Today’s kerfuffle concerns Vice President Harris’s failure to return the salute of the Marines as she boarded Air Force Two. There’s a reason for that, she’s not in the chain of command. Not only is she not required to salute, but by the letter of the law, she is not entitled to salute.
Ronald Reagan started the Presidential saluting tradition. The President is the Commander-In-Chief of the US Military because the military is subordinate to civilian leadership. The President is a civilian, but he is in–and at the top of–the chain of command. The Vice-President, on the other hand, is not in any way in the chain of command.
Saluting has an interesting history. It is believed that it was originally to indicate that the person saluting was no threat. Some believe it was to show an open hand without a weapon, while others believe it was to raise the visor on a knight’s helmet, making the knight’s identity known. It probably has elements of each.
My experience is with the Navy, which has had a few different rules than the other branches, so others may have slightly different experiences. Some of these practices may have changed. Nevertheless, a salute is a gesture shared among those members of the military who are in good standing. If a Sailor is arrested and is a prisoner held in the brig, they are not permitted to salute because they are not in good standing. Enlisted or junior officers salute officers senior to them, but they are honoring the rank, not the individual. (Just for fun, enlisted members have been known to space themselves out when they see an officer so the officer has to return a salute to each of them, rather than a single salute.)
The Navy traditionally only salutes when covered (wearing a uniform hat). They remove their cover indoors, so while other branches salute indoors, the tradition was that Sailors did not. When the others saluted indoors, a Sailor would remain at attention until the salutes were rendered and returned.
Until about ten years ago, one did not salute unless in uniform. At that time, for morning or evening colors (raising the flag in the morning and lowering it in the evening), service members and veterans were permitted to salute even if not in uniform. You may see some veterans on television salute during the National Anthem.
One final bit of Navy saluting trivia–Sailors are permitted to salute with the left hand, “if the right hand is occupied.” In practical terms, this is usually limited to a boatswain mate who is piping an event with his right hand. They then salute with the left.
So, the vice-president did not salute the Marines or return their salutes. She’s not supposed to and she doesn’t.