Military personnel are members of the state's armed forces. Their roles, pay, and obligations differ according to their military branch (army, navy, marines, air force, space force, and coast guard), rank (officer, non-commissioned officer, or enlisted recruit), and their military task when deployed on operations and on exercise.
Those who serve in a typical large ground or land force are soldiers, making up an army. Those who serve in seagoing forces are seamen or sailors, and their branch is a navy or coast guard. Naval infantry or Marines serve in land and sea, and their branch is the marine corps. In the 20th century, the development of powered flight aircraft prompted the development of air forces, serviced by airmen. In the 21st century, the fervent return to extraterrestrial activities spawned the first space force, peopled by guardians, aided by rudimentary automated systems.
Designated leaders of military personnel are officers. These include commissioned officers, warrant officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). For naval forces, non-commissioned officers are referred to as petty officers.
Most personnel at the start of their military career are young adults. For example, in 2013 the average age of a United States Army soldier beginning initial training was 20.7 years. Historically, the use of children under the age of 18 for military purposes has been widespread – see Children in the military – but has been in decline in the 21st century. According to Child Soldiers International, as of 2017 approximately two-thirds of states worldwide had committed to restrict military recruitment to adults, while 50 states were still recruiting personnel aged 16 or 17, including most of the world's major military powers.
Most personnel are male. The proportion of female personnel varies internationally; for example, it is approximately 3% in India, 10% in the UK, 13% in Sweden, 16% in the US, and 27% in South Africa. Many state armed forces that recruit women ban them from ground close combat roles (roles that would require them to kill at close quarters). Compared with male personnel and female civilians, female personnel face substantially higher risks of sexual harassment and sexual violence, according to British, Canadian, and US research.
Personnel who join as officers tend to be upwardly mobile young adults from age 18. Most enlisted personnel have a childhood background of relative socio-economic deprivation. For example, after the US suspended conscription in 1973, 'the military disproportionately attracted African American men, men from lower-status socioeconomic backgrounds, men who had been in nonacademic high school programs, and men whose high school grades tended to be low'. However, a 2020 study suggests that U.S. Armed Forces personnel's socio-economic status are at parity or slightly higher than the civilian population and that the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups are less likely to meet the requirements of the modern U.S. military. As an indication of the socio-economic background of British Army personnel, in 2015 three-quarters of its youngest recruits had the literacy skills normally expected of an 11-year-old or younger, and 7% had a reading age of 5–7.
Military personnel must be prepared to perform tasks that in civilian life would be highly unusual or absent. In particular, they must be capable of injuring and killing other people, and of facing mortal danger without fleeing. This is achieved in initial training, a physically and psychologically intensive process which resocializes recruits for the unique nature of military demands.
According to an expert in military training methods, Lt Col. Dave Grossman, initial training uses four conditioning techniques: role modeling, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and brutalization. For example, throughout initial training:
In conditions of continuous physical and psychological stress, the trainee group normally forms a bond of mutual loyalty, commonly experienced as an emotional commitment. It has been called a "we-feeling", and helps to commit recruits to their military organisation.
Throughout their initial training, recruits are repeatedly instructed to stand, march, and respond to orders in a ritual known as foot drill, which trains recruits to obey orders without hesitation or question. According to Finnish Army regulations, for example, the close-order drill:
In order to ensure that recruits will kill if ordered to do so, they are taught to objectify (dehumanize) their opponent as an ‘enemy target’ to ‘be engaged’, which will ‘fall when hit’. They are also taught the basic skills of their profession, such as military tactics, first aid, managing their affairs in the field, and the use of weaponry and other equipment. Training is designed to test and improve the physical fitness of recruits, although the heavy strain on the body also leads to a rate of injury.
Full-time military employment normally requires a minimum period of service of several years; between two and six years is typical of armed forces in Australia, the UK and the US, for example, depending on role, branch, and rank. The exception to this rule is a short discharge window, which opens after the first few weeks of training and closes a few months later, and allows recruits to leave the armed force as of right.
Part-time military employment, known as reserve service, allows a recruit to maintain a civilian job while training under military discipline for a minimum number of days per year in return for a financial bounty. Reserve recruits may be called out to deploy on operations to supplement the full-time personnel complement.
After leaving the armed forces, for a fixed period (between four and six years is normal in the UK and US, for example), former recruits may remain liable for compulsory return to full-time military employment in order to train or deploy on operations.
Military law introduces offenses not recognized by civilian courts, such as absence without leave (AWOL), desertion, political acts, malingering, behaving disrespectfully, and disobedience (see, for example, Offences against military law in the United Kingdom). Penalties range from a summary reprimand to imprisonment for several years following a court martial. Certain fundamental rights are also restricted or suspended, including the freedom of association (e.g. union organizing) and freedom of speech (speaking to the media). Military personnel in some countries have a right of conscientious objection if they believe an order is immoral or unlawful, or cannot in good conscience carry it out.
Personnel may be posted to bases in their home country or overseas, according to operational need, and may be deployed from those bases on exercises or operations anywhere in the world. The length of postings and deployments are regulated. In the UK, for example, a soldier is expected to be on deployment for no more than six months in every 30 months. These regulations may be waived at times of high operational tempo, however.
Benefits and perks of military service typically include adventurous training, subsidised accommodation, meals and travel, and a pension. Some armed forces also subsidise recruits' education before, during and/or after military service; examples are the St Jean military college in Canada, the Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in the UK, and the GI Bill arrangements in the U.S. Conditions for participation normally apply, including a minimum period of formal military employment.
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