Military Courtesy

I’ve been getting a couple of hits a day from search engines looking for “military courtesy” and while I briefly discussed it here, I thought maybe I’d better expound on it a bit. Chivalry isn’t dead.  Many of the traditions that the services hold dear are descended from the Middle Ages and the time of knights and squires.

Most folks have heard that the salute comes from the times of the armored knights. A knight would raise his right hand to raise his visor, or hold it open to show there was no hidden weapon. This gesture gradually became the salute we share today.

In our democracy, some folks think it is a show of subservience to salute an officer. The official line, and one which I happen to agree with, is that it is a greeting between warriors, albeit, with a degree of deference to the superior. Much is made of soldiers having to salute, but no one ever mentions that the officer has just as much obligation to return the salute. In twelve years of service, I can’t think of a time when someone deliberately failed to return my salute.

Generally, enlisted soldiers do not salute one another. I, as an enlisted soldier, would salute any officer when outdoors. Sorta. When you are out in the field, there isn’t much saluting. It just isn’t done. Of course, that’s when my lieutenant or captain was there. If the general showed up, there’s probably some saluting going on. But when you are in garrison, back at the home base, you salute. It is a tradition that when you salute, you also give a greeting. Typically, this is the unit’s motto or nickname. Many, many times have I greeted an officer with “Regulars, Sir!”. And of course, my officer would snap a salute back and reply, “Regulars, By God!”. *

“Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir”, “Three bags full, Sir”. When you speak to an officer, yes, you really do call them “Sir” (or Ma’am, as the case may be). But it isn’t quite like so many movies show. The response to a simple yes or no question is “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir”. Just like the movies. But in the day to day interactions, it is a lot like talking to your boss or any other person you would show respect. There’s no hard and fast rule that says you will end every sentence with “Sir”. My best guess is that if you replaced “Bob”, “Dude”, and “Man” in normal conversation, that’s about what it was like in normal Army conversation. Of course, the formality of the conversation will impact this. If you are in front of the CO because you screwed up, there’s gonna be a lot more “Yessirs!” coming out of your mouth.

As a sergeant, when I spoke to my troops, I expected them to address me as “Sergeant”. No, not “Sarge”. A sarge is a bottom-feeding fish. A quick google search shows that the current feeling is that in a one-on-one conversation between a private an his sergeant, “sarge” would be acceptable. Ummm, nope. Sergeant. Sergeant B. I didn’t care if they contracted my last name to an initial, but they would never get away with “sarge”, not in the field, not in a one-on-one.

Now, it’s a little unfair, in that in day to day usage, most guys below sergeant are just known by their last name. “Hey, Smith”. I knew some sergeants that would address their soldiers by rank, “PFC Jones”, but only as the preface to them getting chewed out. But then, no one ever said life was fair.

Oh, and that whole, “Private” thing? That’s a holdover from the Middle Ages, too. They really were private soldiers, who went to work for the local lord of the manor for pay.

* The 6th Infantry Regiment earned the nickname “Regulars” during the war of 1812. While advancing on a British position, the British leader thought he faced only part time militiamen. When he saw the steadfastness of the 6th Infantry under fire,  he shouted “Those are Regulars, by God!”

19 thoughts on “Military Courtesy”

  1. Seeing you comments about people calling you “sarge” remind me of the feeling of some Warrant Officers when they are called, “Chief”.

    I will accept it from non aviators but, if I am called that by someone in the aviation community, it will be met with a not very complementary response. An acquaintance of mine once responded to being called “Chief” with, “Do you see any feathers on my head?”…which isn’t an exact quote, but close enough for a family blog.

    Chivalry isn’t dead..it just smells funny.

  2. Well, Outlaw, what am I supposed to call you? Mister? That’s one of those area’s I just don’t know. Typically, in an infantry battalion, there’s only two warrants, the PA and the assistant motor officer. I tried hard to avoid both of them.

  3. Sir, Mister (insert last name here), those will work.

    Actually as I said I’ve got no heartburn when the ground guys do it. It’s the aviation types who get my goat, I guess I should be glad they are being somewhat respectful at all…they usually quickly look in another direction as soon as they see an officer so they don’t have to salute (sorry Sir, I didn’t see you).

  4. After I posted this, I browsed a thread run by NCOs who got torqued when they heard troops call them “Sarge”. They were also down on troops calling the 1SG “Top”, which I learned early on not to do. The one that caught me by surprise is calling Lieutenants “El-Tee”. I’m thinking that’s a bit of a cultural change since I was in. It was almost a term of affection (NNTAWWT).

  5. Hated ‘sarge’. Beatle Bailey had a Sarge. We weren’t in the comics. I wasn’t a Sarge unless you liked suddenly having extra things to do all by your lonesome at what you thought was the end of the duty day.

    E9s in the Air Force are called Chief, don’t call them Sergeant. You won’t like what happens. Heard about a Medical Corps doctor who called a Chief just Sergeant. I hope the Doc liked the Aleutians. The last Warrant Officer in the Air Force I think retired in the mid 80s.

    I’ve been called Top. Didn’t bother me as I’ve mostly been called that by Vietnam Vets and so I just think of that as an honor.

  6. You guys have the most screwed up rank structure around. How can a First Sergeant be an E-7,8 or 9? Make up your minds.

    I think the AirForce missed a great opportunity to reward technical excellence when the got rid of warrants. That’s how the other services use them (with the exception of Army Aviation, where it was in large part a dodge on the Congressionally mandated cap on officer levels).

    I’ve been called lots of things, but I liked to be ADDRESSED as Sergeant.

  7. I have two Customs and Courtesy stories to share.

    In twelve years of service, I can’t think of a time when someone deliberately failed to return my salute.
    I can. 1993, DLI Monterrey, CA. A Marine PFC and I (E-2) at the time are walking back from the Roach Coach to class, and we approach a Captain (never saw him before or after), and we present arms. He just keeps walking past. My Marine pal stops cold, spins around and says “Excuse me Sir, but we saluted you.” The Captain sheepishly turned around, returned the salute and we went on our way. I was a bit shocked by the exchange, but the Marine was a bit ticked off. Respect has to go both ways. You can’t expect to receive without giving.

    The second story is also from DLI. Fresh out of Basic, I had a security interview that happened to take place in the Marine Barracks. I had a room number and name of the CID agent I was supposed to see, but couldn’t find it. Thankfully, there was a Marine E-6 and E-7 talking in an office, so I waited at parade rest outside the door till recognized, walked in, dropped to parade rest and said, “Excuse me Sergeant, but where is room X?” He answered me, I said “Thank you Sergeant,” and I came to attention, did my about face when he stopped me and said, “What did you call me?” Turned back around, back to parade rest and said, “Sergeant, Sergeant?” That’s when I got my lesson in the difference between Army Customs and Courtesy and Marine Corps Customs and Courtesy. “Do you know what rank I am?” “Gunnery Sergeant, Sergeant?” “That’s right, I haven’t been ‘Sergeant’ for eight years. You will address me as Gunnery Sergeant, or Gunny. Is that clear?” “Yes Gunnery Sergeant.”

    Point is, you know full well, I was RIGHT with Army Courtesies, but they required full rank in the Corps. Mind you, the Staff Sergeant tried to make me feel better later when he walked past me in the hall and said, “Don’t take it too hard soldier, some of my Marines don’t know how to stand at parade rest.” He was full of it, but at least he tried.

  8. I’ve had officers MISS my salute, but never had one deliberately fail to return it (guys with their hands full excepted, they would respond with the greeting of the day).

    Yeah, had my run-in with the Marines on the proper address. I first thought they were being pedandtic jerks, but pretty quickly realized that’s just their corporate culture. And since I was outnumbered about 35 to 1, I decided “when in Rome…”

  9. The turn-around to the officer missing (and I still don’t think he did ‘miss’ it, I think he was in a rush or something) a salute was something I witnessed in 94 in Ft Meade. I watched an Army Captain chew out two Airmen for failing to salute. Personally, I think the Captain was wrong, because he was wearing subdued rank. In my experience, that meant he was ‘tactical’ and asking NOT to get saluted. Maybe he grabbed the wrong hat on his way out the door, I don’t know. But stomping on zoomies because they couldn’t see your rank is a bit wrong.

  10. Dude, stomping on zoomies is never wrong.

    Have I missed a salute? I have indeed. Was I called on it? You bet. And I apologized and rendered the courtesy.

  11. Used to date an ex-zoomie. They do tend to get the cute ones. But if you can’t zing the wing, what’s the upside of being a grunt?

  12. Ah I figure the Army Air Corps has enough other problems that they don’t need me baggin on em. Squids however…

  13. Being a retired Infantry officer I have my views and opinions.

    As the good TC explained it is an exchange of greetings between professionals. Now if a troop failed to salute me, I would correct them, but usually it was not in butt chewing mode. My standard line was “Are we not saluting today gentlemen/ladies?” Usually made the point without ripping off a head. However if I realized an NCO had witnessed the event and did not make a correction, then that NCO and I had a little one way discussion…since I have always felt that those things fall smack into the realm of NCO business. Back when I was a corporal (!) I made it my business to make sure my soldiers did not make me look bad.

    Being called Eltee…not more than once.

    Interesting views about warrant officers. Never heard those views expressed before. A chief was a chief was a chief (unless he was a Gunner). Also in line with this was the first name basis between lieutenants and warrant officers. Kind of rule of thumb was 1 bar, gold, silver, one dot, 2 dot….all first name basis. One exception was if 1LT was a commander…then addressed by all as Sir or Lieutenant. All saluted captains and above. 3 dots and Captains were usually on a first name basis if they worked together and no one else around. For some strange reason, however, the QM warrants ALWAYS called me sir when I was CPT.

    First Sergeant was always First Sergeant.

    As for Gunnery Sergeants, etc. When I was a platoon leader and company commander I insisted that my platoon sergeants be addressed as Platoon Sergeant X….not SFC X. I saw that as the same difference as between First sergeant and Master Sergeant. It was a duty poisiton of honor and needed to be addressed as such.

    It used to really make me shake my head when I was around AF pilots and they all called each other by the nicknames…only the squadron comamnder was called sir (a lieutenant colonel).

    One quick war story….FT Gordon, GA, summer of 1979, I was an ROTC cadet doing 3 weeks of training. Had that little silver disk on my green baseball cap (the perma pressed pickle suit)and subdued rank/ROTC on my collar points. It was early and we were getting ready for a parade…still BMNT. A SGM walked by me and whipped out a parade ground salute and barked “Good morning, Sir!” I responded and kept walking…later I realized he probably thought I was an LTC. He probably would have croaked if he realized he had saluted an ROTC cadet!

  14. I recall back when I was in the Army saluting an Air Force 1LT who returned it with what could generously be called a wave. I was only an E2 and didn’t comment. A few seconds after passing him I heard someone start in on him, it was a Marine sergeant basically instructing the CPT in the proper way to render a salute. I had to vacate the area quickly before I busted out laughing.

    As an E2 I also ran into the Marine NCO rank issue myself at Ft KNox, I called a Marine SSG “sergeant”, unfortunately he ripped me a new asshole because I hadn’t addressed him as “staff sergeant”, I had no idea what the issue was. Then I was told to step out of the room by platoon sergeant who explained to the Marine what an asshole he’d been. The marine SSG did apologize to me but it was clear he didn’t mean it.

    I’ve been trying to do some research into the differences between customs and courtesies of the various services, does anyone have any suggestions?

  15. I am a civilian working in sales, and I sometimes work with/sell directly to the military. I speak on the phone with people who call themselves “Chief …” and “Sergeant …” Is it proper courtesy for me (as a civilian) to call them “Chief …” when speaking with them? Sir or ma’am? This may sound like a silly question, but I want to be sure I am addressing these people with the respect they deserve. It’s a little strange to me because they call me “sir” even though I am often younger than them. They don’t make their full rank clear, so I’m afraid I may call a master sergeant “Sergeant” and be disrespectful.

  16. However they identify themselves is normally the acceptable way to address them. Of course, you can always ask them how they would like to be addressed.

    As for being called “sir”, that is just the military way of being polite. There was a time in our society when people called other folks “sir” or “Mister” instead of automatically assuming the privilege of using one’s first name.

  17. A lot of interesting discussion on the use of informal and traditional forms of address in this thread. For those of us in the Army there are a number of informal manners of address that are sometimes used such as: LT, Top (top-kick), Smadge, Chief, Smoke, Sarge (almost universally dis-liked by NCOs) etc etc. If someone allows or condones that type of behavior it is and should be confined to small group or intimate settings within the unit, squad etc. To everyone outside the unit and as a matter of enforcing the standard, the Army has clearly delineated the acceptable forms of address and the requirements of ALL Army personnel regarding the hand salute. References for forms of address can be found in Para 1-6 of AR 600-20 and Table 1-1 which is embedded in Para 1-6. Army Policy on Salutes is found in AR 600-25 and applies to all military members of the Army regardless of rank. There are times when a salute is not necessary or necessary to be returned and they are enumerated in that regulation.

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