An Order of Precedence Provides Order for Events, Ceremonies and Displays

Joint Service Color Guard Old Guard

The Joint Services Color Guard at Fort Meyer, Virginia carries the U.S. flag with the flags of the five uniformed services.

Years ago when I was in military training at Fort Lewis in Washington state, our training battalion was completing a long march during which each of us trainees had exhausted the supply of water found in our canteens.  As we rounded the bend into the camp, we spied the welcome sight of a water tank trailer, affectionately called a water buffalo with a dozen or so spigots where we could fill our canteens.  Each squad, platoon and company immediately aimed their line of march directly at the water buffalo trying to arrive there first.  It took quick action by our drill sergeants to restore order, because everyone wanted to be first.

Just as our drill sergeants set an “order of precedence” for us to fill our canteens, the Department of Defense (DOD) has established a “Military Order of Precedence” for the military branches.  Members of each of the five uniformed military services believe, of course, that their branch of the armed forces is the most important and the best, and arguments can be made for each service to be first in line.  Nevertheless, to establish order the Department of Defense determined an official “Order of Precedence” based on seniority and other criteria.  Some will always believe, according to their personal research, that DOD is wrong, but they might as well try to argue with the drill sergeants who gave orders to my training battalion all those years ago.  The five branches of the military follow DOD’s orders in all things, including the Military Order of Precedence.

This Order of Precedence is used for a myriad of situations: the order in which military units line up, the order in which they march in parades and the order the songs of the military branches are played and sung.  The flags of the services are given this same order when they are posted in a line.  When the seals, insignia or emblems of the military branches are shown on a wall, what order is used?  As with everything else the DOD established Military Order of Precedence.

Which branch of service comes first?  Why the U.S. Army, of course.  Now I may feel that way because I served in the Army, but it is really first because DOD determined that the Army is the senior or oldest of the five branches. The Army’s birthday, as determined by DOD, is the 14th of June in 1775 when the Continental Congress authorized the enlistment of riflemen to serve the United Colonies in their struggle against Great Britain.  Now, some could argue that the Army actually began a couple of months earlier when the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington Green the 19th of April.  It could also be argued that the U.S. Army began when General George Washington took command of the new Continental Army on January 1st in 1776.  However, none of these competing theories matter since the DOD decided that the U.S. Army’s birthday is June 14, 1775.

Similar arguments exist for the birth-dates of the other services, but nonetheless—the Department of Defense has made its determination and it is up to them.  What is the order of seniority adopted by DOD then?  First, the U.S. Army takes the field; followed by U.S. Marine Corps hitting the beaches; next the U.S. Navy sails into to view; and finally the U.S. Air Force flies in over the horizon.

Here are the birthdays of the 5 branches as determined by the Department of Defense:

Army Birthday –14 June 1775
Marine Corps Birthday – 10 November 1775
Navy Birthday – 13 Oct 1775-Abolished February 1781-Reinstated 7 September 1781
Air Force Birthday – 18 September 1947
Coast Guard Birthday – 4 August 1790

But what about the U.S. Coast Guard?  Well its place in the order of precedence is determined  by something else rather than age.  The Coast Guard currently operates under the Department of Homeland Security, which is junior to the Department of Defense.  So, the Coast Guard is behind the Air Force in the Order of Precedence.  Nevertheless, in time of war the Coast Guard could be reassigned to operate under the direction of the U.S. NAVY.  Then it would move ahead of the Air Force and immediately behind the NAVY.  That is logical to some folks but illogical to others.  However, it really doesn’t matter whether someone agrees or disagrees.  The Department of Defense has made the rule, and the individual military services have regulations, instructions and rules that implement DOD’s Directive Number 1005.8.  So let it be written, so let it be done.

Seals Larger

When displayed together, the Seals of the U.S. Military Services are arranged to follow the Department of Defense established Order of Precedence.

Orders of precedence also determine the order of display for national flags and flags of the U.S. states.

For a grouping of national flags representing different countries, the U.S. protocol is to arrange them alphabetically according to each country’s official name in English.  What could be easier?  Actually there are a number of pitfalls and these flag displays require careful consideration.  For example, Britain lines up under the letter U since its official name is not England or Great Britain, but the United Kingdom.  Germans my call their country Deutschland, but America lines their flag up under G for Germany.  This order even changes with time and world events.  Russians now line up under R for Russia, but they used to be lined up under U for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Then you take our old friends in Nationalist China—they may not even be allowed to line up at all.  That is thanks to their friends in what we used to call Communist China and now acknowledge as the Peoples Republic of China.  However, we let their flag line up simply under C for China.  Display the flag of Tibet under T—or under any other letter—and Chinese observers will complain loudly.  Similarly, display the flag of Palestine, and brace for complaints.  While this may all seem trivial, it reflects the status and honor of peoples and nations, and wars have been fought over such matters.

Finally, there is the question of the order of precedence when displaying the flags of the States.  On occasion they may be displayed alphabetically, but the usual order is when the states were “admitted to the union.”  This sounds simple, and while it is simple in practice, there is more to the story.  The first thirteen states created the Union and were not, technically speaking, admitted to the Union.  Together, the thirteen United States declared independence on July Fourth of 1776.  These states governed themselves under the Articles of Confederation as the United States of America.  When the U.S. Constitution was created these first thirteen states had an order in which they ratified the new Constitution, but they did not “enter the Union” upon ratification; they were already part of the United States.

So, being very nit-picky, the order of the first thirteen states is determined by the order they ratified the U.S. Constitution.  For the rest of the states, the order is determined by the order in which they were admitted to the Union.

Established orders of precedence are part of etiquette—they give order to our ceremonies and displays.

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