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The Military Salute is a long-standing tradition of military forces around the world, and it is obviously the most visible and known gesture of military protocol to the average civilian. Its history is old and prestigious: medieval knights, after a battle, would open their masks with the right hand towards other knights, showing that they were an ally (by revealing their face) and that they were being non-hostile (by using their right hand, which is the one used to wield weapons). This gesture eventually evolved into the one known today, and it is both an acknowledgment of kinship and a sign of respect.
Different armies in the world have different small details that distinguish their salutes (as can be seen in the picture above), but most of them still follow a certain pattern: the arm is lifted up perpendicular to the side of the body and bent at the elbow, forming an angle around 30 degrees, the hand is open straight with fingers joined, and the fingers touch the temple (or the lip of the visor when with headgear). The salute is dropped by lowering the hand back to the side of the body.
Salutes are usually rendered by an officer (be it equal or lesser rank than the salutee) or enlisted soldier to an officer of equal or higher rank. The officer, while not obligated to return the salute, almost universally does. Not returning the salute is a serious show of disrespect and condescension, which reflects poorly on the salutee. This also has another interesting effect: initiating a salute towards an officer of lesser rank or an enlisted soldier, while not considered insulting (generally), is considered weird and out of place. In the United States armed forces and the armed forces of those countries which award the Victoria Cross, there is one exception to this rule: if you are a recipient of the Medal Of Honor or the Victoria Cross, you WILL be saluted by any member of the armed forces, regardless of rank. So yes, this means that badassery is worthy of saluting.
Saluting is Serious Business for any member of the armed forces, and its misuse or improper execution are considered a serious faux pas at best and a serious insult at worst. If you're a soldier and you render an improper salute, expect a small lecture on proper execution and a SEVERE butt-chewing if you're lucky. Worst-case scenario, you can even be taken for disciplinary action and get hit where it really hurts: your paycheck. As mentioned above, the salute is a sign of respect and kinship, so any kind of corruption, change or mockery in the salute reflects very poorly on the saluter.
Also, a very important characteristic of the salute is that it is a privilege, not a right. While civilians may salute as a sign of respect for a soldier, this is more about soldiers gracefully accepting gratitude than the civilian actually being acknowledged in kinship. In fact, military prisoners convicted of a crime cannot salute: since the salute, as mentioned above, is an expression of kinship, saluting someone while being imprisoned is akin to saying the salutee is as much of a criminal as the saluter, which can end in a WORLD of shit for the saluter. However, enemy prisoners of war CAN be saluted according to their rank, and it is seen as a sign of respect and fairness for a soldier of the imprisoning army to salute the imprisoned officer.
There are also situations in which saluting is NOT recommended. When in the field or in a forward operation base, soldiers are instructed not to salute, since it identifies the officer/VIP, which can provide a sniper with an easy target. Some military forces also dictate that salutes should only be used while wearing headgear and doing so while bare-headed is at least improper protocol.
The hand salute is also used in various situations and towards people of importance to the military. These include:
- The Head of State. As the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces of a country, the Head Of State is the highest-ranked member of the army hierarchy, and is to be saluted always.
- Officers of foreign powers: A soldier is a soldier, whether you serve under the same country or not. This also applies to foreign heads of state.
- National symbols: The flag should be saluted when one passes it by while walking, and one should stand in attention and salute when it is raised or lowered, or when the national anthem is played.
- Reporting: When a soldier is summoned by an officer, the soldier greets the officer with a salute and an acknowledgment of being summoned. "Sir, Private Smith reports as ordered."
- Change of command: When a soldier or officer is in command of an outfit and another soldier or officer (be it equal or greater rank) arrives to relieve him of command, the commanding officer salutes the newcomer to acknowledge the change.
Interesting dynamics can happen in fiction with the salute, including:
- Teeth-Clenched Salute: This is when a soldier salutes an officer he SERIOUSLY has beef with, often with a grimace or Death Glare. This is an excellent example of Truth in Television: one of the first things taught to a soldier regarding saluting is that you salute the RANK of the officer, not the officer himself. Not saluting, even when you have every reason in the world to not enjoy it, is considered an offense against the protocol and chain of command of the army itself, beyond any disrespect that might be intended against the salutee.
- Teary-Eyed Salute: Both used as a symbol of unbridled joy or deepest grief, saluting with tears in your eyes is a powerful symbol. A soldier saluting with tears in his eyes is NEVER put down for it, it is a completely understandable gesture. Obviously, the tears shed are either Manly Tears or Tears of Joy.
- Ironic Salute: A corrupt superior officer is brought down by a soldier, and the soldier mockingly salutes him. A sort of Take That.
- Improper/Exaggerated Salute: The salute is rendered poorly or in an exaggerated manner. This might be a symbol of not knowing how to properly render it (excusable with a civilian, most definitely NOT excusable with a soldier), or it might symbolize the saluter either is very ignorant or very disrespectful and nonchalant. Sometimes, a character does an exaggerated salute to symbolize joy or triumph, but this is a blatant example of not doing their homework. If the character was supposed to do the salute right but didn't because the writers goofed or winged it, then it's Artistic License Military (and seriously guys, is it so hard to find a soldier and ask him? You probably have National Guard people working for you, ask around!).
- Goofy Salute: The salute is just plain WRONG. It looks completely ridiculous and badly executed. This is obviously most common in humorous media.
- Strange Salute: A non-traditional salute that distinguishes an organization or culture as different from the norm.
While in real life organizations other than the armed forces have salutes, in fiction it is almost exclusively associated with the armed forces.
Examples of the salute happening in fiction would probably feature pretty much every series on the entire site, so please limit examples to when the salute is a dramatically powerful or distinctive moment.
Anime and Manga
- In the Akira manga, after Akira reawakens and destroys Tokyo a second time, Colonel Shikishima is one of the survivors and wanders around aimlessly. One of his former soldiers recognizes him and salutes him with tears in his eyes.
- Inspector Zenigata salutes Count Cagliostro when he reports in The Castleof Cagliostro. Cagliostro doesn't even acknowledge it, being the asshole he is.
- Marines in One Piece frequently salute their superior palm-inward. When asked about it in his SBS Q&A section, Eiichiro Oda explained that this was at one time actual naval practice to prevent showing tar-stained hands to their superiors.
- In Gundam Seed, in order to steal ZAFT's new prototype Freedom Gundam, Lacus Clyne dressed Kira up in the ZAFT pilot uniform and taught him their salute so that he could get past security.
- This is common procedure in the Time-Space Administration Bureau in the Lyrical Nanoha series. It's done for effect in one scene in Episode 13 of Striker S, when Nanoha and Fate tell Hayate that they're helping her with her division because that's what friends do, then salute her and tell her that they trust her as their superior officer.
- The Rock features this several times, but it becomes symbolic. First, it is tragic (saluting a burial detail), then it is a sign of respect and purpose, then it is noticeably less and less present, until it is gone completely, signifying the breakdown of order and revealing the true nature of most of the terrorists.
- In the film version of We Were Soldiers, and officer chews out a soldier for disobeying his order to stand in formation with his military honors visible. The soldier goes to get his honors and comes back buck naked and with TWO Medals Of Honor around his neck. The officer salutes the soldier, ashamed of both chewing out a soldier who had earned the highest military honor the nation bestows twice and the fact that he HAD to salute even when being completely insulted by the naked soldier.
- The Master and Commander film has a plot point where a character failing to salute is flogged.
- In The Last Castle, disgraced and imprisoned soldiers begin to plan an insurrection under the leadership of an inmate who is a former general. Because they're not allowed to salute him per prison rules, they develop a substitute, which consists of running one hand through the hair.
- The event that starts things rolling is the brutal punishment a not-too-bright inmate receives for saluting the general. When the inmate still insists on saluting, the colonel running the prison has him killed in an 'accident'. This convinces the general that the colonel is insane and has to be stopped.
- Scent of a Woman features a mix of "grudging salute" and "civilian doesn't know how to salute". Charlie is being annoyed at Colonel Slade (Al Pacino) and answers to his demands with a poor-man's, somewhat disgusted, attempt of the military gesture while the Colonel is looking the other way. Of course since the Colonel is a blind veteran, he catches Charlie on the act instantly and explains him the basics of a salute.
- In Monsters vs. Aliens, General Monger salutes the monsters just before sending them off to save Susan, to show that he is no longer their warden and now sees them as equals. B.O.B., being The Ditz, misinterprets it.
B.O.B.: Well, that's rude! What did we do?
- Saving Private Ryan "Did I live a good life?"
- In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker tosses off an ironic salute while on Jabba's sail barge. Note the file name: "Those about to jedi we salute you."
- In American Ninja, Michael Dudikoff's character, the American ninja Joe Armstrong, in one scene gets a butt-chewing from his boss, an Army colonel. After being dismissed, he salutes in a limp-wristed way, with his hand curved instead of straight, almost dismissively. Any officer worth his salt would send him to the brig for disrespecting an officer.
- Military salute was one of the many things that Dr. Logan taught to semi-revived zombie Bub in Day of the Dead. It later comes back as Chekhov's Skill as Bub uses it to mock Cpt. Rhodes as he is ripped apart by zombies.
- Played with in A Few Good Men: Upon meeting Lt. Kaffee, his assigned JAG officer, Lance Corporal Dawson is not impressed and instead of saluting defiantly places his hands in his pockets. By the end of the movie, Kaffee has earned Dawson's respect, and he salutes him without prompting.
Dawson: Ten-hut! There's an officer on the deck.
- In the Discworld book Men At Arms, Detritus initially had trouble with saluting and would frequently knock himself out by hitting himself in the head.
- In MASH, Hawkeye, Trapper John, and BJ tend to mockingly salute Frank Burns. Played For Laughs most of the time.
- Also from MASH, one of the only non-mocking salutes Hawkeye ever gave was to Radar when he was shipping out - Hawk was busy in the OR but gave Radar a salute in lieu of the going away party that the casualties canceled.
- In the finale, BJ and Hawkeye give Col. Potter formal full salute with full attention as their final gesture to him before they depart their separate ways.
- Both The Phil Silvers Show and its movie version, Sergeant Bilko, had the eponymous character using the salute in comedic ways.
- Benny Hill was famous for his silly mocking British salute.
- In one Benny Hill sketch he was a WWI army guy who got captured by the Germans. He starts to do the regular (for him) British salute, then realizes who he's dealing with and gives a German salute - which seems to have been hand on top of the head. The German officer salutes back and stabs himself on his spiked helmet.
- The Dick Van Dyke Show: During a Flash Back, when Rob was in the army, he was summoned to his commanding officer's office and saluted. The officer scratched his head and Rob thought it was the officer responding to his salute so he dropped his, which ticked off the CO, who hadn't saluted back. Then at the end of the meeting Rob saluted and the CO just said "dismissed" without looking up, so Rob had to leave still saluting. We then saw him out the office window, still saluting.
- A.J. Rimmer and his ridiculously overextended salutes. The fact he's apparently completely serious just makes the whole thing funnier.
- The protagonists of Thunder in Paradise are shown in a flashback sharing a goofy salute with their commanding officer.
- Used often in Doctor Who between the Doctor and Jack, although at the time neither were part of military organisations. (The Doctor is/was a UNIT employee but hates their constant saluting, and Jack has served in both World War 1 and 2. More than once.) Usually, it shows the respect between the two characters. The final salute given between them shows Jack's thanks, and Ten's final goodbye.
- In The Day of the Moon, Rory poses as an American military officer and salutes NASA security. He gives the British salute by mistake, which goes neatly with his inability to fake an American accent.
- The Brigadier and his UNIT troops were portrayed quite realistically on a military level: Sergeant (later RSM) Benton would always salute the Brigadier when reporting something to him. The Brigadier also renders a hand salute to the Doctors when it seems they're about to sacrifice themselves to stop Omega.
- In JAG, Admiral Chegwidden bawls out a sailor who failed to salute him while passing. The "sailor" snaps at him sarcastically, because it turns out he was an actor in a movie being shot next to JAG HQ.
- Band of Brothers: When one of the characters declines to salute a superior officer with whom he has personal issues, he is gently reminded "We salute the rank, not the man."
- To elaborate, the salutee was Major Dick Winters, and the saluter was Captain Herbert Sobel, Winters' former CO. Also a case of Truth in Television, as Winters actually had this exchange with Sobel in real life.
- John Cena often salutes on his way to the ring, supposedly as a show of support to the troops. Somebody should tell him that most of the time, he's not doing it properly.
- Mass Effect and its sequel features this at several points; given that The Alliance shares several similarities with the USMC and US Navy, the salute is American style.
- Team Fortress 2: The Soldier, who was never in any branch of the military and thus has no basic training to fail, "salutes" by making an L with his left hand.
- Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater and 4 has the Teary-Eyed Salute version in front of The Boss's grave.
- When you liberate a POW in the Metal Slug games, he'll give you a military salute before running off the screen.
- In the ending of Resident Evil 0, Rebecca and Billy, having come to respect and trust another, exchange a salute after Rebecca helps fake Billy's death.
- A subversion: The Nazi salute (arm stretched forward, palm facing down) is so distinctive and reviled, any use of it in fiction, instead of focusing on the protocol of the saluter, will instead be used to signal the character's morally dubious alignment.
- This gesture was commonly (though mistakenly) believed to be an ancient Roman salute, which was why the Italian Fascists adopted it (and the Nazis took it from them). Expect to see it in films set in Ancient Grome, especially if they were made before World War II. In fact, that gesture was originally the one used by American civilians giving the Pledge of Allegiance, until the Nazis put it dead out of fashion, at which place it was replaced by the modern right-hand-over-heart gesture.
- When a great national leader dies, expect many teary-eyed salutes to follow. Many pictures of FDR's funeral show US soldiers saluting while weeping.
- At President Kennedy's funeral, little John John does this, and America burst into tears.