Today, military dog tags are a part of pop culture. Virtually everyone knows what they look like and what they do, thanks to their high profile in the military, movies, and music.
In this post, we ask why dog tags came about, where their unusual name came from, and their history. Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about this delightful army accessory.
Table of Contents
- What are military dog tags?
- What information is on a military dog tag?
- Military dog tags throughout history
- Do soldiers have to wear dog tags?
- Why are there 2 dog tags in the military?
- What happens to dog tags when a soldier dies?
- Key Takeaways
What are military dog tags?
Modern military dog tags are rectangular metal tags worn around the neck providing key information that identifies the body of a deceased soldier. Because of their rich and interesting history, dog tags are both cherished in the military and worn as a fashion accessory.
What are dog tags used for?
It can be challenging to identify casualties in combat situations. Modern weapons can mangle faces and other identifiable features beyond recognition, making it hard to determine the identity of the deceased. Knowing who is dead and alive, though, is critical for maintaining the chain of command. Therefore, the military needed a foolproof identification system. Dog tags were the ideal solution.
Being made of metal, dog tags are considerably more robust than human flesh. Because of this, they are much more likely to survive a bomb or heavy weapon attack than a person. Therefore, other soldiers at the scene, or rescue workers, can identify fallen soldiers quickly by the dog tags on their bodies or in the vicinity. The military command can then use this information to restructure who reports to whom and inform families of the deceased quickly.
Why are they called dog tags?
The first public use of the term “dog tag” was by newspaper businessman William Randolph Hearst in 1936, according to The Army Historical Foundation. Hearst apparently used the term pejoratively in opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new Social Security Administration ID cards.
But that’s just the first public instance of the term. Other rumors suggest that it originated among WWI conscripts who felt like their senior officers were treating them like dogs. More practically-minded people argue that it is just because military ID tags look similar to the metal on dog collars. Unfortunately, we may never know the true origins of the term.
A short history of military dog tags
Historians believe that dog tag usage originated in the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Many soldiers worried that their comrades would not be able to identify their bodies, should they fall on the battlefield because of the ferocity of modern weaponry. Therefore, many took homemade tags with them so that if they died, they could avoid burial in unmarked graves.
Interestingly, most early “dog tags” were homemade, not mass-produced pieces of embossed steel, as they are today. Soldiers used whatever means they had at their disposal to identify themselves, with many simply marking their clothing or using pinned-on paper or felt tags. Old coins were also often used as well as pieces of carved wood placed around the neck.
Dog tags only became official military policy at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1899. Following low casualty identification rates (perhaps as little as 40 percent), the Army Morgue and Office of Identification in the Philippines recommended that the army provide all soldiers with tags to identify them if killed in action. The policy became official in 1906, and soldiers have been wearing them ever since.
What information is on a military dog tag?
Historically, the army stamped soldiers’ dog tags with their name, rank, company, regiment, and corps. They then fitted them to a chain or cord around their necks and placed them under army uniforms.
Later on, the information on dog tags became more forward-thinking. In addition to the above information, dog tags also included a person’s blood type (in case they required immediate medical attention), Social Security number, and religious preference. In WWII, the only religious preferences permitted were “H” for Jewish (Hebrew), “C” for Catholic, and “P” for Protestant. Later, military authorities removed additional information from dog tags, returning them to their basic role of soldier identification.
Social security numbers remained on dog tags for more than 40 years. However, in 2015, the army removed the requirement, citing security concerns. Modern dog tags only require minimal serial number information to identify a fallen soldier.
Military dog tags throughout history
In 1917, the U.S. Navy began requiring all serving personnel to begin wearing dog tags. Each segment of the military had its own version of the accessory.
Between WWI and WWII, the shape of dog tags changed considerably. In the early days, tags were coin-shaped and thick. However, after 1941, they evolved into the rounded oblong shapes we know and love today.
Between 1950 and 1970, dog tags had notches on them. Rumors swirled that this was because medics would place the notch between the soldier’s teeth if they died on the battlefield. However, the truth is more mundane. During this period, dog tag notches were a byproduct of the production process used to manufacture them. Machines made notches in tags out of necessity, not for any functional reason. Once the army replaced the original machines with more up-to-date equipment after 1970, the notch disappeared.
The military continues to issue dog tags to new recruits to this day as a form of battlefield identification to this day. However, they may not continue doing so forever.
More recently, new technologies have made it easier to identify battlefield remains without the need for physical tags. DNA science, for instance, makes it possible to discover who someone is from a microscopic quantity of cellular material.
Even so, it is unlikely that dog tags will become history. Thanks to their rich heritage, many soldiers will likely continue wearing them for many years to come, either as lucky charms or keepsakes.
Dog tags are now a part of military chic fashion. Many young people wear them to recreate a hardened, militaristic image, often pairing them with denim and tank tops.
Modern-day dog tags are customizable. Anyone can get them stamped with their personal information, or simply invented serial numbers. During the late 1990s, they became especially popular among rappers, using them as marketing for their music videos, or selling them to the highest bidder. Today, some high-end jewelers make gold and diamond-encrusted dog tags for wealthy clientele.
Do soldiers have to wear dog tags?
Soldiers must wear dog tags during combat situations. However, they do not have to wear them in their spare time or in non-life-threatening scenarios.
Throughout history, the rules of whether soldiers could keep their dog tags changed. At some times, the army allowed veterans to take them home with them. However, at other times, it recalled them at the end of their service.
Why are there 2 dog tags in the military?
In 1906, the U.S. military began requiring soldiers to wear dog tags (although it didn’t call them that at the time). Initially, soldiers wore just one tag. However, in July 1916, the War Department ordered the military commanders to add a second tag. The first tag would stay with the body of the casualty, while the second was for burial service record-keeping.
What happens to dog tags when a soldier dies?
Military dog tags now play a central role in ceremonies honoring the fallen. When a soldier dies, fellow members of his or her brigade use the tags to mark the body. One tag goes between the top and bottom teeth while the other goes between the toes. Beaded chains represent time, with the longer 365-bead chain representing days of the year, and the shorter 24-bead chain accounting for the number of months in two years.
Dog tags are both a practical item and a critical element in military history. Initially used for identification, they’ve taken on a culture of their own.
- Modern dog tags are steel plates stamped with soldiers’ serial numbers and identification information
- The military requires all soldiers to wear dog tags for identification purposes, should they fall on the battlefield or die in combat
- Soldiers first used dog tags in the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 because they were afraid of being placed in unmarked graves if nobody could identify them after they died
- The army began requiring all personnel to wear metal dog tags after 1906, with the Navy following in 1917.
- The information stamped on dog tags changed over time. Initially, they displayed a soldier’s name, rank, and regiment. Then during WWII, military leaders added medical information, such as blood type and religious affiliation.
- Up to 2015, dog tags also included the soldier’s Social Security number, though military command removed this recently because of security concerns
- Soldiers wear two dog tags. One remains with the body for burial while administrators take the other for army burial service recordkeeping
- Dog tags are a popular fashion accessory in the music industry and among youth looking to create a military image
Written by Silver Vincent Sutt
Silver Vincent Sutt is a former sergeant of the Estonian Defence Force, where he served for about 2 years. He is also an active member of the Estonian Defence League. He has been part of the Defence league for over 18 years. Read bio!