Why do military personnel salute the First Lady?
June 9, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Why do military personnel salute the First Lady if she's not a higher-ranking officer?

I just assumed it was a signal of respect, but my friend's (not terribly bright, extremely conservative) husband was venting that Michelle Obama does not deserve to be saluted by the military because she's just a civilian. Is this true?
posted by Viola to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The president is just a civilian as well. Kind of the point of the presidency.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 12:35 PM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I remember hearing that the saluting of civilian presidents started with Reagan. I don't know about first ladies.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:36 PM on June 9, 2011

I remember hearing that the saluting of civilian presidents started with Reagan. I don't know about first ladies.

Reagan began the practice of returning the salutes.
posted by BobbyVan at 12:39 PM on June 9, 2011

"The Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces is the President of the United States, according to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution." [Wikipedia]

I'm guessing that saluting his wife is a courtesy.
posted by The Bellman at 12:40 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not true. Certain civilians are formally entitled to a salute, e.g, the president. So he's wrong.
posted by clockzero at 12:43 PM on June 9, 2011

Do military personnel in fact salute the First Lady?? I've never heard of or seen such a thing. This sounds like that conservative game wherein outrage is expressed at a nonexistent offense, c.f. The War on Christmas.

The President gets a salute because he's your superior in the chain of command. He's an odd case for a civilian, in that he's sort of in the military. Civilians--almost without exception--aren't saluted.
posted by Nahum Tate at 12:48 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I never met the first lady while I was in the military so I was never briefed on that particular bit of military bearing, but junior military personnel are required to salute senior military personnel. However, a salute is a sign of respect and can be shown to anybody one wishes to show it to. I even saluted my grandpa once while I was a corpsman, and he's never even been in the military (but I like him, and I knew he'd get a kick out of it).
posted by Pecinpah at 12:52 PM on June 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it is done it is as a show of respect, the same if someone in the military calls a civilian "sir".
posted by JJ86 at 12:52 PM on June 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

My Dad's Air Force regs (which are a bit out of date now but which I keep around because they amuse me) indicate that "the hand salute is the form of greeting and recognition exchanged between persons in the armed services. All Air Force personnel in uniform are required to salute when they encounter any person or situation entitled to the salute." The section on salutes goes on to outline the rules for non-salute areas and then states that a member "in uniform whether or not in formation" salutes the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense "outdoors, when recognized by the junior officer" and "in a vehicle, when identified by vehicle plates or tags".

This document does not recognize saluting the First Lady as necessary. I've never witnessed it, personally, (not that I've been in a room with any first lady more than maybe 2-3 times) or seen it in a photograph or film clip. I've seen salutes in the general direction where the First Lady was standing, but there's always been someone (an officer, the President) or something (a flag, a coffin) which is the actual target of the salute. It's certainly possible that service member saluting a flag, or an officer of a foreign nation, or someone else, could be mistaken as saluting the First Lady, but it's not done, as far as I know.

In my experience, at a formal occasion, an honor guard or any other uniformed personnel would not salute the First Lady in the way that as a generally gesture of respect Pecinpah describes, but might at a less formal occasion.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:09 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

For all military personnel, the president is acknowledged as being in the chain of command, as is the SecDef, and other civilian leadership for your branch of service. As crush-onastick noted, the First Lady is not necessarily entitled to a salute, though she might be present with others who are.
posted by Hylas at 1:13 PM on June 9, 2011

Ah, thanks for the correction, BobbyVan.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:54 PM on June 9, 2011

I doubt very much that anyone in the U.S. military has ever been told to salute any First Lady.

However, I can't discount it entirely, because the pendulum is swinging back toward "wife wearing her husband's rank" -- which is both a literal and a figurative description of high-ranking officers' wives (and yes, it's always women) thinking that they are also high-ranking (which is sadly assisted by enough high-ranking officers that you can't just blow off Mrs. General Whozis when she starts throwing her husband's rank around). It was blatant in the '70s and early '80s, disappeared to a large extent in the '90s, and came roaring back when Family Support Groups started being important during deployments -- of course the CO is going to trust his wife to run the FSG more than some random sergeant's wife. This, as you may think, occasionally creates problems.

However however, I find it much more likely that some conservative commentator or blogger misunderstood something innocuous or flat-out made it up.
posted by Etrigan at 2:14 PM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's a recent blog post about it. Complete with an unsourced and cropped picture and lots of frothy outrage.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:21 PM on June 9, 2011

However however, I find it much more likely that some conservative commentator or blogger misunderstood something innocuous or flat-out made it up.

When I see a story like this I have to question the truth of it. It fits the right-wing narrative so neatly ("uppity black man", "foreigner unfamiliar with American culture", "no respect for tradition or authority") it almost has to be a political hit piece created by some off-the-books operative trying to stir up trouble. Gaffes this big don't just happen, they're created.
posted by scalefree at 3:12 PM on June 9, 2011

OFFS he's not even facing her - the POTUS is clearly cropped off.

Seriously, is it illegal or a faux pas to accidentally salute someone who walks across your vision while you're saluting? Because if so, we should probably fix that.
posted by muddgirl at 3:15 PM on June 9, 2011

Seems like that picture originated at Drudge Report. The blog I linked speculates that it's a file photo, which seems likely.
posted by Kattullus at 3:26 PM on June 9, 2011

It's clearly a file photo from this trip with the POTUS. You can see the president in a different angle - the marines continued to salute after he walked past, so I suppose they were technically saluting the FLOTUS, and should be summarily executed.
posted by muddgirl at 3:40 PM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

By the way, this took me about 10 seconds of investigation - I searched for [michelle obama wardrobe], and found the photo on the second page of the second link.
posted by muddgirl at 3:43 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is nothing that says someone cannot salute someone else. Members of the military are required to salute higher ranking officers, but they are not required to not-salute anyone. (Except foreigners, possibly.)

So even if this was real and not a cropped photo, it's not like saluting the first lady is a secret admission and supplication to her.

(That is one of the goofy/evil conservative memes out there, by the way: President Obama is just along for the ride, it was her that orchestrated his rise to power. It gets very detailed.)
posted by gjc at 4:10 PM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

The president is just a civilian as well. Kind of the point of the presidency.

elektrotechnicus, the POTUS is not 'just a civilian", by any stretch of the imagination. He's the CIC of the military.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:04 PM on June 9, 2011

I would just view it as a sign of respect. Many civilians salute people, not knowing (as I only recently learned) that the civilian version of the salute is placing your right hand over your heart, as we do during the national anthem or Pledge of Allegiance.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:47 PM on June 9, 2011

There is an actual written protocol on what is officially known as the hand salute:

(1) The military salute. Over the centuries, men-at-arms
have rendered fraternal and respectful greetings to indicate
friendliness. In early times, armed men raised their weapons or
shifted them to the left hand (while raising the empty right
hand) to give proof of their friendly intentions. During the
Middle Ages, knights in armor on encountering friendly knights
raised their helmet visors in recognition. In every case, the
fighting man made a gesture of friendliness--the raising of the
right hand. This gesture survives as today's hand salute, which
is the traditional greeting among soldiers of all nations.
(a) Individuals entitled to a salute. As a service
member, you will salute all officers who are senior to you in
rank in any of the Armed Forces of the United States or of
friendly foreign governments, officers of the Coast Guard,
Geodetic Survey, and of the Public Health Service who are serving
with the armed forces of the United States.
(b) In addition there are certain appointed or
elected civilian members of both our National and State
governments who are so honored. Among the individuals of the
United States you customarily salute are the following.
President of the United States
Vice President of the United States
State Governors
Secretary of Defense
Deputy Secretary of Defense
Senators and Congressmen
Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force
Assistant Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air
(c) Among the members of the friendly foreign
governments whom you salute are:
Heads of State
Ministers of Defense or other civilian leaders of
defense establishments and their assistants at or above the
Assistant Secretary of the Army, Navy and Air Force
(d) When not to salute. In some situations, the
salute is not appropriate. In general, you do not salute when:
[1] Engaged in routine work when a salute would
[2] Indoors, except when under arms.
[3] Carrying articles with both hands or being
otherwise so occupied as to make saluting impractical.
[4] The rendition of the salute is obviously
[5] Engaged in driving an automobile. However,
whenever practical, you should return the salutes of others
providing the vehicle can be driven safely.
[6] In places of public assemblage such as
theaters or churches, and in public conveyances.
[7] You are in the ranks of a formation.
However, if at ease in a formation, you come to attention when
addressed by a senior.
[8] When within sight of enemy soldiers.

Note that the Marines saluting in the photograph are wearing dress blues and the white utility belt which signals that they are under arms. This both formally places them in the situation of requiring a salute and practically gives them the freedom of mobility to do so.

The Marines selected for White House duty are certainly going to be among the most highly trained members of the service and highly attentive to official protocol. I doubt they would get a salute wrong and casually or accidentally give one to the First Lady. This isn't even a situation where -- like the Secret Service -- there are close relationships that develop. The Marine One unit is a normal military unit with rotations and promotions like any other, and pretty much only sees the President and First Lady during its brief shuttle flights to Andrews or Camp David. I actually doubt the Marines in dress blues doing the salutes get on the chopper, though I could be wrong about that. I think they close up the steps and roll up the carpet after the President and his party are gone. It's pretty formal and impersonal.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ignoring the obvious cropped-out-the-important-detail-ness of the photo: Well, you've got to do something to acknowledge that she walked by. You can't just stand there stone-faced and pretend she doesn't exist. You could shake her hand, or nod and say good afternoon, but that looks dumb in uniform.

It would look REALLY stupid if one guy saluted and the other didn't so I guarantee you those marines have instructions what to do if she is in fact the only one in the party. I wouldn't be surprised if the policy was to salute her, even though she technically doesn't rate it. Doesn't hurt anything, and looks snappy.
posted by ctmf at 2:35 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, you've got to do something to acknowledge that she walked by. You can't just stand there stone-faced and pretend she doesn't exist.

Sure you can. Just like you do to the dozens of other people who are hovering arond the President. Because they're all distractions from your job, which is to get one person -- one -- on to and off of that helicopter safely. Everything those guys do for a year of their lives is dedicated to that. The First Lady is a blip on their radar solely because the President might get on and off that helicopter differently when she's around. That doesn't rate a salute any more than the carpet does.
posted by Etrigan at 7:32 AM on July 7, 2011

« Older No quiero Taco Bell. Quiero algo mejor.   |   Is enteric-coated fish oil better utilized by the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.