Monday, October 27, 2008

Commander in Chief

I can still recall the moment, more than forty years ago. I had just enlisted in the Navy and come home on leave; my father was in uniform and so was I; I threw him, for the first time ever, a crisp military salute and he returned it. It was awesome. We both broke out in huge smiles and hugged each other. It was a very special thing, shared between us for the first time.

The origin of the military salute is shrouded in myth and mystery. Some attribute it to “showing an empty hand,” the raising of the sword hand to show that one was not holding a weapon. Others attribute it to the raising of a helmet visor. Still others place its origin in the doffing of one’s hat. Whatever its origin, it is a unique gesture of recognition and respect, rendered to the rank or position and not to the man. (Although personal, earned respect may, and often does, lie beneath.)

The Navy had rather complicated rules about saluting when I served. One never saluted when not wearing a hat, for instance, and one would never wear a hat indoors. One would never salute anyone who could not return the salute, i.e. one who was not wearing a hat or was carrying something that prevented saluting. Lord help you, on the other hand if you were ever caught outdoors not wearing a hat, and therefor unable to salute. One didn’t salute on board ship, even though hats were worn at sea, except you did salute the Captain (even if his rank was not Captain) the first time you saw him each day, even if he could not return the salute due to, for instance, being hatless.

The Army and Air Force were somewhat more indiscriminate. They wore hats indoors and out, and saluted each other mercilessly, hats or not.

Common to all, though, was that when in civilian attire you did not salute.

Which is why it has always bothered me to see Presidents returning military gestures of respect with a hand salute of their own. Prior to Reagan, no President, even those with long military service themselves, had ever done that; they returned salutes with a simple nod of thanks. Reagan, I am told, saluted back because he didn’t know any better, but I find it hard to believe that none of his military advisors didn’t provide him with some coaching which he ignored. He set a precedent which all subsequent Presidents have followed, and I hope that the next one will put a stop to it.
It is disrespectful and unseemly.

Which brings me to the issue of “Commander in Chief.”

George W. Bush has poisoned this nation in many ways, and this one has gone under-noticed and under-reported. He has shortened and prostituted his constitutional appointment as “Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of The United States” and in so doing has obscured the dialog of governance. Even Keith Olbermann has been drawn by the Bush demagoguery, and has made mention of “the Commander in Chief of this nation” in one of his “Special Comments.”

Bush is not alone in his use of that term, nor in its application to the office of President with respect to the nation as a whole. The media does so constantly, and both presidential candidates and their running mates are not in the least bashful about following suit.

This nation has no “Commander in Chief” and the use of that term needs to stop. If it does not stop, then its use needs to be met with loud and prolonged condemnation. This nation is not a military dictatorship. Yet.


  1. I had a similar experience saluting our father (a number of years before you did!), and had a similar reaction. I also had fun wandering around an Air Force Base as a female in a Navy uniform (different blue, after all) and saluting AF officers, then watching as they tried to figure out what to do. Most clearly didn't know who/what I was - I enjoyed it as only an 18 year old smart alec could.
    And amen to the term "Commander in Chief" - any ideas what can be done?

  2. Anonymous9:11 AM

    Thanks Mom for the reminder that you were once a smart-aleck. But accurately phrased, a 'younger' smart-aleck. Now you're just a wise one. Wait, was that a pun?

    I think that "commander-in-chief" is a role, not a title. His title is President of the United States, one of his roles is commander-in-chief. He really should not refer to himself as "C-in-C" as a title, and no one else should either.

    As far as the comment about saluting goes, yeah the Navy (incl the USMC) was goofy about that, with all due respect to the posters and their service. And the President (as a civilian), should be acknowledging salutes with a wave of nod or something. You could consider the military person is saluting The Office of the Presidency, not a person per se.