Presidents playing soldier

Given the veneration that Americans seem to have for the military, it is not surprising that some people try to appropriate some of that by lying about having served in the military or even having received military honors. This practice had become so common that Congress even passed the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 that makes it a crime “for a person to fraudulently claim having received a valor award specified in the Act, with the intention of obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefit by convincing another that he or she received the award.”

But presidents still try to adopt the trappings of the military by doing things like saluting. We are accustomed to seeing US presidents, when getting off planes or otherwise being received by a military honor guard, to give a salute even when they have never served in the military. This has so become the norm that people even critique the salute if they feel that it was not done properly.

But via reader Jason, I learned from this article by John Lukacs back in 2003 that this presidential saluting practice is of fairly recent origin, beginning with Ronald Reagan who enjoyed playing military roles as an actor, and that saluting members of the military is in fact not proper for anyone not actually wearing a uniform.

Soon after Ronald Reagan assumed his presidency, something new appeared with his image on the television screen. When given a salute by uniformed military personnel, Mr. Reagan would return it, shooting his right hand up to his bare head, his smile suggesting that this was something he liked to do. This unnecessary and unseemly habit was adopted by Mr. Reagan’s successors, including Bill Clinton and especially George W. Bush, who steps off his plane and cocks a jaunty salute.

This gesture is of course quite wrong: such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform. But there is more to this than a decline in military manners. There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes playing soldier. It also represents an exaggeration of the president’s military role.

Like the boy soldier salute, the sentimentalization of the military is juvenile.

But alas, as with all expressions of patriotism such as flying flags, wearing flag pins, pledging allegiance to the flag, playing the national anthem for pretty much any large event and while it is being played requiring people to gaze adoringly at the flag with their hands over their hearts, once these things get adopted, woe to anyone who suggests that they are excessive, meaningless, and silly, and should be stopped.

So we are likely stuck with presidents playing at being soldiers and giving juvenile salutes probably until a real former soldier becomes president and stops the practice because they know it is inappropriate and that they at least cannot be accused of ‘disrespecting the troops’.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    One of the things that bugs me most about modern conservatives is their veneration of Reagan. Anyone who can’t see a direct line between him and Trump simply isn’t paying attention.

    Since the founding of this or any country, there have been a certain sizable proportion of citizens who have gotten their kicks from grousing about the government. Reagan’s “genius” was to attempt to make those grousers into the core voters for a major party.

    Of course, he had no intention of actually blowing up the government. He, and the rest of the core party, knew all along that they were just flim-flamming the rubes. But it beggars understanding how it never seemed to occur to any of those so-called “smart” conservatives that the rubes might finally get organized enough to elect someone who would actually try to blow it up. And here we are.

  2. says

    until a real former soldier becomes president and stops the practice because they know it is inappropriate and that they at least cannot be accused of ‘disrespecting the troops’.

    Well, there was Eisenhower. Who, to be fair, was pretty darned low-key about military pomp. Except for Kate Summersby.

  3. says

    Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, are the only presidents in my lifetime who did not serve.

    Ronald Reagan was a cavalry officer rising to the rank of Captain and was discharged on 9 December 1945.

  4. John Morales says

    What hyphenman wrote, contrary to Marcus’ insinuation above.

    (Truth matters)

    Also, the special status given “defence”* forces is in my opinion unwarranted. It’s just another job, for which they get decent remuneration and extensive benefits.

    (A lot less than politicians do, but that’s in practice a job, too)

    * Orwellian terminology. “Armed” forces is better.

  5. says

    @John Morales,

    I had a long discussion with one of my students a few days ago about how the Secretary of War became the Secretary of Defense.


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