Marine Infantry veteran says enlisted shouldn’t become officers


Marine veteran Ivan Snook set social media aflame on Sunday after posting that the U.S. military should stop allowing enlisted service members to become officers.

“Mustangs erode the esteem, legitimacy and distinct culture of the officer corps like merchants marrying into the aristocracy,” Snook posted on X. “Nevertheless, we are intent on lowering the standards and reducing military service to being ‘just a job’ asap.”

“Mustang” is slang for a U.S. military officer who commissioned after serving as an enlisted service member. 

Judging from the reaction that Snook received when he posted his theory about mustangs on X, it’s fair to say that many other veterans — including longtime enlisted, officers and mustangs who have been both — disagree with him.

One retired Marine colonel posted that mustangs are respected within the Marine Corps because they’ve already proven themselves. Others posted that they served with great officers who were prior enlisted service members. And one user wrote that he would rather serve under a mustang or warrant officer than a military service academy graduate.

“I’m prior enlisted & I enjoyed eroding the esteem, legitimacy and distinct culture of the officer corps,” former A-10 pilot Dale Stark posted on X. In fact, that was my favorite part!” 

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The character of the officer-enlisted divide is an ancient topic in military circles, and includes some who believe the split shouldn’t exist at all, as one writer argued in Task & Purpose a decade ago. Yet there remains a yawning chasm between officers and enlisted troops, as evidenced by a Navy lieutenant who was disciplined after complaining that being billeted with enlisted sailors, whom he described as “deviants” and “perverts.”

Speaking to Task & Purpose on Monday, Snook said that he has known excellent mustangs, but he still believes that commissioning enlisted as officers hurts the military as a whole.

A former Marine infantry rifleman, Snook said he believes that military officers need to be a distinct class, similar to how civilian judges hold a distinguished position within the justice system. Commissioning enlisted service members takes away from the officers’ aura, he argued.

“It is like what happens when you’re a lance corporal,” Snook said, who left the Marine Corps as a corporal. “You’ve been with your other buddies, who are lance corporals. You still snap to parade rest when you’re talking to just another corporal. But when your buddy picks up [corporal], all of a sudden, the role – the image of the corporal – is somehow rendered ordinary. It’s very much more humanized. It’s lost a lot of its symbolic power and authority.”

Snook said that he was not surprised that his argument was so widely rebuked, but he was taken aback by the level of vitriol with which people responded on social media.

“I can’t imagine being at a party or some other public gathering discussing my graduate school research analyzing small unit group psychology, veteran suicide and the causes of war atrocities with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Axel Honneth’s recognition theory, and then having a friend of a friend with no background in philosophy say to me in front of everybody: ‘Wow, that’s f—ing stupid. You’re a real dumbass,’” 

Snook told Task & Purpose. “I don’t mean that he wouldn’t say so because I would beat him up but because it’s just so tacky.”

Snook also said that he understands why he received so much push back because mustangs are considered sacred cows within the military, especially among enlisted service members.

“The enlisted’s reverence for the mustang is irrelevant to his actual talents as an officer, but rather it is more of – well it’s fundamentally narcissistic, in that the enlisted soldier sees in the mustang himself. He sees a hero from his same background that’s on the inside and proving that if only he himself was put in a position of legal authority to challenge these officers that he’d be running the show so much better.”

However, there are advantages to allowing enlisted service members to become officers, said Katherine Kuzminski, director of the military, veterans, and society program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

“There is the ability to take someone who’s proven themselves on the enlisted side and capitalize on their experience, add to their education, and add to what they can bring to the force,” Kuzminski told Task & Purpose on Monday.

The commissioning process also shows enlisted service members that they have a pathway to advance within the military, Kuzminski said.

Kuzminski said that Snook’s argument represents “perhaps a very old-world view” about which troops can serve officers, and which can’t.

“We do things differently in the United States of America,” she said. 

In fact, some of the U.S. military’s best leaders have been mustangs, including Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy; Marine legend Chesty Puller, who was awarded five Navy Crosses; and Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier.

When asked if the fact that mustangs have proven to be superlative leaders undermines his argument, Snook said no.

“It has little to do with the individual,” Snook said. “It’s about unit morale.”

Snook, who holds a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York on European history, politics, and society, said most of his analysis of military leadership has been based on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, particularly his theory on group psychology and the analysis of the ego.

Snook noted that Freud also treated World War I veterans suffering from what was then referred to as “shell shock.”

He believes that Freud would likely be opposed to the idea of commissioning enlisted service members because he would feel it is necessary to maintain a strict distinction between officers and enlisted service members for good order and discipline, especially in wartime.

“The simplest reason why is that authentic subordinance to the group via the leader requires that the leader be so highly idealized in the group imaginary,” Snook said. “After analyzing WWI shellshock victims, Freud described the effect of a good leader as ‘hypnosis.’ When an enlisted is elevated into the realm of the idealized leader, the effect of hypnosis is reversed. Instead of the enlisted seeing an idealized leader whose ideal qualities should be introjected into the ego, the enlisted sees himself in the enlisted-turned-officer as a means to overthrow the other leaders whose orders are now seen as oppressive instead of protective.”

Snook’s research into this issue has radically changed his understanding of social conflict from the time he was an enlisted service member himself.

“A few years ago, I probably – almost certainly – would not have even agreed with myself,” Snook said. “I would have been one of the guys anonymously s—ting on me on Twitter.”

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