So who gets to be an “Operator”?

I’m wrapping up a five-week stint here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, so now seems as good a time as any to discuss something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile now, but never quite found the handle on.

Preface: This particular blog post has its roots in a comments discussion over at Larry Correia’s web page. And it’s something Mike Kupari and I were discussing on Facebook with some of his readers. And it’s something that’s come up while discussing a similar topic with Michael Z. Williamson and some of his military friends. And it’s a topic that’s come up with one of my best high school friends, who is now a senior officer at the USAF base near where I live in Utah.

The root question is: who gets to be an “Operator?”

Explanation: for those who don’t walk in U.S. military circles, the word “Operator” seems to be one of those internal U.S. military phrases that migrated from a very specific sector of the U.S. military, out into the popular American culture via technothriller fiction and video games, then back into the U.S. military as a whole. Its general usage now connotes “pointy end” experience and/or skillsets. Ergo, the “Operator” goes where the shooting happens, to do some shooting himself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Only, no, because this is not an MOS nor is it a skill badge. It’s a slang title being adopted (both officially and unofficially) by an increasing number of people who are all too eager (to my eyes) for the credibility they believe this word will lend them — even if they may not precisely be a “pointy end” person by trade.

In other words, “Operator” has become one of those familiar U.S. military butt-sniff words used by people to distinguish “real” military personnel from “POGs” — the latter being the post-9/11 variant of REMF, which was a Vietnam-era acronym for rear-echelon mother fucker; someone decidedly not on the “pointy end” of things. General infantry are using the word “Operator” now. As are F-16 pilots, did you know that? MPs and Combat Engineers? Explosives Ordnance Disposal? Armor too? And so on, and so forth.

Now, there’s obviously bragging rights involved in this kind of talk, and if you get any two dozen self-labeled “Operators” from across the U.S. military — of various MOSs — and you put them into a day room with each other, you’re probably going to have a fair amount of disagreement about who gets to “own” the word, and who doesn’t. To include pool cues being used as blunt instruments, and a lot of harsh language.

My thing is, how come the people (whom I have met, with a lot of actual combat experience) don’t necessarily go for this word, and why has this word become so sexy for people who might not necessarily have a lot of combat experience? Maybe, none at all?

Cards on the table: Larry Correia teases himself for being a “cake eating civilian” but really, I am right there on the couch with him, pounding down donuts. And in point of fact, Larry is far, far more of an “Operator” than I will ever be because Larry literally has thousands of hours of practical hands-on small arms experience. With a variety of different weapons and ammunition. Often in professional tournament environments that make the Army’s standard M16 qualification ranges look like child’s play. “Cake eating civilian?” Larry, please, pass me the knife, the fork, a paper plate, and a glass of milk. I am going to help myself to the baked goods.

See, I’m a cake-eating civilian most of my time too, and only serve as a part-timer: U.S. Army Reservist. I’ve been in 12 years, through 3 different units, and no deployments. Yup, you read that right. No deployments. I am also a paper pusher by MOS — Chief Warrant Officer Paper Pusher, to be exact. So I won’t waste anybody’s time trying to put my hand into the “Operator” cookie jar, grabbing at crumbs. I am a civilian at heart, and I know it, and I am glad for it.

Still . . . I didn’t just step off the bus at Reception. I’ve been around. To include a bit of time overseas, albeit not in a war zone. I know a little bit about soldiers and soldiering.

Opinion: being a serviceman isn’t just about “pointy end” tactical ninja strikes on al-Qaeda strongholds in Outer Buttfuckistan. Being a serviceman means standing in front of a flag, raising your hand, and writing your country a blank check that has the words, “. . . up to and including my life,” written on it. At which point they fucking own your ass. You are a commodity. You will go where you are told, when you are told. Whether you, your family, or your civilian boss, like it or not.

Not an arrangement to be entered into lightly. And not something I’d recommend for people averse to environments with lots of crazy rules, crazy bureaucracy, crazy hierarchies, and crazy structure. You make a very specific kind of commitment when you take that oath in front of that flag. A commitment that will invariably take you far away from your home and your spouse and your kids, to places you don’t want to be, where you will be made to do things you don’t want to do, by people you’d rather not wake up to every morning. Whether it’s in training, a stateside posting, out on the boat, or somewhere out in the big wide world. Peacetime, wartime, Guard, Reserve, or Active Component. It doesn’t matter. Past a certain basement level of experience, all of us are cut from the same cloth.

So what’s the value in separating ourselves out? Beyond chest-beating and dick-waving?

Now, to be fair to the actual “Operators” reading this, POG is as POG does, and I definitely agree with the idea that if you have to wear your “Operator” status on your sleeve, you’re probably trying a little too hard. Speaking from my own personal interactions with people who’ve been places and seen some very real fighting, the actual “Operators” kind of ooze their experience on a subliminal level, and don’t have to talk about it much.

One great example was a guy from my Warrant Officer Candidate School days. His name was George. He’d been an enlisted Marine infantryman who went to Iraq, then he’d come back and gone over to be an enlisted infantryman in the National Guard, and been sent to Afghanistan. None of us (in the cycle) really knew much about this until it came time to put our greens on (the old Class A uniform, before the Army brought out the new ASU, or Dress Blues) and George was a veritable Christmas tree: ribbon rack for days, and all kinds of other sparkly goodies — the sort of stuff they make heroic recruiting posters out of. Only George had worked hard to keep that close to his chest during WOCS, eschewing his Combat Infantry Badge and other ornamentation on his ACU — and no, First Sergeants of the universe, there was no rule in 2009 that forced George to wear that stuff. When I asked George why, he said it was both because he didn’t need the TAC officers singling him out any more than they’d already been singling him out, and also because (in his own words) for the purposes of WOCS, he wanted to just like the rest of us. No more, no less.

I re-injured my bad knee in WOCS. Could barely walk on it, much less hump a ruck on it. Hobbled around the final week. Managed to drag my ass back without being disqualified in the field. When we were all flying out after graduation, George came to shake my hand in the airport, and he saw me struggling to get up. He said, “Man, you don’t have to stand on that thing for me,” to which I said, “I am absolutely standing up for you my friend!” At which point we said our goodbyes, and both George and I vanished back to our respective units of assignment, as freshly-minted WO1s.

Why do I think all of that’s important?

Simply this. The lesson I learned from George was: be who you are, not who you think you should be, and not who you think others think you should be.

As I noted before, I’m a paper pusher — and I am damned happy as such, because my tactical abilities are piss poor, and I was never going to be an infantry rock star, even if I had tried. Which I did not. My objective was humble: following 9/11/2001 I merely wanted to participate (however I was able, to the extent of my limited abilities) in the defense of my great nation. That was it. To pass through the initiation crucible of Initial Entry Training, and serve. Thus far, my career has allowed me to enjoy my civilian life and see and do some pretty cool things while in uniform; to include meeting some pretty cool people — like George.

A lot of this pays off for me with my fiction because I can write military science fiction (Mil SF) from the “inside” to a degree I never could have done, when I was writing stories before 2002. But I am not chained at the ankle to an endless series of PCS relocations (nor my family chained with me) nor do I have to deal with the brain-dissolving idiocies of military life on a full-time basis. By choice.

So I don’t make anything more of myself than what I am. And I don’t think any less of myself for not being an “Operator.” I will even go so far as to self-deprecate with the self-labels of POG, or even REMF. (Though if you call me either of those things, we’re liable to get sideways in a hurry. And if I have to explain how that works then you’re not nearly as military as either one of us thinks you are. Copy?)

But back to the main question — who gets to be an “Operator” and who doesn’t?

To me, a special designation only has real military value if it connotes actual practicing competence in a given specific expertise. Something I wish the Army would remember, and at which I think the Marines get it right, because too many times the Army’s various badges, patches, and tabs, have little or nothing to do with whether or not the person wearing them is present-tense proficient in the manner the badge or the patch or the tab ought to signify present-tense proficiency. More often than not these tend to be trophies: you went to a place and you did a difficult thing and you got the Boy Scout award for it.

But when everybody starts having these things on their uniform, just as when everybody starts identifying with and using the word “Operator”, the word (and the badge, and the patch, and the tab) sort of loses its meaning. Because when everybody is an “Operator” basically nobody is an “Operator.” Copy? And as much as I think people who have been down-range and seen fighting have a right to feel set apart from the rest of us POGs in that regard, I also think a big thing driving the urge to stick hands into the “Operator” cookie jar, is that lots of people are tired of being looked down upon and/or treated like second-class troops just because they aren’t “Operators.”

I am probably hoping in vain when I hope that “Operator” quietly goes back to the Special Forces community (or wherever it truly originated from) and that we (as a whole military) can spend a little more time focused on actually being good at our various jobs, and respecting one another in our various roles, without feeling the need to drop our zippers and hang our military cred out for comparison. Yeah, okay, so maybe this kind of shit is inevitable when you get a bunch of jock-minded people together. So what? No matter how awesome you think your cred is, someone down the line is going to have bigger, more impressive cred. And that guy you were laughing at because his cred’s maybe smaller than yours . . . in a few years (often through little choice of his own) he’s going to have way more cred than you, or more rank, or both — and won’t you feel stupid if/when you see that guy again?

My personal policy is much the same for military as it is for writing: the big tent. It takes lots of different people to make the military world go round, and it’s far easier to admire my military brothers and sisters for what I think they do well, than to trash-talk them or become engaged in cred comparisons. Maybe that stuff had a degree of attraction for me when I was still a new enlisted man and hadn’t seen or done much myself. But after I passed the decade mark and had spent I don’t know how many cumulative months away from home — that whole one weekend a month two weeks a year thing is bullshit — I concluded that posturing and dick-waving was for people who had something to prove. Which, after making CW2, honestly didn’t matter to me anymore. Not giving. And definitely not receiving.

“Operators?” My hat is off to the men and women charged with doing dangerous jobs under dangerous circumstances, period. My job? My job is a comfy job. It’s awesome because I basically get to smile and help people, and everybody loves Chief, no matter what branch or rank. The folks doing dangerous stuff, even if it doesn’t involve direct combat, I think they’re doing something special. And I can respect anyone from those MOSs and those roles who does that work, and doesn’t let it go to his or her head, and can be under the big tent with me at the end of the day.


  1. I ran into this problem when I was an 11B with the Guard. Some guys would disregard rank in favor of deployment experience, regardless of whether or not said deployment resulted in combat. While I respect anyone who has to spend several months in austere conditions, having to argue with soldiers about simple tasks because I lacked a CIB was infuriating, especially when those guys hadn’t been within a dozen miles of whatever combat action earned their battalion the CIB.

  2. I was always happy as hell to just be a kick ass Navy Turbine Tech. The fact that I got to ride around on hovercraft and occasionally work* with Marines & SEALs was a bonus.

    *And by work, I mean load them up, fly them to where they need to be, kick them off the deck and hope like hell no one takes any shots at the unarmed & un-armored floating gas tank.

  3. Operator: One on the National Command Authority Single word Code name list of Assets, Tasked with hazardous duty vital to US national Interests at the whim of the National Command authority. A very small and rare set of people can lay claim to this title.

  4. It’s simple human nature: some people own what they do and some don’t. It’s a lot easier to own what you do if you’ve actually done something. With doing comes pride of ownership. Some people haven’t done all that much but for some reason want the same respect as people who have, want the credit. In these terms, at the end of the day, you are what you do. Get used to it.

    If you’ve climbed live volcanoes, hiked the Inca Trail, motorcycled around a tropical island and experienced a deadly revolution, you probably have the expansiveness of spirit to merely chuckle when someone tells you they once met someone whose girl friend smoked cigars, passes it off as wild eccentricity, and chides you for your naive and sedate life.

    The real problem comes in when you’re in a workplace setting and someone gets credit for what you did and they didn’t. But generally, be happy with what you’ve done. If you’re not, go out and do something, instead of cowbirding someone else’s nest.

    There’s a scene in HBO’s Band of Brothers where a vet resents a replacement wearing a campaign ribbon/unit citation who’s seen no action. Some people feel ownership, especially if they’ve gone through some kind of rite-of-passage to get there. Some people are more gracious and just enjoy the reality of their own ownership, and let braggarts be braggarts.

    I’ve noticed there are people who have tattoos who’ve never really done anything, and I think that’s sometimes why they have those tattoos. I’ve always felt tattoos are something to be earned but then worn on the inside, quietly, and without fanfare – a campaign ribbon only you know about.

    If someone puts a knife to my throat in a foreign country, takes my camera and I get it back, I don’t need to get on the internet and tell everyone. Others will get on the internet if a building collapses 10 miles away and own it somehow. People who’ve experienced real drama don’t crave more of it all that much. People who haven’t should be careful what they wish for. If you can do it, put it on the street, as we used to say. To each his own.

  5. Yesterday in Seattle, a news helicopter crashed, killing 2 & critically injuring another. As expected, the local media is talking about this non-stop (local event, one of their own, etc.)

    On the radio, some local talking head had the audacity to say that everyone in the local media network were all ‘victims’ of this crash.


  6. I’ve noticed that the sort of guys – current or prior service – who could fairly be described as “operators” aren’t the sort to brag or even talk about it.

    Myself, I’m reluctant to even describe myself as a “veteran,” since although I served honorably (Army electronic warfare tech; MOS 98G) I never saw combat. I’m glad of it, too. 😉

  7. I enjoyed this blog post thoroughly… I agreed with all except one thing: “I am probably hoping in vain when I hope that “Operator” quietly goes back to the Special Forces community.” I just hope it goes away completely. Unfortunately, I don’t think you will ever see this term used by anyone other than posers and fakes. Operator will forever be a term that is destined to grace Airsoft team profiles and Xbox Gamer Tags. One way to look at it is like seeing someone with a SEAL tattoo – if you see a Facebook picture of someone showing off a SEAL trident tat then there is a 99% probability they are fake. Thanks, great post.

  8. @Mike M, on the SEAL thing — the only guy I’ve ever met who mentioned having been a SEAL, showed me his three-prong snakebite, under his shirt. Very few people will do THAT to themselves, to fake it };-D>

  9. Just wanted to say, as a retired QM and former Reservist Cargohandler……and I guess…POG….

    Well said.

    Anytime someone finds out that I’m a vet, and wants to thank me, I direct them towards the nearest combat vet….and tell them to buy them beer.

  10. Amongst the Special Operations and Clandestine Service guys from the era where the term first appeared, ‘Operator’ generally refers to a Special Operations type who is trained and qualified to operate in the Clandestine realm. Certain ‘hands on’ types at certain 3 letter agencies rate the title by default as well.

    The group of guys and gals rating that title have expanded (a little) since 9/11. The group claiming the title while not understanding its origins and true meaning has expanded by roughly 8715%. 🙂

  11. It’s funny how the language changes over the decades. The last 18 years I was in the Navy I was in Special Operations which was a horse of a different color from Navy Special Warfare. Neither of us begrudged the other the word ‘special.’ If you knew at all what you talked about and wanted to be a SEAL, you were SPECWAR. If you just did the unusual cats and dogs stuff on foreign shores as an expeditionary sailor such as EOD, you were SPECOPS. We were like two different navies that wore the same uniform as each other and very different uniforms from the rest of the Navy.
    The thing that most set us apart from the rest of the Navy was that we wore “organizational clothing” day in and day out. First it was utility greens and then the same cammoflage uniforms as SEALS. That all ended about the time I left SPECOPS for the last time in 2007.
    My how the times have changed.

  12. Just found this blog, and I’ve been browsing, so sorry about the late reply here. Like Wes S. said, I have difficulty announcing myself as a veteran, since I only did one 6-year Navy enlistment. I was an electricians mate on submarines, and had the (mis)fortune to be assigned to three different subs in the 4.5 years of sea-time…all three of which went through DECOM. I did one Westpac. One. I will never claim anything I did not earn (the sub-qual dolphins that are pinned on my backpack? I earned those effers, and I’ll be d*mned if anyone is going to take them off my backpack or try to slap a set on a uniform who did not earn them), but will do whatever I can to defend those who did earn their medals and awards and patches and blingy bits by being on the pointy end of the stick. Don’t buy me a beer (I don’t care for the taste), send the next round to the guy who had to run towards the sound of gunfire.

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