Writing SF&F military: rank and rank systems

Over at the Writing Excuses web site (see the link on my right-hand side bar!) they have the Q&A session with L.E. Modesitt, Jr., wherein I asked Lee to talk about some of the things he thinks are often done wrong, when writers write about the military or do military stuff in their fiction. Lee had some very insightful commentary regarding discipline and insubordination. Go listen. If you’re writing military and need to get a veteran’s eye view on the subject, Lee is an excellent resource. I wish we’d had the entire episode — or more — to have Lee talk about it.

One thing Lee’s comments bring to mind, for me, is rank. Many, many people tend to get rank all mixed up. Not surprising, given how steeped in military folklore our Western fiction tradition has been for at least the last couple of hundred years. So I want to try and demystify the issue a bit, for those writers who don’t have any first-hand military experience. (FYI, for those who don’t know my own experience, I’m a Warrant Officer, United States Army Reserve.)

Don’t get Naval officer rank confused with the officer ranks employed by the Air Force or the Army or the Marines. Here are two web sites and do a very good job showing how the different rank systems compare, one for U.S. officers, and one for U.S. enlisted personnel, to include Non-Commissioned Officers. Notice that a Captain in the Army is not the same level as a Captain in the Navy. Nor is a Lieutenant in the Army equivalent to a Lieutenant in the Navy. Notice also that there is no such thing as a Commander in any other branch besides the Navy, and that a Commander is equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel in the other branches — while the Navy Captain is the equivalent of what the Army calls a ‘full bird’ Colonel.

Don’t get the ‘E’ confused with rank, either. In modern U.S. military lingo, we too often tend to use E-this and E-that to substitute for Private or Sergeant, but the ‘E’ merely stands for enlisted and it refers to a person’s pay grade. Thus a person’s rank could be Staff Sergeant in the Army or Marines, but their pay grade would be E-6 for either service. Notice again that the Staff Sergeant for Army and Marines is not the same pay grade as it is for Air Force, and an E-6 in the Navy is a Petty Officer First Class, while the E-7 pay grade — arguably one of the most respected and feared Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) positions across all branches — has a distinctly different rank titled for each of the four branches: Sergeant First Class for Army, Gunnery Sergeant for the Marines, Master Sergeant for the Air Force, and Chief Petty Officer for the Navy.

The word ‘Chief’ gets thrown around in all the branches, which itself can get confusing because a ‘Chief’ in the Navy is very different from a ‘Chief’ in the Army, and different again from a ‘Chief’ in the Air Force, etc. In the Army, a ‘Chief” is a Warrant Officer — me — and the actual word Chief is used as shorthand for Chief Warrant Officer. Army and Marines ‘Chiefs’ are actual commissioned officers at CW2 and higher, who have a commission from the President of the United States but are technical specialists in a given field. Such as electronics, computers, piloting, personnel strength management, etc. A ‘Chief’ in the Navy or Air Force is most often a senior Non-Commissioned Officer, or NCO, which may have the same general technical expertise and experience as other senior-level NCO ranks in other branches, but does not have an actual Presidential commission like the Army or Marine Warrant Officer.

Don’t confuse Warrant Officers with either NCOs or Lieutenants. Most Army, Marine, and Navy Warrant Officers were prior-service enlisted personnel — most often NCOs — who opted to attend one of several Warrant Officer accessions schools — sort of like going back to ‘boot camp’ all over again. The Warrant Officer must also pass through the bowels of a graduated series of technical schools, as (s)he progresses through his/her career, ensuring that the Warrant Officer is the subject matter technical expert in a given field of military-applicable technology. The Warrant Officer outranks all enlisted personnel, to include all NCOs but does not outrank even the Second Lieutenant or the Ensign. Still, in practical application, the Warrant Officer — especially CW3 and higher — is given remarkable deference by both NCOs and higher officers, due to the senior Warrant’s usually great experience with technology and systems in his/her given specialty.

Speaking of which, virtually all ranks — beyond the pay grade of E-4 — must go through a series of professional development courses in order to be promotable. Thus getting promoted is not simply about having the time in service or doing something heroic on the battlefield. Once you try to become an NCO, or a Warrant Officer, or an Officer, you have to go back to school in order to earn and keep rank. At each new level of rank, Sergeant to Staff Sergeant to Sergeant First Class — or Petty Officer 2nd Class through Chief Petty Officer and above — there is a school waiting for you. This means that in your fictional setting, even a character promoted on the battlefield, for heroism or other acts, cannot simply skip this step. In order to keep that new rank, he or she must go back and complete the requisite level of professional development coursework, or (s)he might lose the rank.

Nobody automatically jumps from being Enlisted to Officer unless they’ve got an education. Remember in the new Star Trek movie how they made Cadet Kirk into a Captain at the movie’s end? It was fun for the purposes of that movie, but the reality is that nobody makes a jump like that. Nobody. Not unless they already have a significant body of education under their belt. Which is why it was odd that McCoy had to go to Starfleet Academy at all. As a fully-licensed and schooled physician, McCoy should have processed through an officer accessions school — academies are college equivalent, and McCoy didn’t need college — thus entering Starfleet as a Lieutenant Commander. Anyway, too many people often write their Privates “earning” Lieutenant rank — or higher — without understanding that such jumps can only occur under very special circumstances, and only if the person making the jump has some kind of university education. Privates become Specialists or Corporals first, and might eventually become Warrant Officers or Officers — but not at the drop of a hat or due to a single act of heroism or bravery.

In additional to professional development schooling and time in service — TIS being the total length of a time a person has spent in the military — gaining rank is dependent on a point system. This system can be complex, depending on the needs of a given branch, suffice to say that when a troop wants to get promoted, he or she can’t even be on the list for promotion unless he or she has accrued the necessary points. For your fictional or future military, this can pose a number of interesting problems because your protagonist (or antagonist?) might find themselves ‘stuck’ at a certain rank or in a certain occupation, because the points system tends to favor or disfavor certain jobs over others. Your character(s) thus might have to re-classify — go back to school to learn a new job — to get additional rank. This happens a lot in the modern U.S. enlisted scene, and it’s not uncommon for many senior enlisted NCOs to have re-classed several times in their careers. Future militaries might be the same.

Ancient or archaic militaries weren’t necessarily as structured or regimented as the modern military. Officers especially were officers, not because of skill or schooling, but because they were rich or because they were born into a noble family. Even as recently as the U.S. Civil War, a rich man could “buy” a commission, thus posing leadership problems which are still with us today. Ergo, how can a young man with money or family connections, thrust into war, be expected to ‘lead’ a group of typically older, typically tougher and more experienced enlisted personnel? The stereotype of the green Lieutenant is not unearned. Thus the green Lieutenant can and should pose potential problems in any fictional military scenario.

Officers who attain a certain rank are unlikely to see direct combat or be permitted — in their daily duties — to participate in ‘line’ operations. Typically, the infantry Captain or Major is the lowest officer rank that is likely to hold a weapon and fire it at an enemy in ordinary ground operations, while Colonels and Generals are almost exclusively administrative and organizational people — they run the fight without actually participating in the fight.

The relationship between Officer and Enlisted is not always a harmonious one. In the modern U.S. military, the NCO — the Non-Commissioned Officer — operates with tremendous autonomy compared to the NCOs of many other world militaries. In fact, the U.S. NCO is often at or above — experientially, professionally, operationally — the officers of many smaller nations’ militaries. An Officer — especially a junior officer — who fails to properly respect the experience and ability of the NCO senior leadership — is liable to expend whatever leadership capital (s)he might have, thus becoming an Officer in ‘figurehead’ position only. Yes, the enlisted personnel still answer to that junior Officer, but if the senior NCO leadership has lost faith, that junior Officer will find him or herself hamstrung in all kinds of ways.

Fictional, archaic & futuristic militaries don’t necessarily have to look like modern or historical militaries, but if you’re going to intentionally deviate from modern or historical tradition, you owe it to your readers to do so with great care. This is especially true with rank. As noted at the beginning, don’t mix your Naval and non-Naval rank willy nilly. Have some coherent structure. You might not have rank titles as recognized today, but you will still need leadership and chain-of-command. How will people be promoted? What does it take? Who will answer to whom, and why? The fastest way to lose credibility with readers — especially military-experienced readers like me — will be to treat rank as a trifling detail in any fictional war or military scenario. Instead, do your research, apply some forethought, and use rank in ways that will enhance the travails and adventures of the characters you write. It’s okay to bend or even break a few rules — if you know what you’re doing — but if it becomes plain you don’t know what you’re doing, the readers’ suspension of disbelief is liable to pop like a bubble.


16 thoughts on “Writing SF&F military: rank and rank systems

  1. Good stuff, Brad. Something else I see some writers struggle with is the difference between rank and position. For instance, the captain of a ship not necessarily needing to have the rank of Captain. Two different things, and different depending on which military you’re talking about and which timeframe the story is set in.

  2. Absolutely, Jim! I think for many writers, at first glance, it all seems so simple. But before long — if they’re not paying attention — they can make any number of gross errors, and suddenly their story is all effed up because the rank structure is clearly a house of cards, assembled at random. This kind of drove me nuts about the old and new BSG series.

  3. Brad, your post could not have come at a better time – I’ve been commissioned to write a novella set in the U.S. that deals in part with the military, and I’m about to start wrangling with ranks etc. These links are already an awesome help!

    In the interest of getting things right, would I be able to run some stuff by you in a private email? It’s background detail for this work, but an important detail that I want to get right.

  4. Hi Brad. Nice little summary. Thanks for that. I think I was already pretty clued up on office ranks across the board but the NCO and Warrant/Petty Information was quite useful. Thanks.

  5. Definitely book-marking this post and those links just in case I get crazy and decide to write anything dealing with the modern military. Thanks, Brad, that was great help! 🙂

    (I’ve been researching how police departments are structured lately, and man I wish it were more linear than it is between states, and between countries. Grr. There is something to be said for writing either alt world/far future sci/fi or fantasy and just making this shit up 🙂 )

  6. Glad you can use the info. Rank seems so simple at first glance, but it’s way more complicated than even I expected it to be when I joined in 2003. And when you begin comparing rank across branches, between countries, across time periods.. Wow, it gets convoluted. History clashing with modernization clashing with practically clashing with tradition…

  7. The most consistent failing I’ve seen with the depiction of military rank in fiction is that the sometimes considerable gap between positional respect and earned respect is often missing. Either that or it’s most commonly presented in a grossly oversimplified manner. The amount of give-and-take negotiations between leaders and subordinates in a competent chain of command is also frequently absent. Good leadership seeks expert feedback from its subordinates, while motivated subordinates actively seek ways to carryout the leadership’s intent in a chaotic and often confusing world. Inherent in this environment a matrix of tensions and competing priorities perfect for use in good storytelling.

  8. Great observations, Alex! I agree with them absolutely. One thing about being a Warrant, I am seeing more of the “upper” side of that give-and-take than I ever saw when I was an NCO. Things are certainly more complicated. More nuance is required to navigate. Almost makes me wish I was a Sergeant again. Almost. (grin)

  9. A friendly argument persists twix myself & a fellow naval officer re the first rank of the so-called “Senior Officer”. I say O-5, full commander, silver oak leaf on collar. The “scrambled eggs” on his cap-bill designate him as a “Senior Officer”.

    My adversary, a mere Lt. insists that the “Senior Officer” designation occurs at my level that is, O-4, Lcdr., gold oak leaf on collar, and as for the eggs, they must be for something else.

    Please help me enlighten my friend and, if possible, cite the publication, & paragraph linking “Senior Officer” to the bill-cap oakleaves(scrambled eggs). Thanks much!

  10. Afraid I can’t help much with Naval rank, as I am Army Reserve. Off the cuff I’d agree with you, in that I myself think of “senior” being O-5 and above, or CW4 to CW5 for us Warrants. Of course, “senior” can be a relative term, as I have met some awfully young Majors in my time, and some awfully old Captains too. My instinct is to respect mustangs a bit more than people who came directly out of ROTC or the Academy, but that’s just my enlisted chauvanism shining through. In the end, an individual’s work ethic and ability to motivate people and make things happen is what I watch for most.

  11. Very interesting.

    I also found the history of ranks is interesting. There are many more today that the medieval world didn’t really have, partly as a result of being able to successfully manage a larger and larger modern force.

  12. Being a salty old sea dog, this is one of my biggest peeves. I was a Nuke Chief Petty Officer on subs, and seeing rank/rate getting butchered or someone getting promoted some ridiculous amount will have me ranting at the screen or page instantly. And the promoting of Kirk you mentioned? That spittle you saw on the screen was mine, from the vein-popping screaming I was engaged in!

  13. In writing military style rank in fiction is it appropriate to abbreviate them or would they be spelled out every time they are used? For Instance being a retired 25 year veteran of the Air Force I’ll use these ranks: MSgt would stand for Master Sergeant; 1st Lt would be for First Lieutenant etc. In my fiction I used the ranks once fully spelled out then abbreviated them multiple times everywhere else. Sometimes I would spell them out again if it was a long time since their use, but then abbreviate them again after that one instance.

    My editor insists I spell them out everywhere. Although I did not use the normal ranking system used by the military. My editor has no clue about the military. I also have the military structure with positions and ranks, fully labeled with appropriate abbreviations included as Appendix A..

    Although, I made up my own ranks, I think the same concepts would apply equally. Any thoughts or insights would be appreciated.

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