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William Astore

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Hey, Mad Men: You Don't Salute Indoors

Posted: 04/ 9/2012 11:19 am

As a series, Mad Men prides itself on its meticulous, even fanatical, attention to detail.

But military details seem to elude its creators. Last night's show featured an enlisted man saluting Captain (Dr.) Greg Harris indoors at a restaurant. This is contrary to military customs and courtesies. You might salute indoors if you were reporting in to a superior officer (or being called on the carpet), but you certainly wouldn't salute an officer indoors at a social occasion. What a polite enlisted man might do is to nod or utter a discrete "Good evening, sir."

This distinction makes a difference. Mad Men was straining to create a scenario in which Dr. Greg could dress down the waiter for his apparent disregard for the sacrifice of military members. So the show's creators concocted a salute and an exchange that was both forced and false.

In Mad Men, perhaps the worst character is Dr. Greg, a failure as a surgeon in the civilian world, a cuckold and wife abuser, a vain and wounded man who joins the military out of desperation. In the military, he finds purpose and volunteers for a second tour in Vietnam.

But very quickly we learn that Greg volunteered for selfish rather than noble reasons, a point reinforced by his wife, who tells him that only the Army can make him feel like a man, a chore she herself has tired of.

In Mad Men, Greg is clearly a jerk, and he was so before joining the Army. And he's still a jerk after putting on the uniform, a fair enough point.

But as the only character on the show who's in the military in 1966 as the Vietnam War accelerated, Greg takes on larger significance as a stand-in for the military. And the image he projects is disturbingly one-sided.

If Mad Men wants to critique the military and the Vietnam War as being disreputable and dishonest, so be it. But at least they could get the details right. By getting something as basic as a salute so wrong, the show's creators hint at a contempt for the military, a contempt that is just as easy to fall into as is today's unalloyed praise of the military.

The U.S. military, then and now, is as complex as America, with all of our people's strengths and weaknesses.

Come on, Mad Men. Even (or especially) in the darkening days of 1966, our military deserves a fair and multi-dimensional hearing on your show.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.