The Military Caste System

The Military Caste System

In the military, a rigid caste system prevails and forms the basis of all personal relationships. There are three levels: officers, non-commissioned officers (sergeants) and enlisted personnel. Out of the field, off-duty, none of these groups normally has any contact with the others, period.

The reason for this is that, at some point, a superior may have to order a subordinate to do something which will surely get them killed. And that order is less likely to be obeyed if the parties regard themselves as friends or equals. This is expressed in the ancient military maxim: “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.”

Officers can get in trouble for socializing with NCOs or enlisted personnel off-duty. This includes nurses who are, of course, officers. Each group has their own clubs, quarters, recreation areas etc.

Army officers come from several sources. The first is the US Military Academy at West Point. As it graduates only a few hundred second lieutenants a year, all male during the Vietnam period, the vast majority of junior officers (captain and below) receive their commissions through other programs. The main one is ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), a program offered at many American colleges. In exchange for financial assistance, ROTC graduates become second lieutenants on graduation. Again, all ROTC graduates were male during this period. After ROTC, the next largest source of officers is Officer Candidate School. All OCS officers are former Army enlisted personnel who complete an arduous six month training course before being commissioned as second lieutenants. Finally, there are the Direct Commissions. These are college graduates with technical skills of immediate use to the military. Mostly, not exclusively, these were medical doctors (like Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H.) or nurses. The majority of nurses were women and most of these were “obligatories” (my term). They had accepted money under government programs to complete their nursing training, and now owed military service. They were commissioned directly out of nursing school as second lieutenants. Male doctors were then mostly draftees who had been deferred during their years of medical school and internship. They were now called up to do their two years active duty, but as officers, rather than enlisted men. As partial compensation for the loss of income, doctors were commissioned as captains. All direct commissions received only about two weeks training in the bare rudiments of military life, before going on to their first assignment.

Warrant officers are a separate category of officers. Instead of a commission (the official document that formally gives the holder the authority to command American military forces) they hold warrants. (Commissions were signed by the President while warrants are signed by the Secretary of the Army.) The Army has two uses for warrant officers. Some are technical specialists, put in charge of fixing things like helicopters, engines or computers. But the majority are helicopter pilots. During the Vietnam era, a number of WO pilots were older men, often WW II veterans who had resigned commissions in other services to keep flying. Most, however, were teenagers who went to Helicopter Flight School after initial training and might only be 18 or 19 years old.

Out of the field, unmarried officers (or ALL officers in Vietnam, since it was an “unaccompanied” tour, no wife and kids) were billeted in the BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters.) Lieutenants shared a room, captains and majors had their own. Senior officers (lieutenant-colonel and above) had air-conditioned trailers (as in Apocalypse Now). Generals had their own pre-fab houses.

Officers had their own latrines and showers, cleaned by enlisted men, BTW.

Off-duty (we are now talking about a stateside base or a major rear-area base in Vietnam like Chu Lai or Tan Son Nhut) an officer’s off-duty life centered around the Officers’ Club.

Unlike enlisted men or NCOs, officers are required to purchase their own meals. What the Army provides for this is the “O” Club. You might think of an “O” club as a restaurant with a bar. (Yes, table service with waiters and a menu. The employees were local civilians.) To enjoy its facilities, an officer was required to purchase a club card (for a tiny amount) which entitled him to a year’s membership. Meals could be paid for individually or could be debited to his or her account. The costs of meals was slight, compared to the civilian economy. A dinner that might cost above $12.00 (plus tip, 1960s prices) in a civilian restaurant, would cost perhaps $2.00 in the “O” club.

On larger bases, there might be separate officers’ clubs. Some might be for officers of a specific unit, the base hospital, for example. Or another might be (unofficially) for higher ranking officers. You could go, if you were an officer, but, well, you might not feel exactly welcome.

Adjoining the “restaurant” part of the club would be an area (often called a “rathskeller,” just like on a college campus) with tables and chairs and music. There the officers could drink and socialize as they wished, without attention to rank. Who you hung out with was based on several things. Prior association, friends you knew from before, or had served with on other posts, was one. Another grouping might be people with similar mindsets, “hard noses,” or officers who were only “serving their time”, waiting to get out (mostly direct commissions, like doctors, another reason hospitals had their own OC). The atmosphere here was very male and very collegiate.

There was also a specific ranking or “pecking order.” At the top were the West Point officers, called “ringknockers” behind their backs (from their habit of tapping their West Point rings on the backs of glasses or cups, or on table tops, when making a point.) Next down were the ROTC officers, who were all college graduates. At the bottom were the OCS officers who, at most, might have attended college, but few of whom had received a degree. The OCS officers were very much “poor relations,” and senior officers, or West Pointers, might not even bother to talk to them at all.

On forward firebases, all officers ate together, separate from their troops, unless the tactical situation required otherwise. In the field, officers ate with their command group. For an infantry platoon, this would be the 2nd Lt platoon leader, senior sergeant, radioman and medic.

BTW, officers were charged for ALL their meals, even C-rations in the field, about a dollar a meal (there was some odd price for each, something like $.80 for breakfast, $1.05 for lunch, $.95 for dinner) even if they didn’t eat it or even receive it.

Out of the field, in rear areas, the non-commissioned officers (sergeants) were also billeted together, but with their units (in a separate NCO barracks). They ate with the rest of the enlisted men in the mess hall, but in a separate area of their own, using plates and glasses. Off duty, the NCOs of each unit had their own clubs. At any given base, the NCO club easily outranked the officers’ club for appointments. One might think of an NCO club as a elegantly furnished, if slightly trashy, country and western bar. Wood paneled walls, padded bar rails, bartenders, waitresses and all. It was at the NCO club that the REAL business of running the unit was accomplished. Over drinks, far from interfering officers or bothersome enlisted men, NCOs would trade favors and discuss how to deal with problems which had arisen in the unit.

BTW, if circumstances required officers to eat in the mess hall (for which they were charged), they inevitably took a table by themselves in a corner of the EM area. By custom, they did not disturb the sergeants or trespass in their areas.

Enlisted men ate in mess halls, cafeteria-style, from brown plastic mugs and cups, and compartmented trays. (Sometimes these were metal, like they have in prison movies; mostly these were in the same brown plastic as the crockery.) Enlisted men’s clubs were, again, one per unit, although sometimes, if several units were in the same compound at a major base, the units would pool their resources into one club. (It would otherwise be unusual for soldiers from different units to socialize. The reason? They get into fights.)

EM clubs were bare of furnishings, just bare light bulbs, a cement floor, long picnic tables and metal chairs, usually piped-in music from Armed Forces radio. The club hired off-duty NCOs to act as bouncers. There was waitress service if you wanted to wait, otherwise you took turns carrying armfuls of beer cans back to your friends. (The pockets of your jungle fatigues also came in handy here, except that all cans had to be opened when you bought them. So you tended to get wet.)

None of the enlisted men cared to see officers or NCOs off-duty (with an occasional exception, such as a recently promoted friend, of course). In and around the barracks, various things were going on that it was better the officers and sergeants didn’t see, such as drinking in the barracks, smoking dope (outside) or gambling. Of course they knew about it, but it was an affront to their authority to shove it in their faces.

(Please note, NO WEAPONS were EVER permitted in ANY clubs, officer, NCO or enlisted, nor in any mess hall except if the personnel were on-duty and required to have them close by while they ate, such as guard details.)

Another way to look at officer/NCO/enlisted relationships (I stress this because it is the basis of military life) is to compare this to the social order of an oldtime civilian factory in a small town. Non-union, of course.

At the bottom are the blue collar assembly line workers, corresponding to the enlisted men in the Army. They actually do the work of the factory. Mostly, they are young and fresh out of high school, or perhaps they didn’t quite finish. Others are older workers.

Directly over them are the foremen, non-commissioned officers in the military. These are experienced workers placed in charge of the workforce. They are responsible for both training the new men (there are, of course, no women) and the smooth day-to-day operations of the factory. They are of the same social class (blue collar) as the workers they supervise.

In charge of each department of the factory, however, are the executives, the officers. These are white collar jobs. Although the holders may be no older than the workers they supervise, they come from a different social background. Most are college graduates (ROTC officers); but, however, since this is a progressive company, some promising workers have also been selected for executive training (OCS) as well. (It is understood that this is charity and that the selected worker/executive trainees HAD BETTER toe the mark or ELSE. And, also, they won’t likely be going very far in management, as they come from blue collar backgrounds.) Also, among the junior executives, are the sons of the owner of the company (the West Point officers.) There are not many, but they have a family loyalty to each other within the executive ranks and also with the directors of the company. Finally, there are a few technical positions held by former foremen (warrant officers.)

At the very top of the social scale are the CEO and Board of Directors, the generals. They make the grand decisions and leave it to their subordinates to carry them out.

There is one other job category, the secretaries. The “girls in the office” who answer the phones and type the letters? That’s the WAC. And the plant doctor and the plant nurse, that’s the Army Medical Corps. (Note that becoming a nurse requires a college degree, making her, for purposes of this analogy, white-collar management. But she has blue collar roots.)

Oh, 10% of the work force is black, a third of the foremen are too, as are maybe 10% of the junior executives, but none of the higher management.

This is pretty much the social structure of the military in the 1960s. The analogy holds true even on subtle points. It is a good test of plots.

What chance will Assembly Line Bob have of telling the CEO he hates the way the company is run? (None. They have no occasion to meet except under very controlled circumstances and Bob can be fired for disrespect.)

And, who hangs out with whom after work? Will some junior executive decide to go drink in Joe Six-Pack’s beer joint? Will a foreman decide to go drinking instead at the CEO’s country club? What chance does Assembly Line Bob have of meeting the new receptionist at work? Let’s add in the perpetual “labor unrest.” Do the foremen hang out with the workers under these circumstances?

Now, let’s move everything to the planet Mars for a year: the factory, the bars, the country club. No more town, no more wives, girlfriends, no girls at all, except for the plant nurse, the old lady bookkeeper, the married secretary and the receptionist. Ten thousand guys, five hundred foremen, two hundred executives, the CEO, the Board of Directors and the four women.

And, on this alien world, while 90% of the factory jobs are simply boring and tedious, suddenly the other 10% become incredibly dangerous, often fatal.

That was Vietnam, socially.


Next: Women in Vietnam


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