National Geographic : 1943 Jun
The Traditions and Glamour of Insignia BY ARTHUR E. Dr Bois Chief of Heraldic Section, Office of the Quartermaster General, United States War Department T HE knight of the Middle Ages, with an identifying symbol on his shield, was the forerunner of the young Amer ican of today who wears upon his left sleeve at the shoulder an arrow "shot through a line," to recall that in World War I the men of his division,, the Thirty-second, "shot through every line the Boche put before them." Insignia are a modern phase of heraldry. They are distinguishing devices of authority, rank, office, or service. A red rose in a but tonhole at the railroad station may be the insigne * of a blind date. Joseph's coat of many colors was the sign by which his father, Jacob, believed him dead. Great is the variety and wide the use of insignia within the armed forces of the United States: the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. To which serv ice a man belongs, what rank he holds, what skills he has-these are some of the questions insignia answer. Insignia, form of shorthand, are kin to peacetime fancy jerseys on the gridiron, to pins of fraternal lodges and college fraterni ties. The soldier, sailor, marine, or Coast Guardsman, displaying insignia, makes known his organization and his place within it. Sleeves, shoulders, lapels, and collars, as well as hats and breasts of uniforms, are thus adorned. Devices are made of metal, embroi dered or woven cloth; lately, plastics. Colors are most effective when solid and substantial -gold or yellow, silver or white, blue, red, green, purple, and black. Once adopted, designs are followed faithfully. Insignia Speak in Symbols Those devices which reveal a man's per sonal heroism (decorations); his participa tion in specified campaigns (medals); or his attainments, such as expert rifleman (marks manship badges), are not included in the present article. Certain insignia of attain ment or qualification, most numerous in the Navy, do appear, but they fall within a dif ferent category. Here the chief purpose is to set forth in signia by which to tell organization and grade. No heraldic Gregg or Pitman has arisen to systematize these devices uniformly through out the services. To an extent it may be said that the Army has one system, the Navy another, the Marine Corps a combination of the first two, and the Coast Guard an abbre viation of the Navy system. Insignia of United States armed forces closely resemble those of armies and navies of other countries. Insignia for each service have grown out of the particular needs of that service. New devices have come in, old ones have gone out, as conditions have changed. One may wonder why fighting men through out the world pay so much heed to insignia, why specifications for each device and direc tions for wearing it are drawn up so minutely and followed so exactly. Why would it not be better for each man to put on a good stout suit of clothes and to assume the business of war fare without bothering about insignia? With out caring whether he is properly garbed, like all his fellows, in accord with standards so highly refined that the stitches in embroidered designs actually are counted before approved? The experienced officer replies that close attention to dress, both as to what is worn and as to how it is worn, is important not only as an aid to recognition and as an ele ment to create and support pride, but also as a means of establishing and maintaining discipline. Obviously, recognition of individuals, in connection with their organizations and posi tions of authority, is simplified by the insig nia worn upon their uniforms. Conceivably, identification could be attained by some less colorful and less distinctive insignia than those in use-a string of numbers, possibly, sewn to a man's coat. But to adopt so prosaic a code would be to ignore the truth that human beings respond more forcefully and more hap pily to beauty, poetry, and romance, all of which insignia convey, than to cold fact. Symbols Build Morale Military and naval insignia, all the way from the least involved to the most intricate, express a warmth and a fraternity which men -and, more recently, women-of all services know from experience. These devices are sources of pride in oneself and in one's or ganization. From this pride springs discipline; not discipline born of necessity and fear, but that which essentially is self-discipline, the essence of respect for self, for service, for country. *Within the services custom has abolished the singular "insigne." "Insignia," plural, does for both.