Wednesday, June 9, 2004

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Just what is Ralph Peters smoking?

The Reagan tributes continue apace (mine will be up shortly). The immediacy of his passing, combined with the fact that the last time president who served two full terms died was thirty-five years ago, means there's going to be a bit of rhetorical overkill.

For an example, consider Ralph Peters' New York Post column (link via James Joyner). The column does an excellent job of describing how the morale and training within the ranks of the military improved dramatically under Reagan. But it also contains this bit of comparison between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan:

Then came Ronald Reagan

Yes, he raised Defense budgets dramatically. And the money mattered. But the increased funding and higher pay wouldn't have made a decisive difference without the sense that we had a real leader in the White House again. The man in the Oval Office genuinely admired the men and women who served. When he saluted his Marine guards, he meant it. The troops could tell. (emphasis added)

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but to me Peters' implication was that Reagan's predecessor did not mean it when saluting the Marine guards.

Now, like Virginia Postrel, the stark contrasts between Carter and Reagan is the reason why I registered as a Republican at age 18. But Peters goes too far here. Jimmy Carter was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and served for seven years as an officer in the Navy. His service was in the nuclear-submarine program under Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, a man known for having some pretty high standards. As James Joyner points out, "[Carter] presided over many of the changes that would lead to the fielding of terrific new equipment in the early 1980s."

Was Carter a failure as a president? Good God, yes. But I have no doubt that when Carter saluted the Marine guards (see below), he meant it as well.

To be fair to Peters, I may be jumping on poor phrasing rather than Peters' actual intent. But there it is.

UPDATE: Thanks to William Kaminsky for linking to this New York Times story on presidential salutes -- turns out that Reagan was the first president to return a military salute. [So, like, this trashes your Carter argument, right?--ed. Only if you relegate every other President before Reagan -- including Washington, Madison, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower -- into the same category as Carter.]

posted by Dan on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM


Reagan was an actor. Carter was a naval officer. I think what Peters is on to is that Reagan, being the better actor, seemed to mean it more than Carter. And maybe that's enough to boost morale on it's own.

As far as what the two actually meant or thought, you'd need ESP to know for sure.

posted by: uh_clem on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

“Was Carter a failure as a president? Good God, yes. But I have no doubt that when Carter saluted the Marine guards, he meant it as well.”

Poor phrasing? Dan Drezner is probably being too kind. Ralph Peters is allowing his very justified overall irritation towards Jimmy Carter to cloud his judgment. The former president is a very silly man. He has inadvertently caused enormous damage. Still, I’m also sure that Carter meant it when saluting the Marine Guards.

posted by: David Thomson on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

“President Reagan made mistakes. He was human. The intervention in Lebanon ended badly with our precipitous withdrawal after the Marine-barracks bombing. That decision sent a message to the nascent forces of terror that we had no stomach left for a serious fight.”

The rest of Ralph Peter’s article is fairly balanced and insightful. He rightfully concedes that President Ronald Reagan greatly blundered by pulling our troops out of Lebanon after the suicide bombing. Sadly, one cannot avoid concluding that Reagan’s mistake in judgment did much to encourage the Islamic nihilists. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter deserve a lot of blame in this regard---but so does Reagan. It is a major blemish on his great record of accomplishments.

posted by: David Thomson on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Actually, I believe it was Reagan who inaugurated the now common practice of saluting the troops. Thus, it wasn't that Carter didn't mean it; it was that he didn't do it at all.

posted by: Jane Galt on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Although I'm not military, as I understand it, it has always been inappropriate and poor form for civilians or anyone out of uniform, even the President, to salute uniformed military. As I understand it, you salute the uniform. That's why President's from Washington through Carter didn't do it. It's the same reason you didn't see civilian Presidents dress up in various pieces of military garb no matter how long and honorable their service. You think former Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower was ever photographed in a flight suit after he became President? Or ever photographed saluting while wearing a suit and tie? Not a chance in hell.

As I understand it, all this changed with Reagan who started the affection of saluting and wearing bits of military uniforms and caps for photo-ops. Of course it was continued by by Bush I and Clinton and most aggregiously by Dubya.

I'm sure this has all been debated to death in the blogosphere. But just because Reagan did it, doesn't make it right. Here's an old NYT article on the subject:

posted by: Kent on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Here is my theory:

Maybe it is just easier to idealize and worship something you don't understand or are not a part of. In some way Carter, and perhaps Kerry as well, are cursed with knowledge. They know that our military, however great, is not perfect. They have seen the warts from the inside.

Reagan, and perhaps George W. Bush as well, can worship the military because they have no first hand experience of all the silliness, waste, and nonsense that goes on within the ranks of the military. Thus the salute that looks like he means it more. Of course the salute is just a metaphor, it runs through the entire way the military is treated and spoken of.

posted by: Rich on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I believe what Ralph Peters meant was that when Ronald Reagan saluted the Marine he was enthusiastic about it and conveying what a salute is supposed to mean. "I salute you". He truly valued what the Marine was doing. Having been a Naval Officer I can tell you that there were those who were merely going through the motions and those who meant it. Carter was the former, Reagan the latter.

posted by: Mike Herbert on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Though the John Lukacs New York Times op-ed that Kent cites is behind the Times archive wall (i.e., the Lukacs op-ed that claims---with much disapproval---that President Reagan began the tradition of presidents saluting in military fashion), it's reprinted in full on the International Herald Tribune website here:

Also, the organization Veterans for Peace has it posted:

posted by: Bill on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Reagan almost always looked at the man he was saluting, Carter rarely did. There is a real difference there. I suspect Carter didn't really understand and Reagan did. If somebody near Carter had clued him I suspect he would have changed his behavior.

posted by: David on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

By the way, Rickover treated the men under him like dog dirt, he was loud, egotistical, abusive and profane. My grandfather (H. P. Bish) was the engineer in charge of installing the GE reactors into the the subs in the 1950's. Rickover swore out one of his men and Pop told him to never do that again or the navy could take their business elsewhere (there was no elsewhere, by the way). Rickover complained to the company and GE backed Pop. Rickover never swore at a GE employee again. Carter could not have learned anything positive about command from Rickover.

posted by: David on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Ralph Peters often loses it in print.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Kent : it's not poor form at all. If you are in the military but out of uniform you're generally not required to salute but you're certainly at liberty to do so. Second point : when you see a President salute a Marine guard, watch closely. You'll see that the President isn't rendering a salute; rather he's returning the guard's salute. That's how the hand salute works : the lower rank renders it & holds it until his superior returns it, which the superior is expected to do. It would be in poor form for a President not to return a salute rendered to him by a service member, in uniform or out. Third point : Rich, the hand salute doesn't have anything to do with "worshipping and idealizing" the military. It's a gesture of respect : at a minimum, respect for the rank , at best, respect for the person holding the rank. And this cuts both ways, which is why the Freeper types among you keep an eye on whether their President knows or cares enough to return a salute properly. One way to tell if a junior or middle-grade officer (lieutenant, captain, major) is worth anything is to watch how he returns a salute from a two-striper. If he does it like he's dismissing the bellboy then you've got a problem. That goes double with extra cheese for the Leader of the Free World.

posted by: joe shropshire on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Presidents should not return salutes period. They are civil officials just like the service branch secretaries and the Secretary of Defense. They represent the people of the United States, not the armed forces.

It was wrong for Reagan to return salutes.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Yes, they should, as a matter of courtesy to the service member; that's beside the point, since the salute is a custom and a courtesy, and there are all sorts of situations in which a salute is appropriate even if it's not required; and no, it wasn't.

posted by: joe shropshire on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]


Tell us how servicemen salute the Secretary of Labor, federal judges, mail carriers, municipal police officers, bartenders, little old ladies, small children, and stray cats. Then tell us how all those civilians should return military salutes as a courtesy.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

From the NY Times article: "The brevity of the mention of a commander in chief - it is not even a full sentence - suggests that the founders of the United States did not attach very great importance to this role."

Simply unbelievable.

posted by: PD Shaw on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I think Mike Herbert has it right.

True, civilians don't salute, they do hand-over-heart. But the President is Commander-in-Chief, and if he wants to salute, go for it.

Reagan served in the army from 1937 to 1945, making Captain by the time he got out.

A caller on one of the radio shows last weekend told this story: He was a Marine on one of the helicopter flights taking President Reagan from here to there. Reagan asked him about his service, how long he'd been in, his medals, etc. The Marine told him, and Reagan said, "I should be saluting you".

And when he got out of the copter, he did.

Tom Holsinger misses the point completely. The Secretary of Labor is not in the chain of command. Tom might want to find out what the "chain of command" is.

posted by: Mike on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Tom : servicemembers aren't expected to salute the Secretary of Labor, and so forth. They are expected to salute the President. "But that's not in the regulations!" Actually, it is, at least for the service I was in : here's Air Force Manual 36-2203, "Drill and Ceremonies" (this covers forming up and marching, displaying the flag, all that kind of stuff.) The Army and Navy probably have similar wording.

3.6.7. Civilians may be saluted by persons in uniform. The President of the United States, as
Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, is always accorded the honor of a salute.

So : you're supposed to salute the man, and you'd sort of expect him to do a proper job of returning that -- it's part of his job these days. (Hell, he's got staffers to teach him which fork to use at a state dinner, he can grab an attache for a half hour to learn how to pop it and drop it. It's not that hard.) This may not always have been the custom, but it is now; and if Reagan was the guy that changed the custom ( I was surprised to read this) then it was still a good change even if it was Reagan. I and others appreciate it, even as seems to frighten you. Ain't nothin' to be scared of.

posted by: joe shropshire on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]


You conflate "should" with "must", with "expect", etc. Civilians may be saluted, but they don't have to be, and they are not expected to return the salute.

The Secretary of Defense most definitely is in the military chain of command, yet I doubt he is saluted and I've never, ever, heard of one returning a salute by an active duty member of the armed forces.

The President is a civilian official in the chain of command, but he is not military and never was. He represents the American people and his duty is to them via the Constitution.

Military officers have duties down the military chain of command, though too often those are neglected. A President does not have duties down the military chain of command because his duty is owed to the country as a whole. This distinction is especially important in war and trebly so in this one.

Soldiers die so that civilians don't.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

gotta love the times.

after admitting that clinton also did the salute, they say:

"There is something puerile in Reagan's (and now Bush's) salute".

But nothing puerile in Clinton's, I presume...

posted by: gc_emeritus on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Both Lukcas and Joe commit either errors of fact and or admission in saying no other President defined themself as Commander in cheif, or that they never attached military command view to that role.

In fact we need look no further than President George Washington and his actions in dealing with the whiskey rebellion. In the entry of his personal diary marked for 6-12 October, while Washington was traveling with militia to supress the rebellion.

"The Rank of the principal officers of the Army being first settled by me, as follow.

First--Govr. Lee of Virginia to be commander in chief if I do not go out myself.
(Emphasis mine)"

Obviously then he felt that his postion gave him the authority to DIRECTLY command troops in batte. Which goes far beyond returning a salute.

On the 20th Washington writes:

"Matters being thus arranged I wrote a farewell address to the Army through the Commander in Chief--Govr. Lee--to be published in orders--and having prepared his Instructions and made every arrangement that occurred, as necessary I prepared for my return to Philadelphia in order to meet Congress, and to attend to the Civil duties of my Office."

This to me implies he felt that duties of his office were seperate one part civil, one part military.

Furthermore, the North Park University site provides this detail.

" it was the first time the militia was called into federal service under the Constitution. President Washington, who was well respected as a military leader, decided to personally take command of the militia as this was the largest military operation since the Revolutionary War. This was the first and only time in United States history that a sitting president donned a uniform to command troops in battle."

So Tom your completely wrong. It is without a doubt that Washington both recieved and returned military salutes, and that the founded fathers vied this as completely inline with the intent of the new constitution.

posted by: Clark on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

er. founding fathers.

posted by: Clark on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Reagan served in the army from 1937 to 1945, making Captain by the time he got out.

Reagan spent his entire time in the army making training films. (And appeared, in later life, to lose track of the fact that he hardly got out of California during WWII: he is reported to have told "war stories" that were based on films he'd acted in.)

I'm sure Reagan looked very sincere when he was saluting. "Looking sincere" was what he was good at.

posted by: Jesurgislac on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I spent 24 years in the Army elite forces and I was always proud to salute. During my military career, I never saluted a civilian unless it was the president of the United States (Commander-in-Chief) of the Armed Forces. I retired from military and went into the law enforcement field. About two years ago, I went into federal service with the DOD police. We are now being ordered, as civilians to salute military officers and blue decals on vehicles. I find this degrading, as we are not military and do not fall under the customs and courtesies of the military. If we are not required to salute the American flag, then why must we be forced to salute a blue decal? This is a strict violation of our constitutional rights. I went into the law enforcement field, and two

posted by: Carlos A. Martinez on 06.09.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

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