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Symbols of Military Identity Essay

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At the United States Air Force Academy, the first experience of a new cadet is the loss of personal "stuff" and hence individual identity. All material possessions — those that signify individual identity, safety or relationship -- are taken from the cadet and replaced by "stuff" which indicate membership in the cadet wing. Clothing, jewelry, wallet, even hair, disappear as indexes of membership in an economic group. Pictures and address books vanish as symbols of connection with social groups in the broader world. Watches and calendars and money, reminders of being and safety, have no relevance as cadets move into the "other world" of the academy grounds.

Replacement "stuff" is utilitarian. Clothing is functional and suits its intended purpose to shelter and protect with a well-researched efficiency indicative of the military frame of mind. The clothing is easily cleaned and sanitized. It is even named in a military way — shirt, nonflying, blue; gloves, dress, white — indicating its function as well as obvious characteristics. It is most importantly uniform. The not so subtle message is that all people are identical, in purpose and value, except for a name.

The clothing is at first bare, like the personality-stripped human who wears it, but gradually it acquires ornamentation and indicates a new identity for the wearer. USAF Academy emblems appear first as cadets begin to see themselves as a real part of the academy system. Individual units identified by color, red, blue, yellow, etc, begin to work together. They build their bodies and their skills in these groups and as groups. They struggle, survive and triumph as a unit. Those who choose or are chosen to leave do so quietly without contact with the group as they depart...


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... This symbol of individual recognition, honor, and respect will continue with them throughout their careers.

It is probably not incidental that cadets, even in basic training, retain names rather than, say, numbers. As long as he has his name, the cadet remains an individual. This is essential to the military structure for "good name", honor, integrity can exist only when the individual exists. The military officer, despite this temporary subjugation to the group, is always personally responsible for his actions, and responsible to each individual under his command.

The symbolic structure of the uniform which unites, the insignia which are indexes of achievements and relationships, the name tag and salute which signify recognition of the individual are in combination symbolic of the tension between group and individual identity which is vital to the military.


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