When a Captain Isn't a Captain: Military Ranks for Writers

I recently read a novel by one of my favorite authors. It was a great, exciting read, but it was also filled with numerous errors about military ranks. For instance, one main character was the commanding officer of an American submarine. The author referred to him correctly as "captain." Unfortunately, he also repeatedly described the character's rank insignia as "double bars." Two silver bars are the correct insignia for some captains, but not all. You see, there are times in the military when a captain is not a captain but is still a captain.

Clear as mud? No? Well, military ranks never are. And that's why many authors who have never served in the military get confused and make mistakes in their writing.

Military rank refers to service members' pay grade. All pay grades are numbered E-1 through E-9 for enlisted members, W-1 to W-5 for warrant officers, and O-1 to O-9 for commissioned officers. That's pretty simple. The problem, however, lies in the fact the different branches have different names for their pay grades.

Take the example of "captain." In the Navy, a captain is an O-6, ranking just below a rear admiral. But in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, an O-6 is called a colonel, which is just below a brigadier general. Both a Navy captain and a colonel wear silver eagles to denote their rank, not double bars.

The Army, Marines, and Air Force have captains, too, but they are only O-3s, way below a Navy captain. An O-3 in the Navy is called a lieutenant (technically, a lieutenant senior grade). Army, Marine, and Air Force captains, as well as Navy lieutenants, wear two silver bars that denote their rank.

Okay, it gets even more confusing now. A Navy officer who commands vessel is also called the ship's "captain," regardless of his rank. In the book I mentioned earlier, the commanding officer of the submarine was correctly referred to as "the captain," but he was not necessarily a captain by rank. Subs are usually commanded by commanders (O-5). Commanders wear a silver oak leaf insignia, not double bars or silver eagles.

The Army also has commanders, but they don't necessarily wear silver oak leafs. In the Army a "commander" commands a unit, and can be virtually any commissioned rank depending on the size of the unit. See, it's sort of like being a captain in the Navy when you're not really a captain, except in the Army you're a commander but not a real commander.

Got it?

Alrighty. Now lets talk about chiefs.

In the Army a “chief” is a warrant officer. A warrant officer is sort of like a commissioned officer, but smarter. The Navy has warrant officers, too, but they're called Mister or Miss. (Don't get me started on what you call a married female warrant officer.) Enlisted personnel have to salute warrant officers just like they do commissioned officers. The Navy also has chiefs, but they're enlisted personnel (E-7 to E-9); no one salutes them but you don't back talk to them either.

The Air Force also has personnel called chiefs. Like the Navy, they're enlisted personnel. But unlike Navy chiefs who are chiefs, Air Force chiefs are actually sergeants. Chief master sergeants. They wear a lot of stripes on their sleeves —a lot of stripes. The Army and Marine Corps have master sergeants, but not chief master sergeants. Oh, dearie, no. The Army and Marine Corps instead have sergeant majors. They also have commissioned officers called majors. One might think a sergeant major would outrank a simple major — and there are sergeant majors who believe they do — but they really don't.

All branches of the military have enlisted personnel who are called "officer" but aren't warrant officers or commissioned officers. The Army, Marines, and Air Force have non-commissioned officers, also known as NCOs or noncoms. Now remember, a warrant officer is not technically a commissioned officer either; he's an officer by warrant. But that doesn't mean a warrant officer is a non-commissioned officer. No, no, that's only reserved for enlisted personnel.

The Navy has non-commissioned officers, too, but they're called petty officers. That does not mean they are smaller than NCOs. You can refer to a petty officer as "Petty Officer So-and-so," but you cannot address a corporal or sergeant as "NCO So-and-so." Not allowed!

So you see, military ranks aren't so difficult to understand after all. Right?

Yeah, right.