Existential Fortune Cookies: Fashion or fatality?

Opinion by Sebastain Gould
Feb. 17, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Existential Fortune Cookies: Fashion or fatality?The philosophers I’ve most admired were veterans of war, and they reflected upon their service in their philosophy. One reason I joined the Marine Corps was to gain a more concrete understanding of existentialist thought.


An important aspect of existentialism is the idea of authenticity, or presenting yourself as you really are. Being a veteran of the Iraq war, I have worn dog tags for a long time, because I was required to wear them during service. Because of this, I am not quite sure how I feel about nonmilitary civilians wearing dog tags on campus. If they were military personnel, I would know exactly what to say to them: “Put the dog tags back in your shirt and stop being inappropriate.” I have never seen a service member of the Armed Forces wear their dog tags outside of their shirt and not get in trouble for it. Even then, the only time I’ve ever seen service members have them out is when someone was joking around. Hollywood, I suppose, has created the image that they should be worn for the world to see. But for the rest of us who aren’t in Hollywood, is it appropriate?


Dog tags were first used by the United States during the Civil War by soldiers concerned about what would happen to their bodies in the event that they were killed in battle. This tradition continued into the First World War, when the United States made the wearing of dog tags mandatory. Dog tags were created for and exist to identify the bodies of the dead.


I assume that because civilians are wearing the dog tags outside of their shirts, they are wearing them to look cool, and not to identify their bodies in case of death. I do not have a particular vendetta against fashion; I just wonder if it is appropriate attire. Take, for instance, the backpacks and clothes that members of sports teams get when they win a particular championship, or the rings given to Super Bowl champions. They signify something accomplished, actions completed. It seems as though allowing anyone to walk around Stanford with memorabilia that says “I won” instead of “I watched” would get quite confusing.


At this point, you may object because many people wear sports jerseys. I will not deny that, but I think it is different because a jersey does not signify a personal accomplishment. It shows that you are a fan of some particular individual or sports team. To my knowledge, no one wears dog tag duplicates of their favorite war hero or veteran.


What is at stake here is authenticity. Are you being authentic when you associate with something to which you do not belong so as to bolster your own image? I would guess the answer to that is no. When I see someone in a sports jersey, I think that person is a sports fan. When I see someone in sweatpants and a sweatshirt that says Stanford, I think he or she is an athlete. Likewise, when I see a person wearing dog tags, I think that person is in the military. Invariably, when I ask the individual wearing the dog tags if they are in the military, they always reply with a resounding “No, why would you think that?” At this point I become resentful; there are very few veterans on campus, so my expectations are let down when I see someone associating themselves with the military even without realizing it.


Of course, maybe this isn’t a problem of authenticity and it is just a misunderstanding; maybe, because of my military discipline, I think that things should be a certain way because I have been trained to do so. Maybe dog tags are, in fact, more important to the fashion world than I would like to believe. That said, it just seems as though something that is meant to identify the dead should be respected; after all, if human life isn’t sacred, then what is? At the end of the day, impersonating an athlete by wearing lookalike clothing seems disingenuous. Wearing dog tags to look cool even though they exist to identify dead bodies? Now that just seems sacrilegious.


Sebastain is a philosophy major and creative writing minor. Send him a philosophical, creative email about authenticity or any other topic at sjgould “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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