The history and emotion behind our reverence for national flags
What do America’s wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have in common? The most obvious commonality is that the superpower did not do well in these conflicts against seemingly weaker enemies. Another is that in all three wars, U.S. intelligence agencies, war planners and policymakers grossly underestimated the motivating power of nationalism. While Americans went to war to fight communism, terrorism or a murderous dictator who presumably had nuclear weapons, warriors in those countries felt they were defending their homelands from a foreign invader. In their minds, and in the minds of many in their communities, these fighters were first and foremost patriots, not insurgents or terrorists. Misunderstanding and underestimating nationalism as a driver of people’s motivation to kill and die for their homeland has been a fatal and recurrent American mistake.
This blind spot of American foreign-policymakers is as common as it is surprising. The obliviousness to the power of nationalism in other societies is surprising because the United States is itself highly nationalistic. American nationalism manifests itself constantly and in myriad ways, from erudite claims about the nation’s “exceptionalism” to the reverence its citizens show to the Stars and Stripes, their flag. This reverence is even codified in the Pledge of Allegiance, which schoolchildren, government officials and many Americans often recite at the start of public gatherings. Of course, Americans are not alone in revering a piece of colored cloth. Everywhere, flags serve as a powerful symbol of a nation, its ideals and its people.
That is the premise of “A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols,” the amusing but ultimately frustrating book by British journalist Tim Marshall, who is a former diplomatic editor of Sky News and before that worked for the BBC.
Marshall fills his book with factoids and oddities about flags: “The world’s tallest unsupported flag pole resides in Saudi Arabia’s second city, Jeddah . . . . The flag weighs 1,250 pounds, or about the same as five baby elephants.” In some observers’ eyes, the Bosnian flag “looked like the label on a box of cornflakes.” Denmark’s was the “most burned flag” in 2006 because “in September 2005 the Jyllands-Posten newspaper had published twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.”
The book is essentially a compilation of such facts about flags, and the author is clearly uninterested in exploring the broader significance of the multitude of individual facts with which he packs each of the nine chapters. Marshall writes more as a hobbyist who hoards details about the subject of his fascination rather than as an analyst attempting to explain the role of flags in international affairs or domestic politics.
Occasionally, however, he does share nuggets of historical gold: “Where did these national symbols, to which we are so attached, come from? Flags are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Standards and symbols painted in cloth predate flags and were used by the ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Romans, but it was the invention of silk by the Chinese that allowed flags as we know them today to flourish and spread. Traditional cloth was too heavy to be held aloft, unfurled and fluttering in the wind, especially if painted; silk was much lighter and meant that banners could, for example, accompany armies onto battlefields. The new fabric and custom spread along the Silk Road. The Arabs were the first to adopt it, and the Europeans followed suit, having come into contact with them during the Crusades.”
The observation that technological innovation — the invention of silk — was the decisive factor in the popularization of flags and eventually their transformation into one of the most powerful manifestations of nationalism, one that has survived in the 21st century, is a welcome respite to the list of largely unrelated facts.
In discussing the LGBT rainbow flag, for example, Marshall reports that in 2016, the flag was flown in the headquarters of the British intelligence agency, MI6. He speculates that this was an attempt by “C”, the agency’s chief, to signal that the organization welcomed recruits from all backgrounds. Marshall closes the section by concluding that “James Bond will not have been shaken but may have been stirred” by this gesture. In a section devoted to car racing, we are reminded that “signaling the finishing line . . . is the black-and-white checkered flag.” In the section that follows, Marshall proceeds to offer some self-help advice to his readers: “This is the age of the banner. Which is why if you want to get ahead, get a flag — or at least display one to make a statement.”
Flags and nationalism go together, and we are living in times of heighted nationalism. We surely need a deeper understanding of the dynamics of nationalism and the powerful appeal of political symbols. Marshall acknowledges as much but ultimately does little to use his vast knowledge of flags and the lessons of history to offer robust insights about the uses and misuses of flags in world affairs.
Moises Naim is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author, most recently, of “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.”
A FLAG WORTH DYING FOR The Power and Politics of National Symbols By Tim Marshall Scribner. 290 pp. $26