With Veterans Day coming up, it’s time to demand that the U.S. military truly create a welcoming environment for all who wish to serve in the defense of this country.
Efforts have been made to accommodate women, religious and ethnic minorities, gays, transgenders, even non-citizens. But the feelings of one of the largest and longest suffering minorities have been all but ignored.
To understand the problem, consider these instructions for how to perform a proper salute in the armed forces:
“Right arm parallel with the floor, straight wrist and hand, middle finger touching the brim of the hat or the corner of the eyebrow, and palm facing downward or even inward. The salute should be a smooth motion up and down the gigline, with the individual of lower rank raising their salute first and lowering it last.”
That sounds straightforward and reasonable until we acknowledge one important fact: Roughly 10 percent of the people in the world are left-handed.
Executing such an intricate maneuver with the right hand feels completely unnatural to them, and members of the military can be required to do it up to a dozen times a day, day after day, for years. Imagine the toll this must take on their emotional well-being.
Consider what this Army corporal from Evansville might have said had anyone ever had the decency to ask:
“I’ve felt like a freak all my life, having to concentrate just to do the simple things others take for granted, like shaking hands or buttoning a shirt or pushing an elevator button. Then there was the shame from thoughtless remarks like ‘right thinking’ and ‘left-handed compliment.’ And don’t get me started on ‘southpaw.’
“I thought it would be different in the Army, a real meritocracy where I could prove myself. But on the first day a lieutenant blocked my way and wouldn’t let me pass until I almost smacked myself in the head with my right hand. It was humiliating.”
To their credit, Pentagon officials have been assessing the situation, but there are problems with both possible solutions they have considered.
One option is to make all soldiers use a left-handed salute. Such tactics have been increasingly successful in civilian life, where the tiniest minorities have started dictating the acceptable activities of overwhelming majorities. But the military mindset, which places an inordinate amount of faith in logic, is likely to insist that if a policy upsets 10 percent of the population, it makes little sense to correct it with a policy that upsets 90 percent.
The other alternative is to simply allow soldiers and sailors to use whichever hand they choose to salute with. This might make sense to civilians used to making countless decisions every day for which there are no negative consequences, such as which TV show to watch or which diet to fail with next. But the military requires unit cohesiveness, which is possible only with a rigid chain of command. Letting individual choice replace the need to follow orders might possibly be a detriment to military preparedness.
The choice seems clear then. The only real solution is to do away with saluting.
What’s the point of the practice anyway? Legend has it that the salute dates back to the Roman republic, when assassinations were common. Anyone approaching an official was required to show that the right hand — the “fighting hand” — was empty of weapons. Is there any point in carrying on such an outdated tradition other than to force the oppressed to pay tribute to their oppressors?
Some questions involving handedness are too complex to be addressed by the military, such as whether having a dominant hand is a matter of nature or nurture and whether there is, indeed, only a binary choice, both issues clouded by the increasingly strident protests of the ambidextrous, who claim to be equally comfortable with either hand, and the even tinier percentage swearing they are cross-dominant and switch hands depending on the task involved.
But armed forces commanders can at least foster a nurturing environment by getting a firm grip on the situation. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope we don’t have to twist somebody’s arm.