Saturday, September 28, 2019

Weird Military Ranks

While reading this week, I ran across a strange foreign military rank, one that I had never heard of before.  The British Army has a pioneer sergeant, a peculiar rank that has existed for almost four centuries.

British infantry companies have a single pioneer sergeant, traditionally the biggest soldier in the company.  Besides his size, the sergeant is easy to recognize because even on parade, he wears a large leather apron, carries a double-bladed ax, and is the only man in the unit to sport a full beard.  (As I wrote that, I began to wonder how long it will be before we read of the first female pioneer sergeant in the British Army and I wondered if she will have to wear a fake beard.)

Traditionally, the pioneer sergeant’s job was to be the lead soldier in the field, helping to clear the trail.  He also served as the unit’s blacksmith, where the beard was necessary to protect his face from the sparks given off by the forge.  His weirdest duty was to cut the legs off dead horses—every Army horse has a serial number branded onto the hoof, and by presenting the severed leg, a soldier could prove he hadn’t sold his mount.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about other weird ranks. 

Medieval armies had a lot of strange and obscure ranks.  In the English army, a vintener was a leader of 19 archers, a centenar led 100 archers, and a millenar led a thousand archers.  A gros valet, despite the name, was a servant valued enough to be given armor.  Most of the common military ranks used today—sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, and colonel—all have their roots in French medieval military ranks.  Lieutenant, for example, meant “place holder”, the man who stood next to and assisted his lord (usually a captain).

If you have ever wondered why a major outranks a lieutenant, while a lieutenant general outranks a major general, the confusion dates back to the time of armored knights.  Originally, the latter was a sergeant major general, but over time, the word sergeant was dropped from the name.  While the rank is not used in the U.S. Army, many armies around the world still use the rank of captain general, a rank just above lieutenant general.

China has had military ranks longer than anyone, so it is not surprising that the Chinese have had their share of obscure ranks.  A partial list includes such gems as General of Tiger's Might (虎威將軍), General Who Rocks Bandits (盪寇將軍), General Who Pacifies the Di (平狄將軍), General Who Defeats Barbarians (破虜將軍), General Who Sweeps Across the Wilderness (橫野將軍), General Who Inspires Martial Might (奮武將軍), General Who Attacks Barbarians (討虜將軍), General Who Attacks the South (征南將軍), General Who Pacifies the West (安西將軍), General Who Builds Loyalty (建忠將軍), General Who Establishes Might (建威將軍), General Who Maintains Distant Lands in Peace (鎮遠將軍), and General Who Inspires Martial Might (振武將軍).  This kind of sounds like the list of actors in a bad Kungfu movie—Peasant 1, Peasant 2, Unknown Peasant with a Spear in his Chest, etc. 

As military technology changes, so do military ranks.  During WWI, an airman in the RAF could achieve the rank of Lance Bombardier.  The French—and you just knew I was going to work them into this—still have a regiment of Airborne Marine Infantry.  I’m not going to check on this, but I bet they ride horses in submarines. 

A honorable mention has to go to the Finnish Air Force, which still has the rank of lentokoneapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas, a non-commissioned officer trainee assistant airplane mechanic.  It probably takes longer to learn to spell the rank than it does to work on the airplane.

There are lots of military ranks that result from political nonsense.  Texas actually has a navy consisting of a few ferry boats and several floating vessels that were used in various wars and are now in museums.  By tradition, the governor hands certificates awarding the honorary rank of Texas Admiral to anyone who does him a favor—including one to a writer of a certain nonsensical blog.  Far rarer, the governor of Nebraska—a triple landlocked state—regularly appoints individuals as Honorary Admirals of the Nebraska Navy. 

Monarchies and Dictators get to hand out great titles (with handsome sashes and badges to match).  In the British Army, there was The Most Honourable 1st Marquess of Kedleston, Viceroy of India George Nathaniel Curzon, Knight of the Garter, Order of the Star of India, Order of the Indian Empire, Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council.  Not bad, but it pales in comparison with His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. 

Idi Amin was actually being modest, for he also claimed to be the King of Scotland.  When he wasn’t busy with his official duties—primarily murdering his citizens on a whim—he personally trained admirals to serve in the Ugandan Navy.  Since Uganda is land-locked and has no navy, I will leave it your imagination as to what was involved in the training.

The most interesting rank has to be the Israeli Aluf.  Generally translated as general, the rank of Aluf historically, is a little rare.  Originally meaning the man who commanded a thousand men, today the rank is the equivalent of a major general. 

In early times, the last man to hold the rank was Judas Maccabeus, who led the Israeli revolt against the remains of the empire founded by Alexander the Great.  Today, the holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated in remembrance of his restoration of the Israeli temples.  That was over 2,100 years ago.

After more than two millennia, there was a new aluf—Mickey Marcus, an American Colonel, who was appointed the commander of the Jewish front during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  Though Israel won the war, ironically in the closing days of battle, Marcus was killed by an Israeli sentry when the general did not answer the sentry’s challenge.  Unfortunately, the private who challenged Marcus spoke no English and Aluf Marcus could not understand Hebrew.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Nothing the Taxpayers Pay For Is Free

There is a very good reason why you don’t hand a wino a fifty-dollar bill—that much alcohol all at once could kill him.

You can see a similar phenomenon whenever the state of New Mexico has a budget surplus: the trolls in state government immediately begin tripping over each other in a desperate race to improve the state by spending the money on harebrained ideas. 

Admittedly, the state doesn’t have a surplus that often, since this is a poor state whose revenues are closely tied to oil and gas income from state-owned lands.  As the price of oil bounces up and down due to factors far, far out of the control of this state, our economy follows closely.  Just a few years ago, when oil revenues were down, the state responded with draconian cuts to education.

A few years later, there was a large surplus and then-Governor Richardson went on a spending spree that that was the envy of drunken sailors the world over.  (To be fair, my friend, Jay Lloyd, the former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, has reminded me on several occasions that there is a huge difference between a drunken sailor and the government—when a drunken sailor runs out of money, he stops spending.)

During his two terms as governor, Richardson built us a Spaceport that will never launch anything into space and a tourist train that runs a constant deficit and will never link half the towns promised.  He also turned over state funds to an investment company that invested heavily in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, leaving the state retirement fund deeply in debt. 

After Richardson, the state went on an austerity program, restraining costs, slowly rebuilding its cash reserves.  Now, the state once again has a surplus, the income from oil and gas royalties are high, and we have a brand-new governor.  While the state retirement funds are still deeply in the red….it is obviously time for the state to throw fiduciary caution to the wind and SPEND! SPEND! SPEND!  As any parasitic bureaucrat can attest, we are just one more government program away from paradise.

So, this governor has proposed that all 29 state universities and colleges should be tuition-free for all students.  Ka-Ching!

I have nothing against getting a college education—hell, now that I’ve retired from teaching at Enema U, I’ve gone back as a student in the quest for another degree.  (I’m hoping to collect the whole set.)

The cost of the free education measure is high, but the governor says that we can afford to pay the expenses out of the surplus currently coming from our oil and gas industry.  Ignoring that the petroleum revenue is too volatile to base such far-reaching plans and ignoring that the governor’s own political party wants to shut down the petroleum industry in the next decade, if the state has that much readily available funds…why is the governor also attempting to raise taxes?  (And why don’t we fully fund the state retirement system?  As a recipient, I really don’t want to be paid in desert sand.)

I’ve seen how the university wastes money.  When I was a student at Enema U, we had a university president.  By the time I was teaching there, we had a president and a provost.  When I retired, we had a chancellor and a president, and a provost—all paid very, very well.  And there were enough deans, associate deans, and executive vice presidents to run a small country.  If the present rate of administrative growth continues, it won’t be long before there will be no space left for students.

Anyone could look at the budget for Enema U and shave millions of dollars off the budget without either the faculty or the student body even noticing the changes.  I doubt that either group even knows there is currently a Dean of Student Articulation, much less what the person does.  And I bet you a dollar that even that dean doesn’t know what his assistant dean accomplishes.

If university spending is out of control now, what will it be like when the state guarantees to pick up all costs?  What incentive will the university have to control costs?

I’m all for the state helping students to get an education, but I’m not sure this is the way to do it.  I have seen no effort by the state to curb the constantly rising cost of tuition.  Instead, for most of the last two decades, the university regents—political appointees by the governor—have voted annually to raise tuition by the maximum allowed under state law. 

Nor have I seen any effort by the state to help students find local employment after graduation.  Right now, the most expensive export from New Mexico is not our green chile, our pecans, or even computer chips from Intel.  Our most expensive export are the students the state has educated, who are forced to immediately leave the state after graduation in search of jobs. 

Why should the taxpayers of New Mexico fund the education of graduates who establish careers in Arizona and Texas? 

I have a modest suggestion for the governor:  Start small:  First, roll back the last couple of tuition increases while simultaneously increasing the state budget for education.  Increase the endowment for state universities so that the proceeds can lower future costs.  Fund more scholarships in the fields that New Mexico needs.  Make a real effort at each educational institution to lower existing costs.  Don’t start programs that future state revenues—when they inevitably decline—cannot support.

And most important, don’t raise taxes until there are enough jobs for the students who are already graduating.