After 9/11, the U.S. military added the U.S. flag to its uniform. While the U.S. flag might have made some appearances on some U.S. uniforms prior to 2001, the U.S. flag became mandatory on American military uniforms in the early 2000s. By 2005, the U.S. Army made it a required item on the battle uniform.
That has not come without some confusion for many Americans who see the U.S. flag on the right shoulder sleeve of the uniform and think that they are looking at a backwards American flag. It makes sense for them to be concerned and it is a good thing that people are concerned. It shows pride in the flag and a desire for people to be good stewards of our national colors.
In the early 2000s, as U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan to start the Global War on Terror, many Americans would see the U.S. flag on a service member and ask about the backwards American flag. American brains have been trained to view the flag with the stars on the left if facing the flag. That’s because the union field, the blue box with the 50 stars, is always in the highest position of honor, which is to the flag’s right. When the flag hangs flat on a wall, for example, the union (the stars) are on the flag’s right, or if a person is facing the flag, the union is on their left.
As military personnel donned their new desert uniforms sporting the U.S. flag, people began to inquire about the backwards American flag. In fact, good-intentioned people have stopped and asked service members about their “reversed” or "backwards American flag." There was so much commotion about the backwards American flag that the U.S. Department of Defense had to issue a statement in response to queries about this topic.
“We appreciate and share your concern for the respectful display of our American flag on the uniform of the U.S. armed forces. While each service branch has its own uniform regulation, please see the Department of the Army Regulation 670-1, Guide to the Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. Chapter 19 addresses this issue specifically. It states, in part, ‘The U.S. flag embroidered insignia is worn so that the star field faces forward, or to the flag’s own right. When worn in this manner, the flag is facing the observer’s right and gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward.’”
Army soldiers wear the U.S. flag on the right sleeve. As AR 670-1 states, the patch keeps the blue union field moving forward, as if the flag were being carried into battle. A good way to look at it is to think of the soldier’s arm as a flagpole that is being carried on the battlefield. The flag moves forward, not backwards, it does not retreat. Yet even with regulations that explain why the military has a backwards American flag on its uniforms, there are still questions and part of that is because of the ambiguity in military regulations and ignorance of the flag code.
While AR 670-1 explains the wear of the so-called backwards American flag in the Army, all the services have varying guidelines for wear of the U.S. flag on their uniforms. The Coast Guard, for example, wears a U.S. flag on the left sleeve of aviation flight suits. The union field is still facing forward, but the flag is worn on the left side of a uniform which some people argue isn’t correct since it is displayed on the wearer’s left sleeve and not the right, the position of honor.
The truth is Title 4 U.S. Code states no requirements that the U.S. flag be worn on the right sleeve because it is as some say a position of honor. Title 4 U.S.C. states that the U.S. flag can be placed on a military uniform and it states that the union field always be placed to the flags own right when displayed on walls, buildings, etc., but there are no requirements that the U.S. flag be placed on the right sleeve and no requirement that states it should appear as if it is moving forward. Therefore, the U.S. Coast Guard is not wrong in how they wear the U.S. flag and they do not have to sport the so-called backwards American flag.
The U.S. Navy allows sailors to place the U.S. flag on their Navy working uniforms (NWU), but the flag is optional. The backwards American flag is worn on the right sleeve of the NWU Type II and III uniform.
Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel, provides the least amount of uniformity on the matter, pardon the pun. While airmen wear the reverse U.S. flag on the occupational camouflage pattern uniform similar to the Army, they have latitude, like the Navy, to wear the U.S. flag on their flight suits. AFI 36-2903 states: “In lieu of the US Flag, members may wear the USAF Weapons School Graduate Patch (graduate or instructor), USAF (or joint/international) Test Pilot School (TPS) patch (graduate or instructor), School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) patch, Critical Care Air Transport Team patch, and other completed equivalent school patches.” So, aircrews can choose to wear the backwards American flag, or some other cool guy/gal patch.
The lack of uniformity naturally has people questioning the backwards American flag when they see it.
The Marine Corps keeps it simple. There are no U.S. flags on their uniforms. Space Force debuted its uniforms in 2020 and they wear the U.S. flag on the left sleeve, like Air Force flight suits and like the Coast Guard.
Remember, it is the U.S. Code that governs display of the flag and allows military personnel to wear the U.S. flag on their uniforms, but it states nothing about where the flag should be affixed to the uniform, only uniform regulations govern wear of the flag on U.S. military uniforms. Right or left sleeve, there is nothing in the law that states which side is mandatory which means that if the U.S. flag is worn on the left sleeve, it is correct since the union colors are moving forward, and if the backwards American flag is worn on the right sleeve, it is also correct as long as the union is moving forward. Both are correct.
The Army, which is primarily a ground assault organization, chose to have its personnel wear their flag on the right shoulder sleeve. As the soldier moves forward the flag appears to be moving forward with him or her, like days of old in the Civil War when flags were carried into battle. It shows the Army, the nation, the flag, advancing. They chose the right sleeve as part of tradition that the flag is always on the right even if it appears like a backwards American flag.
It is important to note, when displayed on a person, vehicle, aircraft or even spaceship, the highest position of honor is the front and not the rear. The field of blue should be displayed to the front.
On presidential motorcades, for example, U.S. flags are attached to the right side of the vehicle, in the front, with the flag attached to the flag pole on the blue field side. As the car drives by, depending on where a person is standing, the flag might look as if it is a backwards American flag, but it is not. The union is moving forward just like on the Army uniform. Similarly, Air Force One has a U.S. flag with the union field facing toward the front of the aircraft on both sides. One of those flags is a backwards American flag (the one on the right side of the plane). If the flag were painted on the right side of the plane with union field facing the tail end, non-reversed, the stripes side of the flag would be facing front and thus appearing to retreat.
Since 9/11, the military has coined the phrase, “Assaulting Forward” as a way to explain the backwards American flag on the uniform. That’s probably the best way to look at this issue.