Despite a recent Pentagon directive that constituted a de facto ban on the public display of the Confederate battle flag on military installations, there is one way most service members can still display the flag: a tattoo.
While each of the military services has its own policy governing tattoos, the majority do not explicitly prohibit service members from having a flag tattoo.
Though the Army, Navy and Air Force all have policies regulating the types of tattoos that members of their services can have, none of them specifically prohibit Confederate flag tattoos at this time.
Because the flag has not officially been deemed “extremist,” racist or offensive it is not outlawed as body art by those services.
The exception is the Marine Corps, which has banned it.
The military, like most major institutions in the US, is grappling with systemic racism. In June, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a major internal review aimed at improving diversity and “ensuring equal opportunity across all ranks” of the US military.
“US Navy Uniform Regulations (NAVPERS 15665I) do not explicitly prohibit Confederate flag tattoos at this time,” a spokesman for the Navy told CNN, while saying that “tattoos/body art/brands that are obscene, sexually explicit, and or advocate discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnic, sexual orientation or national origin are prohibited.”
The Air Force’s policy says, “Tattoos/brands/body markings anywhere on the body that are obscene, commonly associated with gangs, extremist, and/or supremacist organizations, or that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination are prohibited in and out of uniform.”
The newly launched Space Force has the same tattoo policy as the Air Force.
An Air Force official told CNN that if an individual service member were to report a Confederate flag tattoo as being offensive to their commander, that officer would likely have the authority to instruct a service member to cover it up.
Part of the reason for the confusion is that the recent Defense Department guidance, which constituted a de facto ban on the flying of the flag, did not say anything about the Confederate battle flag itself but simply prohibited all non-authorized flags from being displayed, a policy that effectively outlawed the Confederate flag in addition to Pride flags and flags of sports teams, among others.
De facto ban angered Trump
Officials told CNN that President Donald Trump was not pleased with the de facto ban on the flag despite the policy’s attempts to avoid having the Department of Defense make a determination about the flag’s meaning.
While that policy may have helped avoid an even more direct clash with the White House, which has resisted labeling the flag as a racist symbol, it did not provide clear guidance as to whether the flag should be considered a prohibited tattoo.
Because the Marine Corps had already issued a policy on the flag prior to the Pentagon guidance, it has been able to explicitly ban tattoos that include its image.
“I am mindful that many people believe that flag to be a symbol of heritage or regional pride. But I am also mindful of the feelings of pain and rejection of those who inherited the cultural memory and present effects of the scourge of slavery in our country,” the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, wrote when announcing the policy, adding, “My intent is not to judge the specific meaning anyone ascribes to that symbol or declare someone’s personally held view to be incorrect.”
“Rather, I am focused solely on building a uniquely capable warfighting team whose members come from all walks of life and must learn to operate side-by-side,” he continued.
The US military often refers to the flag that was carried on the battlefield by Confederate troops as the “battle flag” to differentiate it from the official flag of the Confederacy, which had a different design.