A colonel in the United States Army told me the other day something like this: The most valuable officer, the one who has the greatest responsibility, is the sergeant. The true sergeant is born, not made–he is the priceless gift of the gods. He is so highly prized that when found he is never promoted, nor is he allowed to resign. If he is dissatisfied with his pay, Captain, Lieutenant and Colonel chip in–they cannot afford to lose him. He is a rara avis–the apple of their eye.
His first requirement is that he must be able to lick any man in the company. A drunken private may damn a captain upside down and wrong-side out, and the captain is not allowed to reply. He can neither strike with his fist, nor engage in a cussing match, but your able sergeant is an adept in both of these polite accomplishments. Even if a private strike an officer, the officer is not allowed to strike back. Perhaps the man who abuses him could easily beat him in a rough-and-tumble fight, and then it is quite a sufficient reason to keep one’s clothes clean. We say the revolver equalizes all men, but it doesn’t. It is disagreeable to shoot a man. It scatters brains and blood all over the sidewalk, attracts a crowd, requires a deal of explanation afterward, and may cost an officer his stripes. No good officer ever hears anything said about him by a private.
The sergeant hears everything, and his reply to backslack is a straight-arm jab in the jaw. The sergeant is responsible only to his captain, and no good captain will ever know anything about what a sergeant does, and he will not believe it when told. If a fight occurs between two privates, the sergeant jumps in, bumps their heads together and licks them both. If a man feigns sick, or is drunk, the sergeant chucks him under the pump. The regulations do not call for any such treatment, but the sergeant does not know anything about the regulations–he gets the thing done. The sergeant may be twenty years old or sixty–age does not count. The sergeant is a father to his men–he regards them all as children–bad boys–and his business is to make them brave, honorable and dutiful soldiers.
The sergeant is always the first man up in the morning, the last man to go to bed at night. He knows where his men are every minute of the day or night. If they are actually sick, he is both nurse and physician, and dictates gently to the surgeon what should be done. He is also the undertaker, and the digging of ditches and laying out of latrines all fall to his lot. Unlike the higher officers, he does not have to dress “smart,” and he is very apt to discard his uniform and go clothed like a civilian teamster, excepting on special occasions when necessity demands braid and buttons.
He knows everything, and nothing. No wild escapade of a higher officer passes by him, yet he never tells.
Now one might suppose that he is an absolute tyrant, but a good sergeant is a beneficent tyrant at the right time. To break the spirit of his men will not do–it would unfit them for service–so what he seeks to do is merely to bend their minds so as to match his own. Gradually they grow to both love and fear him. In time of actual fight he transforms cowards into heroes. He holds his men up to the scratch. In battle there are often certain officers marked for death–they are to be shot by their own men. It is a time of getting even–and in the hurly-burly and excitement there are no witnesses. The sergeant is ever on the lookout for such mutinies, and his revolver often sends to the dust the head revolutionary before the dastardly plot can be carried out. In war-time all executions are not judicial.