An Overdue Critique of the American Military Caste System

Note: I served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000-2007. My AFSC was 3C0X1 (Communications computer systems operator). My highest rank was E-5 (Staff Sergeant), and I received an honorable discharge.

The American military caste system, particularly its officer corps is an obsolete institution that is incompatible with modern, enlightened values. In order to understand why this is you have to look at where it came from. In the past the upper class was extremely well educated, and the poor were mostly illiterate. The job of designing and implementing military strategy naturally fell to the educated upper class, and the job of dying in the mud naturally fell to the illiterate lower class. This division of labor also served as a way to further institutionalize the caste system that separated the upper class from the lower class. By putting a pin on one human being’s shoulder and a stripe on another human being’s shoulder it gave one human being a visible “right” to order the other like a dog, beat them like a dog and kill them like a dog if they disobeyed their master’s orders. As long as these symbols existed everyone understood their place in the social hierarchy and accepted it as natural and just.

The industrial revolution and the information age eventually created a middle class to bridge the income gap between the rich and the poor. The higher education system still keeps a glass ceiling over the heads of the poorest of the poor who can’t afford a college degree to open the door to professional work. However, free K-12 public schools, equal access to libraries and all the information on the internet has almost completely bridged the intellectual gap between the rich and the poor.

The constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (to name just a few relevant legal documents) have whittled the institutionalized caste system down to a thread. These new social contracts have even affected the United States military. Senior ranking soldiers can no longer legally beat lower ranking soldiers. All soldiers are guaranteed protection from discrimination based on race, sex or religion under equal opportunity laws. Technically, a soldier can still be executed for disobeying a direct order, but that involves a lengthy legal process, and in order to avoid the bad press, disobedient soldiers are almost guaranteed to just do some jail time followed by a dishonorable discharge.

But the military has side-stepped social progress by inventing the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This document exists to provide the military with a legal loop hole around the basic human rights guaranteed to all of humanity. One of the greatest insults to humanity perpetrated by the UCMJ is the existence of the officer corps.

The injustice of the officer corps is most clearly exemplified in the act of saluting. When an enlisted troop sees an officer (or a general’s staff car) they must put their hand on their head until the officer returns the salute, which gives the enlisted troop permission to take their hand down. On the surface this is innocuous. Officers will even tell you that the reason enlisted troops salute them is out of respect. However, the true purpose of saluting is betrayed by what will happen if an enlisted troop refuses to salute an officer.

If an enlisted troop refuses to salute an officer they’ll get a letter of counseling. If they still refuse to salute an officer they’ll get a letter of reprimand. Then an Article 15. Then a court martial. Then they’ll lose rank, pay, privilege and ultimately their freedom when they’re sent to jail. When they’re released from military prison they’ll be given a dishonorable discharge that will prevent them from getting a good job for the rest of their life.

Enlisted troops are taught to salute officers out of respect, but failing that, they’re forced to salute officers out of fear. While the rest of the population is guaranteed that their punishment must fit their crime, enlisted troops and lower ranking officers are denied this right and are forced to symbolically subjugate themselves to any stranger wearing a pin on their shoulder. So make no mistake, the salute isn’t designed to exchange gestures of respect. It’s designed to systematically indoctrinate lower ranking troops to accept their place in the lower social caste that robs them of the dignity supposedly guaranteed to all men.

And the issue goes deeper than dignity. An officer can order enlisted troops to do anything within the limits of the Geneva Convention, and if the enlisted troop refuses they’ll go to jail. For example, if the higher caste orders the lower caste to do jumping jacks and the lower cast refuses they’ll go to jail. On the surface this might seem innocuous again, but look at what’s really going on here. What do you call someone who has to do whatever another person says upon fear of jail time and destitution? That’s a slave, and even if you think “slave” is too strong a word to describe someone with no freedom, it’s still close enough to the truth to be immoral and unenlightened.

If you’re going to justify the manipulation, exploitation, degradation and subjugation of another human being, much less an entire group of human beings, you have the responsibility to provide extensive, articulate, air-tight justifications. You can’t wipe away thousands of years of social evolution and human rights with a vague sentence or two such as, “Well, they took an oath.” “They volunteered.”  “Good soldiers follow orders.” “You’re an idiot.” or “You have to follow orders to accomplish the mission.”

This is especially true when we’re talking about soldiers who will be ordered to kill other human beings and be killed themselves in the process. This isn’t a game. This isn’t a joke. This is a human’s life we’re putting on trial, and in the case of a military with nuclear weapons, this is the fate of the entire human race we’re talking about. When we’re talking about tangible, perishable human lives, we can’t afford to be lackadaisical in our arguments. If you truly believe that the lower military castes are selflessly sacrificing their lives for the greater good then they, of all people, deserve serious consideration and not just flippant, condescending, reactionary excuses and arguments about semantics.

Honestly ask yourself if the officer corps and the human rights abuses that come along with it are truly necessary. In the past the officer corps’ power and their pay was justified by the degree to which their education level and thus their contribution to the mission exceeded that of the enlisted troop. This arrangement held some merit when the average officer held the equivalent of a doctorate degree and the average enlisted troop held the equivalent of a 3rd grade education, but that justification is obsolete.

Many enlisted troops have a higher level of education than many officers even if they don’t have the certified credentials to prove it, though some do. Even in the cases where officers do have a higher level of education, that fact doesn’t supersede the fact that all humans were created equal. An officer may have gone to 1-4 more years of school and a few months of officer training school, but to presume that that gives one human being the inherent right to treat another human being as anything remotely resembling a slave and force them to degrade themselves is absurd.

Civilian doctors can’t treat uneducated patients like that. Public school teachers can’t treat students like that. Politicians can’t treat voters like that. Prison guards can’t even treat rapists like that. Nobody in the world is allowed to treat anyone else with the level of disrespect that officers are allowed and expected to treat enlisted troops with.

After all, why should they be able to? Does a few years of partying in college really fundamentally change the worth of a human being? If so, shouldn’t all of society adopt this practice? If this system is indeed justifiable then shouldn’t we force it on the rest of society? No! It would be inconceivable to force 100% of society to live under an institutionalized caste system that degrades the lower class. It would inconceivable to force even 50% or 30% of the population to live that way. So why is it okay for 1% of the population to live under a dystopian social contract?

What would happen if troops were as free as civilians? What if they could give a two week notice and quit their job legally? What if they could challenge and disobey their “superiors?” The existing power structure would have you believe the entire military would dissolve into anarchy. Is that really logical though? The United States has an all-volunteer military. Why would people who willingly volunteered to join the military and support its mission turn around at their first base and abandon their jobs? If you think they would then you’re saying all the troops are cowards. Even civilians who work for the military don’t turn tail and run at the first sign of danger.

The only other exception is if the mission were unjust. If there were a valid reason to conscientiously object to the mission then any troop with foresight and a sense of justice would leave their military service. This raises the question, what are the chances the government would ever engage in an unjust war or send its troops on unjust missions? If you’re 100% positive the government would never, ever do that, then why lock the troops into anything remotely resembling slavery? If you believe the government has ever engaged in unjust wars, ordered its troops to do unjust things or will ever do so then you would want the troops to have the freedom to think and act on their own conscience. Preventing them from doing so by brainwashing them and holding a gun to their heads would only guarantee corrupt and/or misguided politicians the ability to call on the world’s most lethal fighting force to serve their corrupted purposes. When you justify the enslavement of the military, you need to understand lucidly that you’re giving a monkey a gun on blind faith.

And understand the irony of saying, “Yes, we must brainwash troops, lock them into a caste system and take away their freedom.” What you’re saying is that we absolutely must mislead, mentally and physically enslave and degrade our fellow human beings into submission…for the sake of protecting our fellow human beings from slavery, abuse and exploitation. The United States Military failed its mission of protecting people’s freedoms the moment it threw out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights out the window in favor of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Honestly, what are we doing here? What kind of a world are we creating where we’ve justified an oppressive caste system at the tax payers’ expense to act as unquestioning mercenaries for the rich and powerful? How can we honestly say to ourselves that we “support the troops” when we’ve allowed our brothers and sisters to be swindled out of their basic human rights?

Are we even worth defending when we would so proudly throw our fellow man under the bus like that? What kind of a world are we creating? You can see for your own eyes what kind of a world we’re creating. Go to any American military base in the world and tour the officer’s barracks and clubs. Then tour the enlisted barracks and clubs. You should be horrified by the Soviet-era disparity between the quality of life between the two castes. The officers gorge themselves on luxury in gold-encrusted rooms (paid for by impoverished tax payers) while the enlisted people shiver in condemned buildings. You will see a world that has existed right under your nose for your entire life that makes “1984” look like a children’s story.

Don’t accept the American military’s actions on blind faith alone. If the military’s actions have truly been just then go to the all the countries America has exported war to this century. Talk to the people and look at the physical results of the war. Oh, you’ll find people who celebrate the American military, but for every one of those you find you’ll find 1000 corpses, 1000 broken families, 1000 babies with birth defects from discarded military ordinance, 1000 destroyed buildings, 10 sweat shops where American goods are produced and more often than not, a few active American military bases.

Suppose everything I’ve said here is wrong. Suppose the military caste system is excusable despite its indignity. We (or at least the taxpayers who maintain it) still need to question its efficiency. We’ve already asked ourselves if we should have absolute faith in the politicians who wield unquestionable control over the military and acknowledged the inherent danger in that. Now consider this. Think of all the civilians you know with a bachelor’s degree. What if they had absolute, unquestionable authority over the subordinates in their cubicles. How responsibly would they wield their power to silence all opposition to their will by saying, “Shut up and color or I’ll send you to jail.”? Would totalitarian authority improve innovation and efficiency in public or private organizations? Is there any precedent whatsoever to suggest that totalitarian authority has a tendency to inculcate close-minded thinking, abuse of power and impunity from accountability? Yes. Civilian progress would grind to a halt if they adopted the same caste system the United States military uses. The military is made up of human beings, just like the civilian sector, and the caste system has had predictably detrimental effects in the military. The military sets the standard for fraud, waste and abuse because it’s run by the officer corps, which is fraud, waste and abuse incarnate.

There’s one final cost to the officer corps itself that we have to acknowledge and accept if we’re to continue to condone its existence much less its celebrity status. Look at the psychological damage it does to officers when they’re allowed to exercise totalitarian authority over other human beings they call their subordinates. Consider the psychological impact it has on a human being when they’re treated like a god day in and day out for years. This lifestyle will take its toll. The constant reinforcement will indoctrinate the officer himself to truly believe there is something superior about his person, and when this belief is indoctrinated deeply enough he’ll eventually reach a point where this illusion becomes permanent reality in their own mind. Then they’ll go through the rest of their life wearing rose-colored glasses. They’ll live in an inescapable false reality in which they play a divine figure walking amongst unclean, incomplete sub-humans, and while this will be enjoyable to the officer, it’s simply not true. That’s literally insanity. The officer corps is institutionalized insanity. I don’t say that to shame officers, I say that to shame the tax payers who fund the indoctrination of officers and strip them of their sanity.

However you felt about this blog, you’ll probably feel the same way about these:


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