Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Army I Knew: easy to be soft

I'm jumping ahead of myself a bit here, but this occurred to me just recently due to the cartoons being in heavy rotation and I wanted to post it before I forgot.

So - I drew this little cartoon in early 1984. Before I go on, look it over and try and guess what the point of the goof is. Any ideas?So the insignia on the eagle's wing probably blows the gaff.

The caption is a bit of Eighties Army slang that may be almost forgotten, but it comes from the little spread-eagle at the center of the inverted-teardrop specialist rank insignia. Since a Specialist Fourth Class (a "Speck-Four" in the term of the time) had nothing but the green upside-down teardrop and the eagle, getting promoted to Specialist Fifth Class was "getting an umbrella for the bird".

I'm kind of fascinated by the utter disappearance of the concept of a "specialist" or "technician" from the U.S. Army. It's hard to remember now but the the idea of paying extra to soldiers who had some specialty skills came into the Army way back in the Nineteen Twenties, in other words, almost as soon as technological/industrial warfare was invented. The first "technicians" were all officially privates first class (so even at the start the Army decided that these gomers were NOT sergeant material, regardless of what sort of gee-whiz cool shit they knew how to do) with a technical endorsement. So a technician third class was a "first-third"; a private first class and a technician third.

By WW2 the entire institution of "technicians" was formalized in something like seven classes. The rank of E-5 buck sergeant had a shadow technician rank, Technician Fourth Class - note the insignia below. This guy had the same technician grade as the 1980's E-4 but wore a buck sergeant's stripes above his "T".But, again, he was NOT a "sergeant", although I suspect that in technical outfits like commo and medical units he might well have been referred to as "sarge."

It was in the Fifties that technicians became specialists and my old rank was invented, although at the time it was called a "Specialist Two". There's actually a decent Wiki entry discussing the whole business, if you're interested. There were a pantsload of these specialist grades during the Vietnam years. Pretty much anyone who wasn't a combat arms MOS got a soft-stripe rather than a hard. It really wasn't all that easy to be soft. But I liked the idea, and I'll bet there were others like me back in the day.

Mind you, by the time I got an umbrella for my bird the higher-grade specialists were getting rare. I had a SP-6 as an AIT instructor at Ft. Sam Houston in 1981 and there was a rumor that one of the other company's cadre was actually a SP-7, a beast as rare and wonderful as a unicorn. Not long after I got my umbrella even the E-6 LPN in the battalion aid station was a staff sergeant hard-stripe.

The thing was that what hadn't changed between the technicians of the Twenties and the me of the Eighties was the relationship between the noncommissioned officers and the specialists. An NCO - a "hard stripe" - was considered by the Army and, usually, the soldier him or herself as a leader of soldiers, by God. The specialist was just a nice guy that hung around and got paid like a noncom but didn't do any actual noncomming, a sort of overpromoted private.

And the thing is, I never really objected. It was worth the widely accepted notion that I was an overpaid waste of good oxygen to be able to respond to the First Sergeant when he burst into the dayroom on a Sunday afternoon looking "for a couple of hard-charging NCOs who don't owe me no money for a nice, simple, easy detail" by reminding him that I was NOT an NCO, let along "hard-charging", and was in point of fact a sort of gentleman of leisure, an idle upper-deck passenger on the luxury liner S.S.H.H.C. 1/325th Infantry. This never failed to irritate the piss out of him which had the pleasant side-effect of ticking me no end.

My lovely soft-stripe idyll lasted less than a year.

By 1985 the U.S. Army finished converting all the specialists into hard-stripe NCOs (the higher grades had been shifted over in the early Eighties) and I was informed that the Secretary of the Army would be pleased if I would but on some stripes and get on with earning my money and leading soldiers.And you can see by my expression in the picture above how gracefully I took the news and how delighted about the whole business I was.

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