What to do about the flag?
Flag Day is this week. That was always a very special occasion for my late father, who was decorated in World War II, and who very much loved that flag. To his generation, the flag was quite lovable. In World War II Old Glory was at its most glorious. America’s cause was righteous against a tyrant who was certifiably evil. Troops carrying the stars and stripes saved Europe, and perhaps the world, from suppression. For the postwar generation, however, the flag and what to think about it, became a bit more confusing, as murky as a Vietnam swamp. There were those who opposed the war and those who opposed the dissenters. The flag became a symbol for the latter group, but not the other. The confusion continues in this era following the downfall of communism, yet another conquest for which this nation can take credit, and through these days of the War in Iraq. The flag waving now is seen as being jingoistic, nationalistic, a passion of the far right, not in keeping with the spirit of global unity.
That unfortunately overshadows the fact that various flags of red, white and blue have flown over some of the world’s great social movements. Those were the colors of liberation as carried by citizens overcoming tyranny. The tricolors were at the head of the charge in France, Russia and England. They became the symbol of freedom.
Within a democracy, a flag works best when it flies above domestic politics. It is more endangered by becoming a partisan symbol than by bullets. It shouldn’t represent a government or a party or an ideology, but a nation.
My early experience with the flag while wearing a uniform was far removed from the battlefields. Each year for several years, Flag Day in New Orleans would be celebrated by herding the city’s Boy Scouts to Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. At the given hour, after waiting in the heat at the park’s edge, we marched, en masse and out of step, along the midway. The favored among us, never myself, got to carry flags. “Stars and Stripes Forever” would blare through the park’s loud speakers. There would be speeches from the stage and a flag raising. For our efforts, we were rewarded with an evening of free rides, a concept that seemed better than the actual experience since there was a long line of scouts waiting for each ride. Many of the rides were cut short by a few spins to expedite processing as many scouts as possible.
Years later, we would learn that it was along the Pontchartrain’s shores that the landing crafts were developed that carried American troops to the beach at Normandy. Walking in the tracks of such history and with flags waving all around us, we were more fascinated with the roller-coaster.
In contemporary times the most visual presentation of the flag was due to another man in uniform, Jefferson Parish’s late Sheriff Harry Lee. His flag at the intersection of Veterans and Causeway Boulevards was so big it once lifted a worker who was trying to grab hold of it.
A special flag for me is the one that flies near St. Dominic’s church on Harrison Avenue. My father was part of the committee to construct that flagpole. Each year on the Saturday before Flag Day, at what is invariably a sweltering hour, a group of veterans has gathered there to hear speeches and to salute the colors. Across the course of the year, individual flags become weather-beaten so they are frequently replaced, quite often by families in the name of their fallen soldier.
On this Flag Day week, the nation for which the flag stands is the world’s peace maker – whether it wants to be or not. Its foreign policy is guided by self-interest, but not by that alone, otherwise the flag would long ago have been flying over Cuba. A country that allows freedom of speech has to listen to its own internal debate and moral pangs about the sovereignty of other nations, even those whose leaders we don’t like. The Cuban flag, however, might be flying throughout the Caribbean were it not for the shadow of the American flag. Most people in Granada, Panama and, maybe, Haiti, are glad that the United States got involved with their troubles when it did, and left when it did.
It may be that the flag’s greatest triumph in contemporary America, at least since September 11, is that there is really no crisis to cause people to rally around it. We worry about the Middle East and the economy, but, for the most part, the nation is at peace. People can turn their attention to the everyday demands of working, living, playing, and riding roller-coasters. Freedom succeeds best once it is so easily taken for granted.
I will be flying my flag for all those reasons and because there is no place on the planet where I would rather live.
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