Stephen M. Walt

Mr. President, don’t salute the troops this 4th of July

By Michael C. Desch The Fourth of July is one of the most patriotic of holidays and nothing arouses national passions more than the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. The urge to do so is especially ardent given that the country has been at war continuously for ...


By Michael C. Desch

The Fourth of July is one of the most patriotic of holidays and nothing arouses national passions more than the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. The urge to do so is especially ardent given that the country has been at war continuously for the last ten years and these soldiers have made many sacrifices for the country, from spending long periods of time away from their families in less-than-hospitable climes to the ultimate sacrifice of their health and even their lives. 

Gratitude for their service is also tinged by a sub-text of guilt, given that fewer and fewer of us have joined them around the colors. This is true not only for Americans in general, but even for our elected leaders. Where once, veterans of military service were over-represented in elected office, today they are under-represented, as William T. Bianco and Jamie Markham document.

This trend is also manifest at the very highest level of the executive branch. For much of the Cold War, there was an unbroken line of presidents who served in uniform, (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) but the post-Cold War era has seen one president whose state-side Vietnam-era military service was questioned and two presidents with no military service whatsoever. No matter what the outcome in November, our next commander-in-chief will not be a veteran.

Ironically, now that we are increasingly electing individuals with little or no military service these presidents are returning the hand salute of members of the armed services more often. While one can find pictures of presidents before Ronald Reagan (who perfected it) returning the hand salute, an admittedly unscientific Google image search turns up relatively few examples of them doing so, and often it is not always clear whether they are actually "throwing the high-ball," as my late father-in-law a career air force officer used to put it, or just waving.

Conversely, after Reagan it has become de rigueur for presidents to return the hand salute. Bill Clinton, who "loathed" the military and avoided serving in it during the Vietnam War, got off to a rocky start, saluting like Hawkeye Pierce in a M*A*S*H* rerun. Conversely, Barack Obama, who also did not serve in uniform, but was obviously a quicker study, or at least coached sooner, rendered a snappy salute from the get-go. George W. Bush, whose Vietnam-era service was shaky, not surprisingly returned some pretty shaky salutes. Still, it seems that the "militarization" of the presidency is accelerating precisely at the time in which its occupants have the flimsier military credentials. The cynic in me wonders whether they aren’t related? 

The real question is whether this emerging custom is appropriate? The salute, according to The Air Force Officer’s Guide is "an exchange of greeting" among "men of arms." No one knows for sure how it began but many believe that it originated in the need for armor-clad knights to have a reliable means of recognizing their comrades. According to lore, upon meeting a comrade, a knight would use his right hand — with which he might otherwise wield a sword — and lift his visor, simultaneously making a friendly gesture and also revealing his identity. In the post-armor world, the custom continued of using the hand that might otherwise use a weapon to greet other friendly soldiers. Today this custom reinforces the hierarchy of the chain of command, with lower ranking officers and enlisted rendering the salute, which is then returned by the more senior officer. 

It is certainly befitting that all uniform members of the military to render a salute to the president by virtue of his (or her) role as commander-in-chief. But I find the trend among presidents — either bona fide war heroes like Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush — or those with less distinguished war records, or none at all, of returning hand salutes discomfiting. My reservations are grounded in military custom and the constitutional role of our presidents as Commander-in-Chief.

In terms of military protocol, while it is true that the practice of rendering and returning salutes while not in uniform is not completely absent among the services, it is pretty rare. The air force advises officers in civilian clothes to use a different form of salute, "placing the right hand (and hat) over ‘the left breast’" when the occasion demands a sign of respect. The army also stipulates that "salutes are not required to be rendered or returned when the senior and subordinate are both in civilian attire." The navy’s (and presumably also the marine corps) usage is similar: Salutes "received when in uniform and covered shall be returned." If the senior officer is not in uniform, the expectation is that he or she "shall not salute" but rather acknowledge the salute in some other appropriate fashion.

One issue in terms of military protocol, which is admittedly not fully dispositive on this question, is whether the commander-in-chief is in uniform or not? But unless we are prepared to regard the president’s dark suit, white shirt, and blue or read tie as a "uniform," it is hard to argue that the C-of-C is required to return the salute on that basis. 

Another concern is, as the navy puts it, would a president’s failure to return a salute "cause embarrassment or misunderstanding"? By my, again unscientific, investigation of this question (mostly gleaned from discussions of civilian protocol while visiting military installations over the years), many (but not all) officers I spoken to find the practice of presidents returning salutes unnatural. In other words, I am not alone in my discomfort. 

Finally, opinion about presidents saluting seems to wax and wane depending upon who is in office. I heard fewer objections when Reagan and W. saluted and more grumbling about it when Clinton and Obama emulated the Gipper. One might argue that the former served and the latter did not and that explains the different reactions. This is true but hardly settles the issue as the debate ought to center on the nature of the presidency in our system, not the personal history of its current incumbent.We certainly don’t want respect for the commander-in-chief to be a partisan issue.

But it is the constitutional issue that is ultimately dispositive for me. America’s Founders took deliberate steps to ensure civilian control of the military. One was to split the war powers — the power to declare war and the conduct of the war itself — between the legislative and executive branches. Their aim was to prevent the president from becoming a king. But they were also careful to specify, as the participants in debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 framed it, that the president was a "civil," not a military, officer. As one participant observed, George Washington was not president when he was a general and not a general when he became our first president. Civilian control of the military was at the core of how the Founders thought about the institution of commander-in-chief and I worry that we are losing sight of that when we treat it as just another military rank.

I am also troubled that the related trends of presidents not only returning salutes but also adorning themselves in various forms of military accoutrement (flight suits, pilot’s jackets, unit or ship baseball caps, etc.) represent more manifestations of what historian (and former army officer) Andy Bacevich characterizes as the "new American militarism." This concern that the fundamental distinction between the military institution and the rest of civilian society is eroding is not the exclusive preoccupation of Left-wing college professors. After all, President Dwight Eisenhower, another army veteran and a political conservative by all but today’s extreme definition, warned in his famous "Farewell Address" of the growing influence of the military in our society through its increasing interpenetration with ostensibly civilian institutions. It seems to me that my reservations on this score naturally follow from Ike’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that presidents should ignore the respect paid to them when members of the military salute them. I am simply saying that there is a more appropriate civilian way for them to acknowledge that salute, and thereby honor the service those individuals render to the country. President Truman, for example, was content to simply remove his hat. Since President Kennedy, few presidents have worn hats in public (another deplorable trend, in my humble opinion) so we need other means for them to acknowledge a military salute. I’d argue that a nod in the direction of the individual saluting, a quite word of thanks, and perhaps a handshake would be sufficient. Presidents should, of course, honor the troops — they just should not salute them.

Michael C. Desch is the co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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