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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Fitting Salute

About a year ago there was a tempest in a teapot over a campaign trail photograph from before the Democratic primaries that showed several candidates standing on a stage while the national anthem was being played.  All of the candidates stood at attention with their hands over their hearts (as protocol dictates) while Barak Obama stood with his hands folded together in front of him.


The funny thing is that if you want to be picky, they should all have turned to face the flag.  But I digress.

Now I"ve made no secret of the fact that I'm not the biggest fan of President Obama.  But I thought it was unfair of the flag-waving patriot crowd to suddenly latch onto this single image as a sign that (then) Senator Obama was unpatriotic and had consciously refused to render the proper respect to the flag.    Heck, I'm sure if I followed most people around 24/7 with a camera I'd get more embarrassing (or damning) pictures than that! 

Personally I think it was probably either a case of Obama not having been properly briefed on the etiquette surrounding the ceremonies (it was early in the campaign)... or, more likely, he was simply so tired from campaigning around the clock that he had a momentary lapse.  You will notice that he is in front and didn't have the opportunity to take a visual cue from others around him (assuming he was caught napping on his feet). 

Well, one of the images from the Inauguration yesterday should put at least some of the criticism to rest.  It shows the newly sworn in 44th President of the United States saluting the the flag and the troops carrying it.


I can already hear some of you saying, "But he's a civilian, and civilians aren't supposed to give a military hand salute.  Funny thing is, even as you are reading this, this very issue is being hotly debated on veteran websites all over the net.  And the truth is, it's not so simple (as my friend Jordan is wont to say).

First of all, let's look at precedent.  Although there are rumors that President Truman occasionally saluted his Generals (i.e. the Joint Chiefs) when they came to visit the White House, I have yet to find a photograph proving this.   From all accounts President Reagan was the first CIC to routinely return the salutes of his Marine guards and salute the flag during ceremonies.  It actually raised some eyebrows at the time.

Since that time, all presidents have returned the salutes of military personnel, but saluting the flag has remained a mixed bag, with most Presidents holding their hand over their heart. 

But what about the fact that Obama is now the Commander In Chief of the Armed forces?  Doesn't that count for something?  I mean, if the troops are obliged to salute him and he can order soldiers into battle... doesn't that place him in the military chain of command?  I'm not saying this is true... just thinking out loud here.

But for most of us, it is ingrained from a very early age that being in civilian clothes means holding our hand over our hearts.  Period.  I remember that when I was in kindergarten and elementary school, we began every morning by reciting the pledge of allegiance.  We would stand, face the flag hanging in the corner of the room, place our right hand over our hearts and recite in unison "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Unites States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under G-d, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".

In later grades the pledge of allegiance disappeared from the morning routine, but because we were attending sporting events, assemblies and the occasional parade, the playing of the national anthem sort of assumed the role that the POA had played in our patriotic consciousness. 

But it wasn't until I was in the Navy that the flag and its ceremonies once again took on anything approaching the kind of imperative 'jump out of your seat' urgency that I had experienced in grammar school.  

In the armed forces one becomes acutely aware of the flag in a way that civilians seldom do.  No matter where you are or what you are doing, if a flag is being raised, lowered or is passing by, you stop whatever it is you are doing... stand at attention... and render a crisp military salute.  You might even be in a place where the flag was not visible... but if you heard the national anthem or any of the bugle calls or cadences indicating the flag was in motion, you quite literally 'faced the music' and saluted. 

And it goes without saying that you have to acknowledge the ranks of those around you by rendering and returning hand salutes. 

But once I got out of the service I was relegated to once again standing like the rest of the civilians, with my hand over my heart, when the national anthem was played or the flag passed by.   Which brings us back to President Obama and his military hand salute at the Inauguration. 

Some of you may not know it, but Congress recently amended the U.S. Flag Code so that the issue of someone in civilian clothes rendering a military salute is not nearly as cut and dry as it once was.

The new Flag Code (this is custom, people... not law!) states that "Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute" during the playing of the national anthem and when a flag is being raised, lowered or passes by.  This would seem to remove the basic blanket premise that not wearing a military uniform precludes one from saluting.  

So with this in mind... and also assuming that even though he is not a veteran, the President is the titular head of the Military chain of command, it would appear that he was/is perfectly correct in saluting both the military personnel (who salute him first as a matter of protocol) and the American flag. 

I'm sure that people will continue to argue over whether or not this (or any) president should use a military salute, especially as fewer and fewer Presidents will be military veterans.  But the changes to the flag code which allow military personnel and veterans who are in civilian clothing to render a hand salute should simplify things somewhat.  It is also a fitting salute to the people who defended (and continue to defend) the country.

So President Obama aside, if you know any veterans, be sure to let them know about the new rules.  I bet the next time you hear the national anthem at the ball park or stadium, you'll be surprised at how many proud veterans there are among the spectators.  You'll be able to spot them by their salute.

And the next time I catch a game at Fenway, you know what I'll be doing during the National Anthem.


Posted by David Bogner on January 21, 2009 | Permalink


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Pretty cute pic. For a squid. (This is not me talking. This is the Dearly Beloved.)

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jan 21, 2009 3:13:47 PM

you know, it never would have occurred to me that it would be inappropriate for the american president to salute the flag, rather as commander in chief, i would have expected it.
and i'm sure my grandfather, a proud veteran of ww2 would have loved to have had the opportunity to once again salute the flag when out of uniform. good ammendment.

Posted by: nikki | Jan 21, 2009 3:20:31 PM

As a Brit by birth, I have often been bemused (along with many of my fellow countrymen) at the American affection for and protocol about their flag. I'm not saying it's wrong, far from it. I suppose it is just so far removed from our indifference to our own. We have a lot to learn from you.

Posted by: Noa | Jan 21, 2009 3:49:41 PM

I didn't know about the new flag code, so from an Air Force "Zoomie" to a Navy "Squid"... Thanks! I recall just coming back "home" as a civilian, and first going to a school basketball game and standing for the national anthem. I'd naturally snapped to, faced the flag... and proceeded to lose myself. It was the first time I'd heard it since getting out... I didn't know what do to, my arm began to rise, but then I stopped... (If you were "caught" outside in civilian clothes during retreat, you didn't salute... you just stood at attention) Now this happened in the span of a mere moment, but I finally left it to rest, pressed to my side, standing at attention, inside roiling with doubt and confusion.

Later, I found that my mother-in-law had commented how striking a pose I'd made standing proudly at attention during it. If only she'd known.

Posted by: Jethro | Jan 21, 2009 4:28:04 PM

I love it when you crank out that picture. Like you, I feel very patriotic, even as I live here in my homeland.

I hope you do make it to Fenway soon and have the opportunity to salute the flag. And then I hope Bosox loses big to the Yankees....

(couldn't resist)

Posted by: Baila | Jan 21, 2009 4:54:48 PM

I still have to resist doing the three fingered boy scout salute to the flag at events. Who would have thought they'd get that so deeply ingrained in me?

While watching the inauguration, I saw former President Bush (H.W.) salute some of the military escorts (by the doorway I think). I was wondering about if that was correct or not, but then figured who would argue with him anyway. :-) Was sad to see him in so much pain though, hope he recovers in time for the skydive that the newscaster said he had planned for his birthday.

Posted by: JDMDad | Jan 21, 2009 5:18:34 PM


Posted by: Karl Newman | Jan 21, 2009 7:19:28 PM

Just FYI, in the IDF, saluting is never done in civilian clothes, and neither are calls attention.

Posted by: LB | Jan 21, 2009 9:15:22 PM

Cute picture. :)

Posted by: uberimma | Jan 21, 2009 10:34:10 PM

Hey, What's that stuff sticking out beneath your cap?

Posted by: Shmiel | Jan 23, 2009 3:55:06 AM

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The oath is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Not to wear a flag pin or to spin and pirouette in the proper or military fashion. Americans have endured 8 years of dishonor and shame as their so-called leader crapped all over the founding fathers.

Obama calls bullshit on Gitmo and torture. That's because Gitmo is antithetical to U.S. values and torture doesn't actually work (e.g. Enlightenment).

High praise to service. Sacrifice and duty are the highest values. Idolatry of an image is not what America is about. The concepts of unity and cooperation are what has driven the vital energies of our nation. Not rigid protocol.

E pluribus unum,


Posted by: christopher | Jan 23, 2009 10:43:29 AM

If you watched the parade, as I did, you actually saw a different process. When the various service members marched by, eyes left, he saluted. Then when the flag passed, he switched to having his hand over his heart. BTW, those marines sure do a good straight line.
When each of the service contingents passed, the Commander from that service stood by Obama and saluted as well. At one point we noticed one of them giving Obama tips on the proper salute.
As far as Truman, Reagan, and Bush pere go, all three were veterans, although Reagan was not a combat veteran. Bush's story is well know, and I believe Truman was an artillery captain in WW1, so perhaps they can salute as former soldiers.

Posted by: jordan Hirsch | Jan 23, 2009 4:25:36 PM

I still think he ought to lose the salute. He looks pretentious doing it, especially since he never served. He looks like he's playing plastic soldiers. I know Bad Bill, another non-veteran, did it too, but that's another reason why he shouldn't. For that matter anyone in civilian clothes doing it looks pompous.


Posted by: Dick Stanley | Jan 23, 2009 10:37:29 PM

See it live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRV6gnPR2E4&feature=channel_page

Posted by: Stan | Jan 24, 2009 9:34:55 PM

This is the live Obama clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRV6gnPR2E4&feature=channel_page

Posted by: Stan | Jan 24, 2009 9:38:17 PM

Great pic!!

(so young.... so innocent...)

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Jan 25, 2009 1:20:55 AM

No wonder he didn't put his hand over his heart - he probably couldn't tell what song was being sung. Why is it that some people feel the need to make up a new tune when singing the Star Spangled Banner?

Posted by: Casual Observer | Feb 9, 2009 8:36:14 PM

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