second. They ask me to step outside. A few minutes later, I come back in, and the sergeant-major tells me the board has decided to recommend me for promotion.
The recommendation for promotion, and the accompanying points, go active after two months. We eagerly await the posting of the by-name promotion list on the Personnel Command website, but my name’s not on it. I check the points; I’ve got more than enough to be promoted as an Arabic linguist. My first thought is that they’ve somehow screwed up the paperwork from the board. But as we start discussing it, a more annoying prospect slowly lifts its head and gazes at us: I’m not an Arabic linguist. The Arabic points are in the 500s, the Korean points are stuck at 798. I’m in the system; my promotion packet is fine. The points are just too high.
I start shaking some trees and discover that somewhere between our squadron S-1 (the personnel shop) and the Department of the Army, the personnel action to change my language code simply disappeared. There’s some talk of fixing the problem, getting me promoted retroactively, but a sergeant from the brigade S-1 refuses to sign off on it unless the squadron S-1 can prove that they transmitted the paperwork to DA. There’s some sort of chain of custody of paperwork apparently, and somebody somewhere dropped the ball. The sergeant explains this to me as though it pains him to be straitjacketed so by the rules.
We resubmit the paperwork, and for a few weeks everywhere I go everyone complains on my behalf, how fucked up this is, how I’m being cheated. And I agree and nod and appreciate their vehemence. They’re good friends. But honestly, I don’t care as much as they seem to. A kind of absolute serenity about the whole thing descends over me. I went to the board to prove that I could pass a board, and not to leave anything undone during my time in the military. I recognize that there’s a great deal of self-serving horseshit in the way the military indoctrinates people to throw themselves into unpleasant or useless tasks — but it’s also a useful life skill, and one I’ve been using my time in the Army as an opportunity to develop. I finished Korean at DLI for much the same reason. I tell people, as a good story, that I finished Korean because I found out I had orders to Hawai’i (later amended). I did have the occasional beach kayaking fantasy, but the truth is that I finished to finish. I’ve been doing that a lot in the military — I’ve gotten good at it. Set me a task, I’ll finish it. Set the bar; I’ll clear it.
But there are drawbacks to this mission-oriented way of thinking, because now that I’ve passed the board, I couldn’t care less about becoming an NCO. I’m on my way out of the Army, and anyway in my section there’s really no room for more leaders; there are already two staff sergeants and an E-5 with seniority above me. So I’ll join the ranks of the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps, but I’ll be in it strictly for the money, and without any real intention of providing leadership, or, really, any additional services at all.
It takes five months, but I’m eventually promoted — though as a Korean linguist. There’s a momentary dip in points for Koreans, a very rare event, but it’s just enough. I’m picked up. After four-and-a-half years as a specialist, the chief of the privates, suddenly, I’m in the club.
All the way up to the promotion ceremony itself, I feel that sense of detachment. On the way to the ceremony, I weigh the option of whether to wear contact lenses, which are technically not allowed in theater. I wonder whether any of the senior NCOs from the troop or the squadron will notice I’m not wearing glasses and call me on it. I try to summon up some sense of loyalty to the regulations, some spontaneous feeling of obedience, but none comes. The closest thing is a sense of loyalty to my own leaders, of not wanting to embarrass them, but even that quickly fades, and I am almost charmed by the idea of getting an Article 15 on the day of my promotion. Fuck it. I put in the contacts.
No one notices, and the promotion goes smoothly. There’s an old tradition, technically forbidden, in which new sergeant rank is attached to the uniform without the protective caps on the ends of the pins, and other NCOs come up and pound the promotee’s rank into his flesh. Nowadays the rank is attached to the ACU with velcro, but people will still come up and pound your chest. One sergeant from the UAV platoon gives me a half-hearted slap across the sternum, but the people in my platoon are all too gentlemanly and civilized to want to refer back even symbolically to the “blood stripes” tradition. They come up in a line and shake my hand, some cracking jokes, and then we disperse, splitting off like clusters of cells, to work and the laundry and the mailroom and bed.
Although my longtime squad leader, who ceremonially placed the sergeant rank on my uniform, brought the velcro patch with him, none of us has thought to buy a pin-on rank emblem for my hat. So immediately after the ceremony, I walk over to the alterations shop and have new insignia sewn on two of my hats. I watch the young man at the sewing machine carefully to make sure he corrects the slight deformity of the pre-sewn rank. I want to look the part.
I haven’t planned on changing anything about myself after being promoted. I genuinely do not care about promotion one way or the other. A couple hundred dollars extra a month is nice, especially in tax-free Iraq, but my passion for anything military peaked during my first couple of years, my DLI time, when I still enjoyed drill and ceremony, when I volunteered for weekend flag duty, when the Army community still seemed honorable and well-organized. Even a year or so out of DLI, I still found the challenges the Army put forward interesting and compelling, although I already knew at that point that I wouldn’t be re-enlisting. But that awareness that the end of my time in the Army was coming, combined with an increasing irritation at the way the rank system makes minor abuses and tyrannies inevitable and an absolutely exhausted tolerance for the ridiculous excesses of my unit’s leaders in particular, wiped away any interest in being an NCO, period, let alone a good one. So I’m not planning to take any extra effort; I’m planning to take the money and run.
But as early as that trip to the alterations shop, twenty minutes after my promotion, I find myself caring whether my rank is sewn on evenly. It doesn’t end there, either. I start carrying, and often even wearing, eye protection, which I had previously abandoned as soon as I was out of sight of the squadron sergeant-major. I start making sure other soldiers are out of bed on time. I start taking notes in meetings, especially about issues affecting the lower-ranking soldiers in the platoon. When a work detail comes up, I actually think about making a schedule.
It’s not that I have any illusions, anymore, that NCOs are particularly responsible, “professional,” diligent, or concerned for the welfare of the soldiers below them. They’re just like any other kind of mid-level manager: their excellence or lack of it is entirely a combination of personal character and pressure from above. That they’re extolled as “the backbone of the Army” has nothing to do with it; that they’re empowered with vastly broad authority over the small details of their subordinates’ lives only amplifies their worst tendencies without giving them a corresponding power for good.
But I still have, in my mind, a peculiar fiction, an image of the good NCO, part Audie Murphy, part benign older brother. I’ve known lots of good leaders, and they inspire admiration and loyalty. But the bad ones inspire a disgust far beyond comparable feelings about bad officers or apathetic soldiers. Officers are almost expected to be boobs; they can’t help it — after all, their only qualification for office is a college degree, which is hardly a guarantor of charisma, empathy, decisiveness, or even clarity of mind. But more importantly, with the exception of young lieutenants, officers operate in a world almost wholly detached from the lives of their soldiers, a realm of paperwork and meetings and PowerPoint presentations. And joes are just joes — they’re not in charge of much, and not much is expected of them. But NCOs are the living embodiment of the Army, its authority, its ridiculous regulations — they are the interface between all the Army’s abstractions and its physical body, the soldiers themselves. Fairly or unfairly, good NCOs stand out as individuals, but bad NCOs seem representatives of an ill-conceived system, one driven by the often-petty caprices of those stubborn enough to stay in it until their abler colleagues have gone off in pursuit of other work. I don’t believe in good NCOs (as an institution) anymore, but I can’t help striving to do the right thing and embody what I would like one to be — if only because the alternative is to end up subsumed in the great, amorphous mass that’s been suffocating us these past few years.
There’s another aspect to rank in Iraq — the different levels of respect accorded to those who “go outside the wire” and those who don’t. It’s a subtle thing, most of the time — people don’t outright belittle you to your face, and only people who know you well will engage in good-natured teasing about “fobbits.” But when you meet someone new, especially a combat arms soldier, it’s not uncommon for them to ask you how many missions you’ve done so far, or how many times you’ve been outside the wire. If you can answer that question, it’s understood that you’re in a certain fraternity, even if you’re not an infantryman. Some infantry guys have bristled at the creation of Combat Action Badge, feeling that it undermines the significance of the older Combat Infantry Badge. But most recognize that now, more than ever, the distinctions between combat and non-combat MOSes have blurred — when even Air Force and Navy personnel are being asked to go on raids and combat missions, we can no longer say with certainty that there are “soft” MOSes or “soft” services.
Which makes it all the weirder when I’m at a squadron NCO Professional Development meeting and the sergeant-major gives us a little pep talk along the lines of, “Don’t get complacent now that we’ve been here a while; you may think you know where all the hotspots are on your routes and in your areas, but now is the time when people get killed….” He’s talking to cav scouts, mostly, so what he’s saying makes sense. But I don’t patrol neighborhoods, don’t go on raids, don’t mingle with the populace. In a very real sense, he’s not talking to me. Of course, complacence kills in intel, too, etc. — granted. And he’s said before that we all share in the risk of being over here. But that’s not true. Some shoulder a greater burden of risk than others, and correspondingly the whole business of being a “warrior” is more meaningful to them.
Shortly after I’m promoted, I receive an Army Achievement Medal for some timely and useful intel work that led to the capture of a major scumbag. It’s pleasing and I feel good to be recognized for what I’m doing here. But I also receive, around the same time, a certificate inducting me into the Order of the Combat Spur. This is an old cav tradition: soldiers who go into battle with the cavalry are awarded brass spurs made, oftentimes, from actual brass casings fired in battle. It’s a big deal in the cav, an honor, a mark of seriousness and worth. I feel ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I’m pleased that the unit recognizes the value that even those of us who don’t directly engage the enemy can bring to the fight. On the other hand, it’s weird. I am already trying to imagine how I’m going to wear or display those spurs in my civilian life. Will I have to be ironic and self-deprecating about it? Certainly I can’t use them as an ego-booster or to impress people; anyone who knows what they represent will want to hear about my experiences, and my days in the windowless office are not the stuff of John Ford movies. If I take them seriously, I risk being a poseur. If I take them lightly, I insult the courage and sacrifices they represent. There’s a modest middle ground here, but I’m not sure if I’m man enough to pull it off.