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!”