The position of an elite at the top of the social strata almost invariably puts it in a position of leadership and often subjects the holders of elite status to pressure to maintain their position as part of the elite. However, in spite of the pressures, the existence of the elite social stratum is usually unchanged.
In religion the Latin form "elect" is preferred over the French form "elite" in discussing Cathar or Calvinist theology, for examples, and the social structure that is theologically driven. Other religious groups may use expressions like "the saints" to describe the elect.
Perhaps the most globally recognized of all religious elite reside in Rome: the Pope and the Vatican Assembly. While it is true that the Pope is elected by the college of Cardinals, the cardinals who vote for him are appointed by prior papal decrees. The Pope is himself chosen from among the college of Cardinals. Once elected, the Pope is in "office" for the remainder of his life.
Some elite groups speak a language that is not shared by the commonality: in Tsarist Russia and in Vietnam, the elite spoke French, in the Philippines the elite spoke, and in many cases still speak, Spanish. In Plantagenet England, the elite spoke Anglo-Norman, while Finland was ruled by a Swedish-speaking elite up to the beginning of the 20th century and in Ptolemaic Egypt the elite spoke Koine Greek. In ancient, India Sanskrit was spoken by elite class. (See linguistic imperialism.) Elites establish correct usage for the language when they share one with the commonality. Elite usage is reflected in "prescriptive" dictionaries; common usage is reflected in "descriptive" dictionaries. Elites establish cultural canons, which are more widely agreed-upon within the elite and more generally ignored or resented among the non-elite. In the 1950s, the British elite spoke what linguists of the time called U English.
Elite advantages are the usual ones of a dominant social class: easier access to capital and political power, more rigorous education largely free of indoctrination, resulting in cultural influence, and leadership.
Elites may justify their existence based on claims of inherited position; with the rise in the authority of science, certain 19th and 20th century elites have embraced pseudoscientific justifications of genetic or racial superiority. In Nazi Germany, genetic superiority was used as the basis of an "Aryan" elite. Elite classes headed by monarchies have traditionally employed religious sanctions for their position.
Meritocracy is a facet of society that tries to promote merit as a route to the elite. Societies such as that of the United States have it in their culture to promote such a facet [see Horatio Alger]. However, while it tends to be imperfect it sheds light as to what many believe to be the "ideal" elite: an elite that is porous and whose members have earned their position as society's top class.
Elites are educated to govern. While common public education is often designed to educate the general population to produce knowledgeable and skilled citizens, the elite approach to education is often presented at a more intellectual and demanding level, and is geared to produce leaders of a sort. It can be idealized as an education geared to producing an individual capable of thinking at an intellectual level more advanced than the general population, consisting of diverse philosophical ideals and theories in order to enable the elite to logically evaluate situations.
However in some systems, such as that of the Scholar-bureaucrats that administered China for 1300 years, elite education is used to select and skim off the most able students regardless of class or financial background. In order to pass these Imperial examinations, students had to be versed in the Confucian classics and neo-Confucian commentaries, creating a cohesive and socially homogeneous scholar-gentry. This co-opted into its service those who would have potentially been the most dangerous to the state and left would be malcontents either leaderless or those it did have uneducated. As an avenue to political power, the examination system became increasingly corrupted, with political connections and loyalty to the regime becoming as important as outright ability. The cultural legacy of this policy can still be found in the selection for the elite Chinese Universities to this day. Elite universities, through a process of indoctrination of a common heritage, ethos and promise of preferred advancement, create a loyal administrative/ruling elite for the service of the state. Such a system of selection for elite education can be seen even in the Western tradition, for example in Napoleon's Grandes écoles.
However, most nations will maintain elite military forces for the purposes of Power projection and for the purposes of expeditionary warfare. The limiting factor in such operations is usually the availability of airlift and sealift assets, rather than manpower, first to get forces in theatre and then to sustain these forces with stores and supplies e.g. Britain in the Falklands War. Such amphibious and airborne forces, usually operating with minimal armor, artillery and logistics support will normally face enemies with superior numbers, prepared positions and interior lines of communications. Under such circumstances the additional effort and cost needed for the selection, training, indoctrination and equipping of elite formations is not only worthwhile, but essential for success.
In the narrowest sense of the word, elite units refer only to units of soldiers picked from ordinary troops or recruits to form an elite unit. However, superior units can also be created by other means than picking the most promising soldiers and recruits from regular forces. Such forces can also be created by having a completely different, parallel recruitment process with higher standards than the normal troops. Sometimes a completely different recruitment pool is used such as recruiting internationally or recruiting from a people that is thought to have superiour soldier qualities. The French Foreign Legion recruits professionals internationally and British Gurkha troops are recruited from the Nepales -a people that impressed the British with their soldier qualities. In the very strictest sense of the word these are not elite units since the soldiers are not chosen from regular soldiers or recruits but they are usually called elite units nonetheless.
In Commonwealth Militaries, some regiments may be thought of as "elite" for a number of reasons; a particularly distinguished combat record (like the Rifles), great media exposure (the Highland Regiments and the Frontier Force in British India now Pakistan) or being an "old" regiment with a long history (and often thus greater support in Headquarters since these regiments have naturally a higher numbers of senior officers), examples would include the Coldstream Guards (UK), and the Punjab Regiment in India and Pakistan. While again not strictly speaking elites, they often become superior units, since due to their reputation they attract the best and brightest recruits and cadets (who in many armies have a choice of assignment)which results in a correspondingly better performance.
Historically at times of military and technological change it would have been impossible financially to re-equip the entire army with new weapons at the same time. To maximize the benefit of new weapons, elite units may be formed, who would be superior to the regular troops because of both the new weapons and additional training and expectations. For example, in the British Army the Rifle Regiments were armed with rifles when the rest of the army was equipped with muskets; before them the Fusiliers were the first to be armed with flintlocks when the line units had matchlocks. Armies going through change may need formations familiar with new concepts and doctrines to act in the familiarization and adversary training roles. Such units will naturally perform better than their students; e.g. historically the Panzerlehrdivision and currently the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Occasionally a military formation rises quite unplanned to become an especially competent military unit. While raised, organized, equipped and using the same operational procedures as its peers a confluence of events, personalities and circumstances create traditions, reputations and an esprit de corps that reinforce each other to lift such units above those peers. Such formations include the original 51st Highland division and the original Desert rats and the Pakistani 25th Cavalry.
Elites within an army can also arise unexpectedly, when only a few units and formations of a army are involved in combat operations while the rest of the army is on peacetime duties, the resulting combat skills make them stand out from their peers, examples would include the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Div in Vietnam, and the Indian Northern Command and Pakistani Force Command Northern Areas in Kashmir.
In these two cases it can be argued that units with more modern weapons or units that just happen to be better than others are strictly speaking not elite units since they do not consist of individuals picked for especially high competence but are recruited just like other units. However, sometimes the words "elite unit" are somewhat sloppily used to simply imply "unit that is better than other".
US military use "elite" forces for covert missions which require better trained soldiers who are more disciplined and mentally and emotionally stronger.
Historically many elite forces have been created and maintained as much for political reasons as for military ones. The leaders feel they need something more politically reliable than ordinary units and create elite units, hoping that the privileges, the extra political indoctrination that such elite forces are typically given and the pride in belonging to an elite will make them more loyal. The German Waffen-SS is an atypical example of such a force evolving as it did into a war fighting force.
Typically since the days before the Roman Praetorian Guards such forces have been used as a loyal and militarily competent counterweight to the nations' other military forces, to protect the incumbent leadership from coups and putches. For example Saddam Hussein had the Iraqi Republican Guard to keep the normal military in check and the Iraqi Special Republican Guard to keep an eye on the Republican Guard. In Moscow the old Soviet Union used a trinity of elite formations, each carefully balanced with strengths and weaknesses compared to the others, to keep each other in check and to prevent the others from seizing power, MVD Internal Troops (lightly equipped, but experienced from internal security missions, with a reputation of ruthlessness and brutality), KGB Kremlin Guard Force (well trained, led and disciplined but lacking in supporting arms), and elite Red Army Guards units (best equipped, but reliant on conscripts). Such arrangements, though not to the same paranoid extremes shown by the Soviets, are common in non democratic regimes, especially those where the leadership's rise to power relied on military force.
...From the beginning of the new Islamic regime, the Pasdaran functioned as a corps of the faithful. Its role in national security evolved from securing the regime and eliminating opposition forces to becoming a branch of the military establishment...[and its] independent military power acted as a check on any possible coup attempts by the armed forces....
....the Pasdaran, under the guidance of such clerics as Lahuti and Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was also "to act as the eyes and ears of the Islamic Revolution" and "as a special task force of the Imam Khomeini to crush any counterrevolutionary activities within the government or any political usurper against the Islamic Government." Over the years the IRP's leadership used the Pasdaran to eliminate opposition figures and to enhance its own position. Using the Pasdaran as a springboard to more important positions, Pasdaran leaders could always obtain access to the Revolutionary Council and Khomeini. For example, President Khamenehi and Majlis speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani were both former commanders of the Pasdaran. Library of Congress Country Studies, Iran, Special and Irregular Armed Forces.
At times such forces become so powerful that they are completely beyond control of the government, or can even become kingmakers who control the head of state. The Praetorians infamously auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder; the Streltsy first supported and then tried to depose Peter the Great, and the Janissaries repeatedly deposed and installed Ottoman sultans in the 18th Century.
In other instances, e.g. Iraq's Republican Guard, such forces have become little more than social clubs for the societal elites and those seeking advancement through the political system, capable only of bullying unarmed civilians and intimidating the regular military, often failing militarily when tested.
The military has always been seen as a means by societal elites to acquire wealth, prestige and power, for example Julius Caesar. Even in modern democracies there are those who aspire to political power who see a few years in military service, preferably away from any actual fighting, as being essential to a political resume.
As a very practical form of displaying patriotism it has been at times "fashionable" for "gentlemen" to participate in the military, usually the militia, to fulfill societal expectations. It has been said that the title "Colonel" was the ultimate fashion accessory for a Southern gentleman.
Politically Elite Military:
Elitism usually draws envy and resentment from the lower classes and the counter-elite. There are cases where elites arguably use this resentment of an elite to maintain their position. See Communism.