I figure most people know what Sergeants and Captains and Lieutenants are and what they do, but not a lot of folks know about the relationships of the various ranks across the services or the purpose of obscure ranks like Warrant Officers. Also, we're going to look at some of the specific characters and how their ranks and positions would fit with the real-life modern military. Let me say up front that I know that GI Joe is a fictional team and it was created for kids in the form of Toys, Comics, and Cartoons. I don't want to pick apart how bad the creators got it wrong, rather I want to inform you about the ranks and positions and give you a better understand of how it might work in the ‘real world'.
Remember that back in the early 80s, there were only a dozen team members, so the rank structure sorta made sense (but not much.) As the team grew, and as the years went by, Hasbro and Marvel (and then DDP) started promoting some of the members and sorting out responsibilities better. Keep in mind that there's no way that "continuity" could exist the way the comics have portrayed the team – you don't stay in the same unit like that for 20 years or everyone in the team would be a Sergeant Major, CW5 or General Officer. There would have to be mandatory and voluntary retirements, to be sure. But of course, this is a fictional team and some belief must be suspended to make things work. Notice that the links to the Vietnam War that many Joes had have been all but erased. Keeping the Joes in sync with the "real world" would place the first members in their mid-late 50s, which obviously hasn't happened. So we're going to take a quick look at the US Armed Forces ranks in general and how they relate to the fictional Joe Team. I'll focus more on the "leadership" positions (Hawk, Flint, Duke, Joe Colton, etc.) but the main idea here is to inform about the ranks themselves and what they mean and how they fit into the real world. I'll obviously be dealing primarily with Army ranks, since that's my area of expertise (for the last 16 years anyway) and also the Army makes up the majority of the team. I'll touch on the other services where appropriate, since I've spent most of my career in Joint-level assignments; I've worked closely with all branches.
Here I'm speaking of grades E1-E4, Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) are addressed separately. According to the Joe's filecards, there are an awful lot of E4s (Corporals/Specialists, etc.) – and while this is the most common paygrade in the military, the odds of an E4 from any service making it to a super-secret, top-notch anti-terrorist team is pretty much zero. Nowadays, Army soldiers can make E5 within 2-3 years, with a few exceptions in over-strength MOSs. So would an elite team take someone with no experience? Not really. However, the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) have begun recruiting E4s into the SF program (previously, you had to be at least an E5.) Still, when schooling and training is complete, and before the soldier ends up on an SF team, he has usually already been promoted to SGT, so the fact still remains that junior enlisted are not readily visible on Special Ops teams.
We call them the "Backbone of the Army" and I know the Marine Corps thinks of NCOs in much the same way. The Navy and Air Force normally wait until an enlisted member is a Senior NCO (MSgt or CPO) before entrusting much of the responsibility that young Army and USMC Sergeants receive. I know this firsthand having been an Army SGT working for a Navy CPO and having many long arguments about my authority as an NCO at the time (the regulations backed me up, by the way.) Simply put, a unit can run just fine without officers – it cannot function without NCOs to take care of the day-to-day mission. The majority of the Joes would obviously be NCOs – the senior leaders like Stalker, Gung-Ho, Snake-Eyes, Beachhead, Shipwreck, Leatherneck, etc., would likely be Master Sergeants/SCPOs or higher – look at your basic SF team or Delta squad – there is usually an E8 or a senior E7 on the small 8-man teams. So the regular "operators" like Lowlight, Ripcord, Wetsuit, Recondo, Short-Fuse, etc would be Senior E5 to E6s.
Then there's Duke
I've worked hard to avoid turning this into a "why Duke sucks" fest, so we'll talk about his rank and position instead. Early on, the Joe team was small enough that a 1SG as the senior NCO made perfect sense. When the unit swelled to over 30-40 members, however, an E8 in that position became less and less realistic. A 1SG is a Company leadership position, meaning a unit of about 4 platoons up to about 150 or so troops. In a standard unit, that's fine, but in an elite Special-Ops unit, there will be more senior personnel due to the nature of being the "best of the best", so you'd have a whole gaggle of E8s and maybe a couple of E9s running around. So Duke would have to be promoted to Sergeant Major to fill the Senior Enlisted position. True, you can have a mess of E8s and have only one 1SG, but normally there is only one E8 in a Company and the others would work on the Battalion staff or at a higher echelon. But since the Joe team is lead by a senior officer, it's not a Company anyway; hence there is no place for a 1SG. So if Duke exists and he's a senior NCO, he would be a Sergeant Major or Command Sergeant Major.
On the subject of 1SGs and SGMs – the normal rule of thumb is: The Commanders lead in the field, 1SGs/SGMs lead in garrison. That means that senior NCOs that are part of the "Command Group" do a lot of advisory/administrative duties – they're not out leading a squad on a mission. The senior NCOs position is on the right hand of the CO. When the Commander is unable to lead, the next senior officer normally takes command, not the senior NCO. Now personally, I'd rather have a 1SG leading a Company than a 2LT, but that's not how things work. Also, you don't have enlisted personnel (like say, Duke) barking orders or "leading" Officers or Warrant Officers (like, oh, let's say Flint.) Many people talk about the difference in Rank vs Position, and in Joe-Lore, would argue that since Duke's second-in-command, he is over the rest of the team. Not true - because this would never happen. The only time you'd have an NCO or anyone junior in rank give orders to someone senior to them would be in a training environment like Airborne or Ranger School (run by NCOs who have to train green LTs) or in the rare case where the officer is a someone like a Chaplain, Attorney, or Doctor -- without any command experience/training. Any other time, regardless of whether it makes sense or not, the rank structure is pretty solid. The Navy has different rules aboard ship – where a "line officer" Ensign could conceivably command over an Intel Lt Cdr, but those cases are extremely rare (how many times are all the line officers sidelined so that only an O1 remains?)
Ah yes, the Frat-Boys ;-). Officers are the senior members of the military. They set policy, command troops, and represent the President when issuing orders. Officers serve in command and staff positions throughout their career and although they may stay in one general area (Hawk was supposed to be an Air Defense guy), they aren't exactly specialists in any one field (that's what Warrant Officers are for.) So an officer is basically a "Jack of all trades, a Master of none." Good officers rely on their resident experts to advise them on command decisions: their senior NCOs and Warrant Officers. Occasionally you get an officer who's seen too many movies or PowerPoint briefings and thinks he/she knows it all and makes uniformed decisions that lead to disastrous results (we normally call these guys Junior Officers). There are three ways to become an officer in the Army: Be a West Point Grad, an ROTC grad, or attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). The OCS grads are usually (but not always) prior-enlisted soldiers with some college and a few years of experience. If they meet the requirements and are selected, they go to a 13-week crash course in humiliation to become a shiny new 2LT (but they're known as "Mustangs". The Navy allows for Limited Duty Officers (LDOs) where enlisted sailors can apply for a direct appointment in their chosen career path - for example, an Intel Sailor can become an Intel Ensign. LDOs are generally not allowed to command and are managed differently until they reach the rank of Commander. Good officers come from all walks of life, no matter what their commissioning source. Stereotypes hold that ROTC grads are "Frat Boys", Academy grads are "Ring-Knockers" and Mustangs are often held in higher regard by the troops. The truth is that you get good and bad (and great) officers from each.
At all levels of command, an Army officer is normally paired with a Senior NCO to advise the CO and provide their years of experience. In the Army, a young LT is placed in charge of a Platoon and has a Platoon SGT (senior E6/E7) there to "assist". Platoon leader is a position that is more for the development of the young officer than for the betterment of the platoon. A PLT can get by just fine on the leadership of a strong NCO, but the officers have to learn somewhere. If the LT is open-minded and acknowledges his inexperience, a good PLT SGT can help mold the LT into a strong leader. If the PLT SGT is a dirtbag or the LT is a power-tripper, then he/she's pretty much a lost cause. The next level of command comes 5-7 years later as a Company Commander (usually a Captain), this time paired up with a 1SG. Same rules apply – the officer needs to be able to accept mentorship from the senior NCO and the NCO needs to be of strong character. Then 5-10 years later comes Battalion Command (Lt Col position), and then 5-7 years later comes Brigade Command (Colonel), both with Command Sergeant Majors as their advisors. In between command positions, the officer serves in staff positions like Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant (the Colonel's whipping boy, basically), Operations Officer, and so forth.
On the Joe team, the majority of officers are in support positions: Doc is a Doctor, Ace and Slipstream are Pilots, Cutter drives a rubber boat, etc. – they likely wouldn't serve in command positions. Hawk, Steeler, and Falcon are the only real prominent "regular" officers on the team (I don't count COL Courage because he was lame…)
The commander of the team, naturally. He started out as a COL, which is actually quite a stretch considering he only had 12 soldiers under him at first. Using the original 13 as a model, Hawk would have been better suited to be a Major or junior Lt Col at the time. His rise to Brigadier General would have been more fitting had he not remained a front-line leader. Generals command thousands of troops, not hundreds. Though BG would have been a stretch, it could have worked given the nature of the team. The 2 and 3-star promotions, however, were just silly, and showed the lack of a decent military advisor at Hasbro/DDP, etc. Hawk, with the current size of the team, should be a COL/O6 and leave it at that. COLs command Brigades consisting of several hundred to a few thousand troops. Major Generals are Division Commanders who lead approx 15,000 troops. Lt Generals (3-stars) command Corps-level units – consisting of 3-4 Divisions each. The commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, etc.) is "only" a 3-star, so there's no way Hawk as a 3-star will lead a Joe team of a few hundred.
Joe's always been a bit of a problem. As portrayed in the comics and even on his file card, he's now a General (4-star or otherwise.) Which is cool – he's definitely been around long enough. But I would see him as either the head of JSOC or as a retired senior advisor to the Joe team. A lot of retired Generals become "Senior Mentors" who come around to the newbie-Generals to give advice, share experiences, etc. We had a handful of them down at Bragg and they'd show up during our Warfighter Exercises to help guide the new Division Commanders. This is how I see Joe Colton – he's not active duty anymore, but he helps Hawk out when Hawk needs advice. Also, since retired officers still retain the rights and privileges of their ranks, he still commands the respect due his rank.
While the comics and cartoon usually put Duke in this position, in real-life Hawk's second would be an officer. If Hawks an O6, then his XO would be an O4/O5 if he had one (which I don't think he did.) This goes back to the "regular" officer discussion: who would be the team XO? Steeler or Falcon would work, but they're usually out doing the work in the field: Steeler in his tank and Falcon leading an "A" Team. XOs aren't always the second-senior in rank, but they usually are. Sometimes a Battalion might have a couple of O5s other than the Commander serving as section chiefs and whatnot, but the CO will have a Major as his XO. Sometimes (speaking from first-hand experience), Warrant Officers will serve as XOs, though generally not about the Company level. But in a unit like the Joe team, it would be legal and almost make sense for Flint to be the "second-in-command" by virtue of his position, Operations Officer. Still, better to keep the rank structure in place so as not to confuse too many folks. I could see a CPT Falcon or MAJ Steeler as Hawk's number 2.
Tim Elf mentioned that early in the comic, on the letters page, Larry Hama explained that the XO position rotated between Wild Bill, Ace, and Cutter. Likely because they were the only officers besides Hawk (what about Steeler?) early in the comic. Still, it would have been a stretch for any of those officers to serve in the position given their specialties.
My personal favorite (if you haven't guessed) and a subject I'm pretty familiar with. Most folks don't really know what Warrant Officers are or what they do. In most countries, Warrant Officers are actually Senior Enlisted soldiers, either just above or in place of a Sergeant Major. In the U.S., Warrant Officers are commissioned officers that follow a single-track career progression, i.e., "Master of one trade, Jack of some…" In the Army, with the largest WO population, about half are aviators. On the Joe team, it seems that every Army WO is a pilot – Wild Bill, Lift-Ticket, Flint (yes, despite how he was portrayed in the comics and cartoons, his file card has him attending Flight Warrant Officers School – we'll talk abou Flint at length later.) The other half of Army Warrants are technical WOs, much like the Navy and Marine WOs. A Tech Warrant is a former NCO who is a technical expert in their MOS. As a Warrant Officer, they have the same authority as "regular" officers, but they specialize in one field and almost never serve in a command position (notice I said "almost never"), hence, the lower pay grades. In the Army, a mid-grade NCO (E5-E6) that meets the qualifications and receives recommendations from their chain of command and a senior WO can apply for Warrant Officer Candidate School – a 6-week "treat ‘em like dirt" course in which a group of Warrant Officers (many of which are Aviators and were never NCOs) try to play Drill Sergeant and march you around in the attempt to "make you an officer." The course is designed for the Aviators who can walk in off the street right out of highschool – yes, there are 19-yr old WO1 Apache pilots out there (scary). For those of us who spent 10 years in the NCO corps, WOCS is an exercise in time-management and patience with idiots. The Navy and Marines do it differently. Their WOs are technical WOs only, and therefore come from the senior enlisted ranks (Navy personnel have to be CPOs first) – Navy and USMC WOs are direct-appointment officers, much like how the Army used to manage WOs before making so many into aviators. The Air Force got rid of their WOs 20+ years ago, likely because they didn't want WOs to fly planes. Another note regarding Joe Lore – Enlisted personnel DO NOT fly aircraft – that's what Officers and Warrant Officers are for. So for Barrel Roll's file card, replace E4 with O2 and it will work - otherwise, it's not going to happen.
Technical Warrants are considered the experts in their fields. They have the years of experience and the additional expertise that most senior NCOs lack. –NCOs generally lose much of their technical expertise around E7-E8 because their focus shifts to leadership positions (Plt SGT, 1SG) rather than technical positions. Normally, you can look in a Motor Pool, or a Personnel/Finance section and see a senior Warrant Officer running the shop. In the Special Forces, there is usually a WO on every A-Team to serve as senior advisor and general "crusty old fart". The senior NCO on the team mentors the junior NCOs and the WO smacks the CPTs and LTs upside the head as needed. In the Army, the heaviest concentration of non-aviation Warrants is in the Intelligence Field, although nearly every branch except the Infantry/Artillery have WOs. Nearly all Intel units have a decent population of WOs who run the various sections, advise the commander, and provide the no-BS bottom line about operations in general. WOs are normally not concerned with promotions or political maneuvering like "regular" officers, so they are widely known for their candor and, uh, crustiness.
The Warrant ranks are broken down into Warrant Officers (WO1) and Chief Warrant Officers (CW2-CW5). WO1s are appointed, not commissioned and are viewed by many as junior officers like LTs, even though they carry a great deal of experience. WO1 is a conditional rank, which allows the young WO to make a few mistakes and take some time transitioning into the officer world. Chief Warrant Officers are a different story – you're expected to know everything and not screw up. CWOs are commissioned officers and can do everything "regular" officers can do – administer UCMJ punishment, administer oaths (re-enlistment, etc.) and command units. A good commander knows to keep their CWOs close and relies on their longevity and continuity to keep things running smoothly. While CPTs and MAJs might serve in a position for a year or less and then move on, CWOs are usually in the same job for several years at a time. Warrant Officers in the Army are promoted every 5-6 years, except for WO1-CW2 which is virtually automatic after 2 years. The Navy and Marines may do it similarly, I'm not 100% sure.
Warrant Officers are below Commissioned Officers on the order of rank, and although a CW5 still has to salute a 2LT, there is an "equivalency" between the Warrant and Commissioned ranks when it comes to entitlements and benefits. This also extends to the positioning of Warrants in various units. You rarely have a CW3 working for a Captain, for instance, because of the relative "junior" rank of the CPT: W1-W2 = Company Grade Officer – on par with CPTs W3 = Field Grade Officer – on par with MAJs W4 = Field Grade Officer – on par with senior LTCs and jr COLs W5 = Might as well be a general – usually works for generals or very senior COLs.
Take me for example – as a CW2 I worked at a Company and my boss was the Company CO (a CPT), now I'm a CW3 and I report directly to the Battalion CO (LTC). Sure a CPT or MAJ could give me an order, but they'd piss off the boss if they did it without clearing it with her first.
So while Wild Bill is pretty easy to discuss – he's a pilot and a CW4 and is older than dirt – pretty much standard in the Army. Flint's file card shows him as an E6 with a PMOS of Infantry and a SMOS of pilot. WRONG – there are no Infantry Warrants (sorry Larry Hama.) And also, there are no E6 WOs (probably an honest mistake, as he gets CW3 and CW2 ranks later). So that would mean Flint's just a pilot, but he seems to do everything BUT fly choppers. He's also an SF school graduate, so it's more likely that he's an SF Warrant, which was mentioned earlier. This would fall in line with everything he's done in the cartoons and comics and actually match up his file card bio perfectly. That's not saying he couldn't have gone to flight school too, but when you are a pilot, that's what you do – you don't go off doing ground-level snake-eater stuff. So it's safe to say that Flint should be an SF Warrant, likely either a CW3 or CW4 based on his time in, and that he would be ideal to run the Operations section of the unit, since he's a Plans and Strategy kind of guy.
My other favorite CWO. As I mentioned, the Navy has much fewer WOs than the Army, and the requirements are different – you have to be a CPO first, etc. For Torps to be a CWO4 (like his filecard says) and to have been a SEAL the whole time, he would be older than dirt's Grampa. You gotta figure that he had 10-12 years in before becoming a WO, then it's another 10 years to CW4, so before he even joined the team he would have been a 20-yr veteran. So if Torps is a CWO, then he's likely a CWO2 or CWO3. Also, the biggest affront to the Navy CWOs by Hasbro was done when they named him "Chief Torpedo". You don't EVER call a Navy CWO "Chief" – Chiefs are Chief Petty Officers in the Navy, not CWOs. Army Warrants are usually called "Chief" and USMC Warrants are normally called "Gunner". The proper address for an Army WO is "Mister" or "Ms", while the Navy calls their Warrants "Warrant". DDP kept calling Flint "Officer Faireborn" in the recent comics and that just riled me. It would be "Mister Faireborn" or "Chief Faireborn."
Chain of Command
I was going to attempt to sketch out how the chain would flow on the Joe team, but because of its diverse make up, assigning a command structure would be conjecture on my part. In a Battalion-sized element (about the size of the Joe team), it would look like this:
You see many of the key positions are staff positions outside of the chain.
So in conclusion (are we at 7 pages already?), GI Joe is a Toy Line and a Comic Book (and a Cartoon, I guess….) so realism isn't always the order of the day. The creators have to do what they need to in order to sell product. But for those of you who want a dose of realism in your toys, hopefully this has helped somewhat.