I wonder what all those flags mean.
Since Sept. 11, flags are everywhere. Car windows, antennas, in the trees, in shop windows, on roadside mailboxes, on lapels and hats, on the sides of barns. Boats, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles: all sport flags.
What I wonder is what all those flags mean to the people who fly them, who went to the store to buy them, or clipped them from newspapers and magazines, or dug them out of dad's foot locker in the attic. What are all those flags intended to say on behalf of the folks who fly them?
And when you pass a house with no Stars and Stripes hanging over the porch or at the beginning of the driveway, what does that mean?
Between 1776 and 1960, the American flag had at least 10 official and unofficial makeovers. The flag that Gen. George Washington ordered hoisted above his Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters in January of that memorable Revolutionary year was a hybrid, a diffident symbol of a young, uncertain, and divided nation, which had no sure understanding of how all this would turn out.
There were the 13 stripes, but then there was the canton - the small rectangle in the upper left corner of the flag - which featured the Union Jack. It was a flag with one foot in the New World and one in the old.
As that year wore on and ultimately we declared ourselves for ourselves, Colonial tempers grew sanguinary, and the flag that best represented the Yankee state of mind became the First Navy Jack. A rattlesnake stretched menacingly across the Jack's seven red and six white stripes. The legend was "Don't Tread on Me."
Nothing much happened to the 13 stripes as the young nation began its sovereign life and its immigrant population spread across the apparently vast American continent. States joined the union, a few tried to separate but they were thwarted, and the young nation added stars and more stars to Old Glory's blue canton, till in 1960 Hawaii made it 50. Through all those nearly 200 years, Old Glory flew over battlefields here, but mostly abroad. It covered caskets and graves.
Often, we don't notice the flag except in connection with the dead, on Memorial Day and July 4 and Patriot's Day, Veteran's Day, and Flag Day, or today when we acknowledge sadly but respectfully the 2,000 American soldiers who have died in the Iraq war. The Stars and Stripes bloom in graveyards, and we remind ourselves of sacrifices, some distant in time and space, some too fresh. But what are the flags on car windows, on mailboxes, on hats and lapels, representing today?
I suppose some of the flags we see today are meant to recall the thousands who died on Sept. 11, innocent victims or heroes, in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Some flags intend solemn support for the young men and women sent to attack and subdue our attackers, or for those struggling to help Iraq reform itself into a democracy; after all, their lives are at risk on our behalf. Some of the flags I see certainly describe a furious bloodlust; people are angry at the injustice of the terrorist attacks and at the loss of security, and they want revenge and a speedy return of the safe carelessness with which we formerly lived our lives, buffered by oceans and compliant neighbors. Some flags represent Americans furious that our soldiers are in Iraq, that some died or were wounded there, and that they are not likely to return home soon.
But beyond all this, I like the ideas that the flag reminds me of when it snaps in the southwest wind high above Owen Park, or from the stern of the sailboat, or in front of the school.
I like the ideas as Winston Churchill, speaking at Harvard College in 1943, defined them. He was at his wartime best, declaring the bedrock importance of the British-American alliance to the continuing successful prosecution of the Second World War, reminding Americans of the reasons they were fighting side by side with his people, against whom the Yanks had fought for independence. Doing so, Churchill named what the flag symbolizes.
"Law, language, literature - these are considerable factors," Churchill said. "Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all the love of personal freedom, or as Kipling put it: ‘Leave to live by no man's leave underneath the law.' These are common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples. We hold to these conceptions as strongly as you do.
"We do not war primarily with races as such. Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat. In all this, we march together. Not only do we march and strive shoulder to shoulder at this moment under the fire of the enemy on the fields of war or in the air, but also in those realms of thought which are consecrated to the rights and the dignity of man."
There is something to wave the flag about, something to pledge allegiance to.