Monday, May 20, 2013

Umbrella-gate? Silly, But Some Thoughts on the Umbrella in Military History

No, seriously – why not?  Let's put this to rest and get back to some serious issues. 

Last Thursday's Rose Garden presser with Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey has become an issue because Obama, noting the beginning of some sprinkles, called hither a couple of Marines in ceremonial attendance to hold umbrellas over the heads of the Presidential Presence and the Prime Minister.  Some Conservatives are aghast but much of the bluster misses the mark.

The expression says it all ... both of them

A portion of the criticism falls on the idea that Obama violated the Marine Corps dress code, in that Marines do not carry umbrellas under any circumstance (Marine females, however, are allowed the option).  The hubbub amounts to a tempest in a thimble. 

I spent a good deal of time as a Marine and otherwise in joint and combined postings (before it was cool) and I was well aware of the uniform requirements and allowances in those situations.  For example, a Marine should always be 'uncovered' when indoors (civilianese: 'take off your hat') unless he is 'under arms', which means carrying a weapon (rifle, pistol, ceremonial sword – Marine swords are the oldest weapons in the US inventory – or even the fiction of a pistol belt because the Marine in question is on guard duty).  It is also a requirement that a Marine can salute only when covered.  Thus, using the transitive property of logic, Marines do not salute when reporting to a superior indoors.  The Army, however, does – that is their tradition. 

But lest we push the envelope of decorum too far, a Marine is expected to conform to the requirements of his host in a joint posting to avoid compromising situations that would result in confusion or embarrassment.  So for those times when I was the only Leatherneck amidst my cohort of Troopers, I would conform to their saluting norms.  It is the polite thing to do. 

So technically this whole Marine/Rose Garden/umbrella story is a wash, over and above the fact that Obama is the Commander-in-Chief and can tell any member of the Armed Forces what they can reasonably do with an umbrella. So can any President, and most of them have.  For example:

An Air Force Lieutenant Colonel in lieu of a Marine Corporal – sounds about right. 

But for someone so exquisitely attuned to form over substance, the 'optics' of the situation were far off the mark.  It just looks bad, and it adds to the accumulated baggage of his previous arrogant remarks and l'etat c'est moi attitude: get some "folks to get a couple of Marines" who will "look good next to us".  Not even a rim-shot would save that feeble attempt at humor.

The focus is misplaced, and instead should be devoted to his next statement in response to the reporter's query that sought assurance that "nobody in the White House knew about the [IRS] agency's actions before your [White House] counsel's office found out on April 22nd, and when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports as you said last Friday?"  After expressing a need to "make sure that [he] answer a specific question", he instead says, "I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press."  Quite the Inartful Dodger.  [emphasis mine] 

So, my advice about Umbrella-gate?  Drop it, move on to the long list of real abuses like the IRS targeting conservatives and giving breaks to 'progressives' (which amounted to an impeachable offense for Nixon), investigating AP reporters and their contacts (reports are surfacing this morning about contacts drying up as a result of the chilling effect), and the black hole surrounding the deadly terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate just before the last election.  And that is just the recent ones – does anyone remember the swindle of GM stockholders in favor of the unions, the billions of taxpayer dollars given to the variety of 'green energy' cronies, or the Fast & Furious scandal, which to date have all been successfully stonewalled? 

But the story brought to mind that this constitutes a rare juxtaposition of the topic of umbrellas and the military.  There are only two such instances of which I am aware. 

First of all, the proscription of umbrellas from the military occurs because of the obvious insight that a warrior considers a bit of rain to be inconsequential to the questions of life and death, as well as the myriad other vital considerations, swirling about him.  Patrolling through enemy territory during a rain shower is simply a state of mind: ponchos are practically useless since you will be soaked within a few minutes anyway.  Focus should be on protecting your gear, not so much your skin, and your appearance is immaterial to your mission or each other.  Besides, in areas of forested or tropical growth, the sound of the rain helps mask the sound of your movement.

"Embrace the suck"

In garrison, there are overcoats and protective coverings for headgear, providing a means for staying relatively dry without resorting to such an apparently epicene measure. Oddly (or some would say 'appropriately'), the Air Force and now the Navy have approved the use of umbrellas in service dress uniform (civilianese: coat and tie, or office casual).  Surveys of Pentagon staff and those at large installations are typically taken because those in the field are … well, they're off in the field.  Thus burning questions on the topic of umbrella availability are heavily skewed in favor of those whose career is focused on remaining far from the pointy end of the spear.

Some garrison duty requires more stamina and commitment

By tradition, it is held that it was the Duke of Wellington who laid down the commandment that banned officers from carrying umbrellas in the field, during the Peninsular Campaign.  History does not record his opinion about its use by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton, who arrived at Waterloo in such haste that he arrived in civilian clothes, complete with top hat, and led his division on the battlefield brandishing his umbrella like a saber until mortally wounded.

Sir Thomas Picton, Peninsular Campaign

The other such mention of a military umbrella comes in World War II with Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter of the British (naturally) 1st Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem, the unfortunate result of Operation Market Garden and its Bridge Too Far.  He ended up being the second in command (the 2IC) of the 2nd Battalion in its forlorn hope of capturing and holding the bridge for the Allied advance.

Major Digby Tatham-Warter

He carried an umbrella much like he would a riding crop because he said that he had an unfortunate tendency to forget the password.  He knew that his men were convinced that only an Englishman would be so dotty to carry an umbrella under such circumstances.  He was immensely talented and popular, at one point leading a bayonet charge with his umbrella during a desperate time in the fighting, and after being wounded (which he downplayed) and captured with his unit at the end of the battle, led an escape of some 120 British paratroopers from German captivity.  Tatham-Warter was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross, for his actions in the battle and afterward for leading his men back to friendly lines.


  1. The snooze media loves kerfuffles like this umbrella jazz. They are much easier than researching Fast & Furious, etc., etc., and asking hard questions that might get you kicked off the next dinner list.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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