Why Americans and Britons are more comfortable laying flowers than flying flags.
It isn’t only US troops in Iraq who are taking down the Stars and Stripes, after their commanders warned that raising the flag gave the ‘wrong impression’ of the coalition’s war aims. On the homefront, too, wartime flag-waving seems to be flagging.
Across America, newspapers report that the flag has been notable by its absence since the war started. In Michigan, the Detroit News headlined a report ‘Combat fails to inspire new patriotic movement’, claiming that ‘plenty of flags still sit on store shelves, but people aren’t flying them in the days following the invasion of Iraq’ (1). Further West, the San Jose Mercury News says: ‘Look around. The nation is at war. But the flags aren’t flying…’ (2)
Even in the traditionally pro-war South, where some have hoisted up the Stars and Stripes since the war kicked off, there hasn’t been quite the patriotic outpouring many expected. A Texan paper reports that ‘Old Glory is making a reappearance’, but it is ‘nowhere near the level we witnessed’ after the 11 September attacks.
What’s with the lack of patriotic symbols? An American shop-owner, disappointed by poor flag sales, reckons people ‘still have the flags they bought [after 9/11], and they don’t need new ones’ – though that raises the question of why not very many are dusting down their flags and flying them for the war in Iraq (3). One war supporter thinks patriotism has become privatised, arguing that ‘there’s patriotism here…but it doesn’t have to be worn on your sleeve’ (4).
In truth, the lack of flag-waving reveals a deeper ambivalence about the war. Across the USA and the UK, from the war planners themselves down to everyone else, there doesn’t seem to be much strong support or passion for the war in Iraq. The majority of people seem to have a shoulder-shrugging approach to it, rather than any especially pro-war feelings. After all, if even US troops have effectively been banned from flying the flag, for fear of coming across as conquerors, then Americans are hardly likely to be fired up to flag-wave.
In Britain, too, there is nothing like the ‘Falklands Factor’ of 1982, when then prime minister Margaret Thatcher stirred up nationalist sentiments over the Falklands War with Argentina to boost her own standing. The UK tabloid The Sun may have printed its usual wartime one-page special saying ‘Support our boys’ (and girls, this time), which it is encouraging its readers to stick in their windows – but outside of army towns and naval bases, not many seem to have taken up the offer.
Even those who are waving the flag in America don’t sound especially gung-ho. ‘These flags are not about whether you are for or against the war’, says one US flag-waver; it’s more about ‘feeling helpless’, so you want to ‘do something to show pride in our American boys and girls’ (5). One retailer says that some pro-war types have opted for ‘patriotic paraphernalia’, like teddy bears with Stars and Stripes t-shirts, over flags themselves. And some are wearing blue, white and red ‘remembrance ribbons’ instead of flying flags, to express their support for the troops but not necessarily for the war.
The lack of wartime flags suggests a broader discomfort with war, aggression and gung-ho displays of old-style patriotism. Everyone contrasts the few flags fluttering in the USA today with the masses of flags that flew after the 11 September attacks. But the flying of the flag post-9/11 wasn’t a traditionally patriotic outpouring, so much as collective expression of fear and angst in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
After 11 September, the Stars and Stripes was flown not as a symbol of American power and defiance but as a ‘coming together’ around a shared sense of grief. As one report put it, the flag became ‘an instant, universal symbol of mourning’ (6). Some Americans who would never have dreamt of flying the flag in the past claimed that it had ‘lost its stigma’ after 9/11, while others flew the flag next to signs saying ‘Hate-free zone’, encouraging people to ‘respect Muslims’. This was hardly war fever.
It seems that while it’s okay to fly the American flag as a symbol of victimhood, it’s not so cool to fly it in support of a war. We live in an age that feels uncomfortable with aggressors, but comfortable with victims – uncomfortable with old-style ideals about military heroes, but comfortable with the notion that we’re all damaged goods now, who can often only feel united in response to tragedies like the 11 September attacks.
So one way that some at home are expressing their ‘support’ for American and British troops in Iraq is by empathising with them, rather than by supporting their mission (whatever that may be). In parts of America, communities are apparently holding candlelit vigils for US troops, while in Britain some have laid flowers outside army and naval bases in memory of the troops who have died. According to one report, it is ceremonies like these that most express ‘support on the home front’ for the troops in the Gulf.
As the war drags on – without much enthusiastic support from those organising it or from those watching it – some in America and Britain are supporting their boys (but not necessarily their boys’ war) by solidaritising with them as potential victims, rather than supporting them as soldiers fighting for a worthwhile cause.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Combat fails to inspire new patriotic movement, Detroit News, 22 March 2003
(2) Fewer flags flying in nation divided, San Jose Mercury News, 23 March 2003
(3) New flags go up in Woodbridge, Amity Observer, 25 March 2003
(4) Echoes of war reverberate in county, Montgomery Gazette, 26 March 2003
(5) Flags, symbols of America flying off the shelves, Chillicothe Gazette, 25 March 2003
(6) Fewer flags flying in nation divided, San Jose Mercury News, 23 March 2003
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