The Salute

This hand gesture is as much a part of military life and living as the uniform, weapons and battle strategy. 

But where did it begin?   How did it begin?

No one really knows;  not even military historians, but this form of demonstrating respect for someone of a higher rank has been a party of military lore for ages…and not just that which falls under the heading of American.  

The salute dates back through history.  It’s made with the right hand (the “weapon hand”) and initially, it’s believed, was raised as a greeting of friendship.  The idea may have been to show that you weren’t ready to use a rock or other weapon. Courtesy required that the inferior make the gesture first.  Certainly, there’s some connection between this old gesture and our present salute.

One romantic legend has it that today’s military salute descended from the medieval knight’s gesture of raising his visor to reveal his identity as a courtesy to his jousting opponent, his king or even his Lady fair.  

The truth is, the military salute has in fact had many different forms over the centuries. At one time it was rendered with both hands.  But obviously that was awkward and probably made the saluter (?) too vulnerable.  What we do know is that it has been a long-established military custom for juniors to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. In the British Army as late as the American Revolution a soldier saluted bv removing his hat. But with the advent of more cumbersome headgear in the 18th and 19th centuries, the act of removing one’s hat was gradually converted into the simpler gesture of grasping the visor, and issuing a courteous salutation. From there it finally became conventionalized into our modern hand salute.

Whatever the actual origin, clearly in the tradition of every branch of the US military, the salute has been used to indicate a sign of respect, and therefore a right and a responsibility of every soldier regardless of rank.

But civilians can salute the military as well.   It might not come in the form of a hand gesture, but it’s every bit a formal honor and commendation.

It’s something that sadly,  we only learned to do in the past ten years, really.   For decades, we forgot about their sacrifice.   Something happened after the Korean war.  Our attitudes toward our US Servicemen changed.   Even the attitudes of soldiers changed.   Why?   The U.S. got into the war, in earnest, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  It was a sneak attack and it was thought for years that US scrap metal sold to Japan was used to make the airplanes, the subs and the very bombs that killed  2,402 men wounded almost 13-hundred others.  This enraged every American and this anger united a country.    Unlike the first and second World Wars,  the US was drawn into conflict with Korea and Vietna,m too.     

But the Vietnam war and its veterans deserve special mention.   The war happened at a very corrupt period in American history.   If those who fought in World War II were/are our greatest generation of Americans, then those they gave birth to, the ones who revelled in the spoils of post war-America and who’d grow up to ostensibly spit in its face, are indeed, the worst.

Harsh?   Nah…..

It was the Peace/Love/Dope generation–the Hippie idealists hell-bent on turning the country into a Utopia.     This conflicted with some servicemen who got so caught up in the war, so motivated by fear and by the belief in our absolute rightness and lest we forget, Vietnam served as the perfect place for some to exercise their own savagery and sociopathic tendencies, that a  minority killed innocent women and children,  raped innocent women and behaved in the most inhumane of ways. 

Lt. Calley and the My Lai massacre comes to mind.   Now, that isn’t to say that some women and children were in fact, gun wielding, American killing Viet Cong sympathizers; enemy combatants, if you will.   And in Vietnam,  as it has been in every war, it was kill or be killed.

Additionally, we must remember that Vietnam was the first televised war.  Cronkite and others brought it into our living rooms every evening.  We ate Salisbury steak and peas and carrots at the dinner table as talking network heads reminded us of the number of US casualties and B-52s that had been lost that day.     We saw things and heard about things that preciously, war correspondents kept to themselves and things for which soldiers refused to speak.  War IS hell–make no mistake, there’s nothing ever civil about battle and we witnessed it…true, we did so from afar and from the safety of our dens, but we saw what we saw;  including that which happened here at home.  The protests, the riots that seemed even more senseless than the war that had prompted all of that violent anarchy.    

Perhaps it’s because I’m older and wiser that I’d like to think that maybe…just maybe,  some of the unrest and hatred forthe Vietnam war and those who fought in it, was spurred on by a little bit of guilt.

I’m sorry for the way Vietnam vets have been treated.   I am, but I’m pleased that these days and really, since the first Gulf War 20 years ago, we’ve mercifully matured as a country and have come to understand that the soldier does (as he has always done) what the soldier is ordered to do.  We now  honor our warriors mroe than ever before because we know that he/she is just doing his or her duty; what he/she willingly signed up to do.

It also helps that we’re now well aware that war is a political device.  Even so, duty is upheld regardless of politics.   I commend every soldier who can see beyond that point.

And that’s why on this Memorial Day of 2011…almost ten years after the country’s second most unifying event…I pay homage to the US service man and woman.   And beyond that, I salute the mother who raised him or her.    The husbands, the wives and the partners who tearfully watched them board that plane…or walk up the gang-plank of that battle ship.   I salute the children who anxiously await the return of their parent from the battlefront.  I salute the man and woman fighting the battles a home who miss their family members.   

I tearfully commend the fathers who’ve tragically had to bury their children.      

In closing, I honor every man and woman who has ever raised their hands; who took that oath; who donned the uniform;  who brandished a weapon; and took a life…..or lost his or her life….. in order to save mine.    

It is with gratitude that I salute you.   


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3 comments

  1. “Whatever the actual origin, clearly in the tradition of every branch of the US military, the salute has been used to indicate a sign of respect, and therefore a right and a responsibility of every soldier regardless of rank.”

    I might note, that when confined to the brig or stockade, military prisoners (not P.O.W.s) lose the PRIVILEGE to salute.

    I also might mention that I disagree with you regarding the Vietnam and Vietnam Era vets. Returning home, following my discharge, to San Antonio from my last duty station at Fort Benning I was accosted at the airport in New Orleans as I changed planes. “Baby killer” was what I was called though in fact, my entire Army career was stateside. This was, for what ever reason, hatred of the military and nothing else.

    The Vietnam Vets have been maligned in the press and in theater for decades. Those I talked to following my discharge were kind and decent people. Some had grievous wounds trying to protect or save Vietnamese non-combatants and combatants alike.

    I had the privilege of sitting in for a few hours during some off duty time, at the Courts Martial of Lt. William Calley. He came across, sitting at the defense table, as a cocky, pseudo-Napoleonic figure who seemed to see nothing wrong with shooting a baby. He was the exception to the American Combat Soldier/Sailor/Marine/Airman during the war, not, most definately NOT the typical.

    Great post as usual however my dear friend.

  2. Thanks for the post.

    I have spent most of my life vocalizing my sharp disdain for war. When I met my stepfather, a Vietnam vet, for the first time, I’m afraid we spent our introductory moments arguing. It took me a long time to realize that he was a young man who went through a great deal. Ironically, my dad’s girlfriend is a South Vietnamese native who left before the fall of Saigon. I learned from a psychologist that people who have truly seen combat and trauma do not want to talk about it. I found that with them.

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