You are currently viewing Military courtesy, customs, traditions
VICTOR Simukonda.

Military courtesy, customs, traditions

THE military profession has a long history which covers nearly the entire span of human existence.
Unlike many other professions, the military profession is both a calling and a way of life. As such, the military life is premised on customs and traditions many of which have been established as a result of this long history.
Within the military, military courtesy is simply the display of good manners, politeness and respect from both subordinates and seniors to each other.
Fundamental to this idea is the principle of ‘reciprocity’, that is, respect shown to a senior by a junior acknowledges the senior’s responsibility and authority while courtesy extended to a subordinate equally acknowledges the subordinate and their significance as a fellow combatant.
In the Zambia Army, where most military personnel live and work in cantonments, courtesy is practised both on and off duty and is considered more or less a categorical imperative. This article will cover a few of military customs and tradition that define who the military are.
By definition, a custom is a commonly accepted manner of behaving or doing something in a particular society, place or time. In the military, customs are regular, expected actions which help maintain order and enforce military discipline.
On the other hand, a tradition is a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another. In Europe, tradition was a principle of military culture that had evolved out of the Middle Ages’ concept of chivalry. The French created the concept of ‘Esprit de Corps’, or pride in one’s unit, while in Japan, most military tradition was based on the bushido code or ‘way of the warrior’.
One required act of military courtesy is the salute. The salute is founded on military custom deeply rooted in tradition and is a symbol of respect and a sign of comradeship. The most common form of salute is the hand salute which began in the days of chivalry when it was customary for knights dressed in armour to raise their visors to friends for the purpose of identification. In the Zambia Army, soldiers salute all officers, and officers salute their seniors. Salutes are returned by persons saluted except when in civilian clothes or when in uniform but uncovered (without headdress). If a junior salutes a group of seniors, the senior most in the group returns the salute simultaneously. The salute is accompanied with an articulate, ‘Good morning Sir/Madam; Good afternoon Sir/Madam, and Good Evening Sir/Madam’ according to the time of day.
Normally the junior will know the senior most in a group because of another custom known as the senior place of honour. According to this custom, seniors will always walk and sit on the right of their juniors. The position of honour originated from the medieval swordsmen who always wore their weapons on the left side and drew them to their right. The strongest and most experienced warriors were given the place of honour (right) to allow them easy access to their weapons. Another military custom is coming to attention. When a senior enters a room of juniors the room will be called to attention and the senior most among the juniors will pay complements. In the Zambia Army all military personnel are also addressed properly by either their appointment or their rank and surname. It is common for seniors to address juniors by their first names but never vice versa. Being a former British colony, it is also common for seniors to call juniors ‘old chap’, which is a British affectionate term.
In the military, courtesy, customs and traditions are not just about the ‘dos’ but also the ‘don’ts’. These ‘don’ts’ are prohibitions punishable under military law, CAP 106 of the Laws of Zambia. For example, punctuality is a custom and tardiness is not tolerated. Another is to always wait to be invited to sit and never lean on a senior’s desk. Also, violating the chain of command is taboo in the military. The “chain of command” is the direct line of authority from the highest to the lowest working level. Each level of command or authority is responsible to the next highest level. To bypass your superior and consult a higher authority is contrary to military procedure. Theft and fighting in the Zambia Army are equally taboo and serious enough to warrant a dishonourable discharge. Public display of affection and appearing encumbered (e.g. carrying heavy luggage) is also not allowed in uniform especially for officers who are equally restricted from using public transportation in uniform. All in all, there are many military customs and traditions, and whether on-duty or off-duty, all personnel must adhere to them, failure to which is punishable by law.
The author is a military historian and staff officer at Zambia Army headquarters.