The history of saluting
James A. Landau
JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Fri Jul 30 19:09:14 UTC 2004
In a message dated Thu, 29 Jul 2004 23:29:39 -0400 Wilson Gray
<hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET> writes:
<snip> This book also had a brief section
> debunking the claim that "EM must salute officers as a sign of
> respect." Needless to say, I can't remember the author's analysis in
> any detail. But I do remember its thrust. If the rendering of the hand
> salute has to do with respect, then why don't EM salute one another,
> given that they have far more respect for one another than they have
> for any officer? Why aren't REMF-officers forced to salute enlisted
> combat troops? Why doesn't everyone, regardless of rank, salute anyone
> wounded in combat, regardless of rank?
This idea that saluting is a sign of _respect_ is a long-standing
etymythology, frequently resorted to by those who have no idea the real reason for
saluting, which is rather the opposite.
It can be summed up in one word, or more exactly name: "Wallenstein"
The armies that fought in the Thirty Year's War were mostly mercenaries,
which means the soldiers in them owed allegiance only to the entrepreneur who
recruited them, sometimes paid them, and most importantly fed them. The most
notorious of these entrepreneurs was Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein
(1583-1634), a first-rate general, strategist, and businessman who for several
years was de facto the commander for the Holy Roman Empire. He was also a man
who followed his own agenda, rather than that of his nominal boss the Holy Roman
Emperor, who finally decided there was no choice but to have Wallenstein
The Thirty Year's War ended (in Germany) in 1648 with the Peace of
Westphalia, but it took until 1650 to get all those mercenaries rounded up and pacified.
The Crowned Heads of Europe said, "Never again! No more Wallensteins! From
now on armies will be agents of the State and do what the State wants." This
new objective was so successful that when, two centuries later, Clausewitz
said "War is a continuation of policy by other means", no one laughed.
How did the Crowned Heads of Europe accomplish these? By three policies:
1) armies from now on will consist of two castes, officers and enlisted, and
these two castes will be kept rigidly separated.
2) the enlisted caste will strictly obey the officer caste
3) the officer caste will do what the State wants them to do
A number of rules, rituals, and customs sprang up to enforce policies 1) and
2). Some were planned; others just grew but were kept when they proved
useful. Saluting was one of those rituals. Originally, when an enlisted man
saluted an officer, it meant that the EM was acknowledging that he was segregated
from and owed deference to the officer. When the officer returned the salute he
was acknowledging that the enlisted man had offered the proper deference.
Hence it makes sense to salute the flag (which outranks an officer) but not
to salute fellow enlisted men.
At least that was the original idea behind saluting. However, saluting
quickly became such an accustomed and habitual ritual that to all but the most
thin-skinned enlisted man it was merely a way of saying "the officer and I are
both soldiers rather than civilians."
(The custom of enlisted men in English-speaking armies addressing officers as
"sir" has the same purpose of acknowledging deference towards the superior
The origin of the saluting gesture is obscure. I have read in several
sources that it originated when knights in armor had to raise the visors of their
helmets in order to recognize each other, since the visors covered their faces.
I doubt this explanation, since knights did ride around in public with their
visors down (too difficult to breathe) .
What about policy 3)? Remember that the commander of an army can do anything
he wishes, and is restrained ONLY by his personal social and ethical code.
Wallenstein, for example, had a particularly low level of ethics. So by the
beginning of the 18th century the custom arose that all officers were to be
*gentlemen.* (Hence the phrase "an officer and a gentleman"). This did not mean
that an officer had to be of superior social standing (although many were from
the nobility, one reason being that an officer needs to be able to read and
in many places only the nobility were literate.) Rather it meant that the
officer adhered strictly to the "code of the gentleman", the most important part
of which was that he kept his word no matter what.
(You are commander of a town under siege and you surrender on a promise from
the opposing commader to protect the civilian townspeople. It will be a great
relief to you to know that the man you surrendered to is a gentleman, because
his word is the only thing that protects your people from being raped and
- James A. Landau
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