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Why is the American Flag Backwards on Military Uniforms?

Image of Army OCP/Scorpion US Flag Patch

Americans are a left-to-right kind of population. It is engrained in our heads from childhood. We read and write, left to right. Tell a group to line up, and they will go left to right. Ask a person to lay out some things in a line and more than likely it will be set up, left to right.

No doubt because of that when Americans see the U.S. flag on a service member, they ask why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms? It’s confusing. American brains have been trained to view the flag with the stars on the left as we face it if it is affixed to something flatly. 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 right. When it 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.

But people start to ask why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms when they see service personnel strut by. Many good-intentioned people have stopped and asked service members about their “reversed” U.S. flag patch and why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms?

The U.S. Department of Defense said 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.’”

If you are an Army soldier, you know that you 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 is the American flag backwards on military 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 reverse patch 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 many people argue is a sign of disrespect.

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.

The U.S. Navy allows sailors to place the U.S. flag on their Navy working uniforms (NWU), but the flag is optional. The reverse U.S. 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.”

And people wonder why questions like why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms persist?

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.

What’s important to remember is that the U.S. Code that governs the flag 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. Right or left, there is nothing in the law that states which side is mandatory. The military services have issued regulations that help guide their members on how to wear the flag, but rest assured, whether it is the right or left sleeve, both are right. But even with laws and regulations guiding, there are still questions about why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms?

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.

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 reversed, 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 reverse 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 services have made it a point to include the U.S. flag on the uniforms of service personnel. Sure, there is some confusion and some people are asking why is the American flag backwards on military uniforms? But it proves that Americans care about the U.S. flag and that it has value to them. Americans want the nation’s symbols to be respected.

Since 9/11, the military has coined the phrase, “Assaulting Forward” as a way to explain the wear of the flag on the uniform. That’s probably the best way to look at this issue.

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