When, how, where did the distinction between commissoned and non-commissioned officer in the military originate?
July 21, 2005 7:49 PM   Subscribe

When, how, where did the distinction between commissoned and non-commissioned officer in the military originate?

How comes it that, say, Sandhurst or St. Cyr graduates become second lieutenants (or was it cornets originally?) rather than, say, corporals?

In renaissance armies, they seem pretty loose with designating sergeants and captains and colonels and mere footsoldiers. By the American revolution, if not the Seven Years War, the British seem to have at least the rudiments of the current system, with sergeants firmly below the salt. Who drew up the table settings, with that all but unbridgeable social and professional divide?

Any insights general or specific to any country much appreciated.
posted by IndigoJones to Grab Bag (9 answers total)
 
It goes way back ... I'm sure someone will have more specifics, but even in the Middle Ages you had the rudiments of it. The military "officers" came from royalty. The enlisted were pressed into service.
posted by forforf at 8:20 PM on July 21, 2005




Commission 3b from the OED:

"The warrant by which an officer in the army or navy exercises command: (a) in the old system of raising forces, a warrant which authorized the holder to raise equip and command a body of soldiers in the name of the issuing authority; (b) now, the warrant by which all officers in the army from the ensign upwards, and in the navy from the lieutenant upwards, are appointed to the rank and command they hold."

I think that might be a mistake and that ensign and lieutenant should be switched, but I don't know much about the British military.
posted by mokujin at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2005


The Museum of the Noncommissioned Officer's Short History of the NCO page, which was the first result in this Yahoo search.
posted by mediareport at 10:53 PM on July 21, 2005


I was blown away by the different oaths taken by Officers and Enlisted men and to whom they swore there allegiance throughout our country's history.

Also, there is almost but not quite an answer from this page with much more than I ever wanted to know about military rank and feudal hierarchy:

One important thing that all officers have in common is that they are supposed to be "gentlemen." Today this may mean no more than that they are expected to be polite, self-controlled, and observant of propriety, not to mention morally upright. However, it originally meant rather more. Two hundred years ago, not every man was a "gentleman" just by courtesy. A gentleman, by English law, was a man with no regular trade or occupation. Now we might think of such a definition as specifying a vagrant, but it actually meant someone who lived off inherited wealth, rents, or feudal office (including the Church, which also meant Mediaeval Academia). This was an era when "amateur" was good and "professional" was bad -- since the amateur did something for love (amor), while the professional did something just for money. In the British legal system, barristers (i.e. those at the "Bar"), who plead in court, were gentlemen who did not accept pay (but received honoraria by courtesy), while other lawyers were solicitors, mere professionals. In the military, "officers and men" meant those who qualified as gentlemen and those who might not. "My good man" is how a gentleman might politely address someone who was not. This distinction could have serious legal consequences, since in Britain gentlemen could not be impressed off the street for military service, but others could. In protocol, untitled military officers had precedence of rank, and were above plain "gentlemen entitled to bear arms," but were below even the humblest titled nobility, even Knights and Esquires. That distinction was collapsed in ancien régime France or Imperial Germany, where only those of noble derivation qualified for officer rank.
posted by mokujin at 11:26 PM on July 21, 2005


When, how, where did the distinction between commissoned and non-commissioned officer in the military originate?

I think the whole "gentleman" thing has been handled. Today, of course, the primary difference is that commissioned officers have the equivalent of a college education, with a major in the art of war. West Point was, for many many years, the most important engineering school in the country.

How comes it that, say, Sandhurst or St. Cyr graduates become second lieutenants (or was it cornets originally?) rather than, say, corporals?

See above. If you're not talking about the words -- the difference is that they had training in strategy, tactics, and things like leadership. How to inspire men to risk their lives, that sort of thing.

In renaissance armies, they seem pretty loose with designating sergeants and captains and colonels and mere footsoldiers. By the American revolution, if not the Seven Years War, the British seem to have at least the rudiments of the current system, with sergeants firmly below the salt. Who drew up the table settings, with that all but unbridgeable social and professional divide?

The changes derived from, first, the standing navy (era of exploration), and then later, the standing army (Napoleonic wars, chiefly). Much of the professionalization of the military class derives from the Prussian army, which produced people like von Steuben (and Bismarck). This was driven by social forces, but also by technological changes. The increasing center of the modern State in national terms, rather than quasi-feudal ones, meant that soldiers had a different conception of themselves; in no small part to be a soldier meant becoming the defender of a particular ideal. The increasing use of long-range weaponry reduced the element of the personal command in war, and generals like U.S. Grant made use of very modern broad strategies such as overwhelming the enemy with logistics. You couldn't do this without a modernized, trained, and professionalized NCO corps.

Make no mistake -- being an NCO is a specialty just as important, today, as being a commissioned officer. But the training is vastly different.
posted by dhartung at 1:09 AM on July 22, 2005


My very vague and likely flawed understanding of this is that and NCO is an officer who has climbed up the ranks from enlisted grunt; a CO is someone who basically started at the point of "I'm here to be an officer."

So, for example, Bobby Shaftoe, infantry grunt, could climb his way up to being an NCO Sergeant, where as Wesley Crusher started out his situation as an Ensign, the bottom of the CO barrel.

(I'm asking if my vague unschooled picture is at all on the ball here, not suggesting the above as a good recapitulation.)
posted by cortex at 9:48 AM on July 22, 2005


NCO is an officer who has climbed up the ranks from enlisted grunt

An NCO is still an enlisted soldier, albeit better paid than a private or corporal (and I'd guess that a basic sergeant - an E-5 - would consider him/herself a "grunt" if an infantry soldier). As far as "climbing", commissioned officers do that too - promotion isn't automatic, although (in the US military) it tends to be "up or out" - either you're selected for promotion, or (if "passed over" two or three times) you're discharged (at least from active duty).

The two major differences (in my mind) are:

(a) education - the vast majority of COs have a college degree before entering the military, whereas an enlisted soldier typically is a high-school graduate. (Enlisted soldiers looking to get promoted do tend to take college courses - evenings, normally - for an AA, and - often, eventually, a BA.)

(b) responsibility - a commissioned officer is accountable for his/her ship, unit, headquarters section, etc. (which isn't to say that lieutenants and captains and even majors can't end up in analytical jobs without subordinates); an NCO normally assists a comissioned officer, takes care of people and generally makes sure that day-to-day stuff gets done, but doesn't make "life and death" decisions for large numbers of people. And major resource decisions (budgets) are always made/controlled by commissioned officers, not NCOs.

Also, for what it's worth - the (US) military tends to encourage enlisted folks who are smart (and interested in a military career) to become officers, either via Officer Candidate School (OCS) or ROTC (via a college degree).
posted by WestCoaster at 10:47 AM on July 22, 2005


Response by poster: Thank you all, but these are mostly expansions of the question, of definition (though with interesting observations and v. interesting links, for which again, thank you).

Boiling it down, I guess the question should have been- when specifically did someone in authority (and which somebody was it) decide that a sergeant of twenty years experience was not welcome in the officer's mess and a cornet (cadet, ensign) of two week's was? Thus the Sandhurst comment. (Were sergeants below in medieval and renaissance courts? I sort of got the impression not, but could be wrong.)

Any late comers?
posted by IndigoJones at 3:44 PM on July 24, 2005


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