The his­tory and emo­tion be­hind our rev­er­ence for national flags

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

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.”

ERICSPHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES

A FLAG WORTH DY­ING FOR The Power and Pol­i­tics of National Sym­bols By Tim Mar­shall Scrib­ner. 290 pp. $26

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