Tuesday, April 22, 2008

War, Peace & the U.S. Flag

I'm not quite sure why it has taken me so long to be able to understand what has become my ambivalence for the flag as a proud symbol of the U.S.A. It was a simple contest at my kids' school that helped me finally sharpen my focus on these feelings this morning.

On the way to school my girls excitedly told me about a new fundraising program--one of at least 5 going on concurrently. It is being called "A Penny War". The purpose of this penny war is to fund the purchase of a flagpole for the school. The premise of The Penny War is that the class that wins a skirmish of The Penny War each ?day?/?week?/?month? (not clear on this detail) gets a reward such as wearing sandals instead of the uniform code tennis shoes. Much like the current U.S. war, I'm not clear on when this war ends. I think I need to go back to the most recent school newsletter to find out whether the war ends at the end of this week, or at the end of the school year, or when enough money to pay for the flagpole has been collected.

As I was chuckling to myself at this bit of irony between U.S. military policy and putting up a flag at my kids' school, it struck me that I had learned to love and respect the U.S. flag as a child during a time of relative peace before the Vietnam War protests were common. My grandfather had a flagpole, and several current and historic flags that he raised on special holidays. I was the one who got to help him raise the flag on these holidays. I had also graduated from high school on the year of the U.S. Bicentennial--also during a time of peace and a great memory of celebration both for our country and for me personally!

But after 9/11/01 and particularly after 3/17/03 when Bush launched the Iraq War, flags have been flying everywhere all the time in numbers unprecedented in U.S. history--properly and improperly. I've even had a debate on a church governing body whether or not to fly a flag in the church sanctuary. (The vote was "no".) Everywhere you drive you can see torn and tattered flags flapping off of car windows and from flagpoles at homes and businesses and schools. There's a flag just 2 doors down from my house that sorely needs replacing. So, to me, the flag has become a negative symbol that represents the Iraq War. And the tattered flags flying everywhere are as worn and windblown as the troops lingering in the desserts of Iraq.

But beyond this more recent distaste for flag waving, I still felt a haunting feeling of disquiet with the U.S. flag that had longer history in my psyche. I'd never quite identified or articulated it before. Then it struck me like a bomb bursting in air. When you think of raising the flag, along with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, you think of singing the Star Spangled Banner (or instead of at sporting events). So my personal memory had tied the U.S. Flag permanently with the Star Spangled Banner--a song which is a celebration of war and a song I don't enjoy singing at all.

As this realization hit me, much like a flag rippling in the wind, a second wave of awareness came that for me, the U.S. flag for me was no longer the happy symbol of peacetime pride, but now when I see it, it evokes only thoughts and memories of war, aggression, and death due to recent U.S. history.

My husband's grandfather was a veteran of World War I and his parents gave us the flag from his casket after his funeral. We had flown this flag at our house on U.S. Holidays for the past 12 years or more until 9/11. Now, when national holidays approach I reluctantly haul it out for display. Sometimes when I know we are going to be gone over a U.S. holiday I'm actually relieved that I don't have to have a personal internal debate about whether to fly the flag or not.

After this morning, I don't know whether I will ever be able to look at the flag the same way again. I know that it is critical that those of us who love the United States of American and who also love peace, try very hard to resurrect our mythology of the flag as a symbol of peacetime pride and deconstruct the mythology of the flag as merely a war banner. I'm not sure whether this will be possible, but I will try.

No comments: