Commissioned vs Non-commissioned Officers

Before I call it quits on this weekend’s investigation into words I’ve never properly understood, it is with shame that I mention that whenever I come across a reference to a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer, I think to myself that I must look up the difference. But I haven’t ’till now.

The shame …
Having spent most of my history degree studying wars, you’d think I’d have NCOs and COs clear in my head, but I don’t. I had forgotten. It reminds me of when I was a kid and about 90 minutes into The Eagle has Landed I’d double check with my dad to make sure I knew which ones were the Germans.

Strange coincidence …
In the past couple of weeks I’ve bumped into COs and NCOs on 3 different occasions of fiction which is weird because I don’t read a lot of fiction. It’s also weird in an on-time way because it was Remembrance Day this week … even if the anniversary of the end of  the First World War had zero to do with my recent choice in fiction.

3 different fictions …
I bumped into NCOs and COs in Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and O’Brien’s The Things they Carry.  

I cannot recommend O’Brien’s story enough. It’s short and it’s stunning. The back-drop is Vietnam, but the experience is Any War. If you haven’t done anything else to remember the military this week, please read this. You can download it here.

I also loved Cutting for Stone. Based mostly in Ethiopia in the second part of 21st century, we get to see some military action though the main focus of this addictive saga is the world of medicine and the fate of twin brothers born to an English surgeon and an Indian nun. Coincidentally, fellow blogger Aliceson posted a review of the book a few days ago.

As for Murakami’s Wind-up Bird, not so much my cup of tea. I loved his memoir on running, but this fiction left me cold. With one big fact exception. At a book club this past week we discussed this story and where we could all agree is that the best part of this 600 page book came about 100 pages in with Lieutenant Mamiya’s Long Story Part I and II, an account from the Japanese-Soviet  border fighting in Mongolia during World War II. The extract of this tale (complete in and of itself without needing to read the rest of Wind-Up) is also available online, here.

But back to the question … what’s the difference between a commissioned and a non-commisioned officer?

While it varies from country to country and across different parts of the armed forces, the former went to officer training school whereas the latter worked their way up through the ranks. Beyond that, it’s better explained by NCOs and COs themselves …. here are some of the best explanations I found online:

this is a difficult one to grasp and it varies by branch, ill try explaining it as a Marine. Commissioned Officers are managers. They all have formal schooling prior to joining. Their job is to oversee an office of Marines (who have been trained at specific tasks: motor repair, fuel, photography, computer networks.)

Non-commissioned (NCO’s) are enlisted Marines who have risen through the ranks. They are tasked with taking the officers plan and helping figure out how best to use the Marines to get it done. The NCO is responsible for training new Marines and
keeping them on task to complete the officer’s mission.

An officer will make general plans without specific knowledge of what the capabilities or restrictions of their Marines are. The NCO and Staff NCO (gunnery sergeant or staff sergeant) take those broad ideas and turn them into achievable goals for their junior Marines and then keep driving those Marines to get the job done.

Hope this helps, msg me if you still have a question.

Active duty Marine — NCO

* * *

I have been both an officer and an NCO. I was nine years enlisted before going to Officer Candidate School (OCS). It is not so much “which is better”… both are extremely important to the military… both jobs take skill and intelligence.An officer who has enlisted experience ( a “Mustang”) makes a better troop leader … but his chances of succeeding in the higher ranks is limited for several reasons (“ring knocker” clicks; right type of education, etc). As for the “@ss kissing” that goes on at all levels not just the officer ranks … the politics of personality is pervasive. You get paid more as an officer because you have more responsibility…your career can be destroyed in the slash of a pen. As an enlisted man I had nine article 15’s and a court martial…and still made E-8. As an officer I told my rating officer he was a “f_cking liar” in front of his boss and lost my career….. (never said I was smart.)

Airborne Ranger Green Beret, Cpt (retired)


I enlisted with plans of going to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. Got deployed to Iraq the first time and decided I would rather be an NCO. Now I am kind of regretting it somewhat – seeing guys with less experience, same education, having a great impact. Now on my 2nd deployment I wish I had of went to OCS.



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Filed under Books etc., Identity, Words, Work

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