We are all familiar with the most common form of the US military salute, a respective gesture from a military personnel raising her right hand to eye level. But many may not know where it comes from. In fact, the origins of the US military salute isn’t a clear-cut case. Editor of Army Officer’s Guide and Acting Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, Robert J. Dalessandro, shares his insight about the complicated history of the military salute. Following is a transcript of the video.
Robert J. Dalessandro: The origin of the military salute that we use in all the armed services of the United States is really shrouded in mystery. We really don’t get a good look at what the quote, unquote customs, and traditions are until the Army spells them out around World War I.
In the Army, we say that the tradition certainly goes back to Roman times. If you’ve ever seen any of the Roman movies, the Romans would sometimes slap their chest and put their arm up in the air as a matter of salute. And they say that that salute had an origin to show allegiance from your heart and then to show that you didn’t have a weapon in your fighting hand — that your hand was open and that you’re a friend. That’s one of the very early origin stories.
There’s a second one. One is that in the times of the knight. A knight who saw a friendly knight or to pay tribute to a king would raise the visor of his helmet, to let that person see their face. And then, show an open hand, again that they didn’t have a sword in their hand.
If you think about the act of grabbing the visor of your helmet and lifting it up to show your face, and you think about today’s salute where the right arm is taken up and touches the brim of your headgear, helmet, or soft hat, that is very similar to this medieval era days of knights.
I would say those are the two most common origin stories of the salute. We know that all of these legends and myths that have been passed down to us on how the salute started — they have in common the idea of showing that you are not hostile to the person you’re approaching, that you don’t have a weapon in your hand, and that you are in fact a person that wants to speak with, and perhaps honor the person you are approaching.