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The Limits of Waving a Flag in a Time of War
21 October 2001
"Hats off!" I learned to say in the elocution classes my mother sent me to when I was 6, "Along the street there comes a blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums, a flash of color beneath the sky; hats off! The flag is passing by!" I haven't heard a lot of bugles and drums lately, but I've sure seen a lot of flags.
They're bringing out something itchy in me, too. When I go into my bank, there are flags on the doors and patriotic posters all around. The teller I seem always to end up with has taped up beside her window a flag, yellowing from disuse, crumpled from its time in a drawer some place. It always produces a flash of irritation in me: Doesn't the woman own a steam iron, I wonder? How can she think this crumpled, wrinkled flag reflects well on our country?
And there's a condominium at the corner of Moorpark and Fulton (you know who you are!), where somebody has hung the flag, with a dreadful sag, and the stars are displayed on the wrong side. There's another one of those backward flags at a restaurant on Wilshire. And those young men with their gun racks and tattooed arms hanging out of shiny pickup trucks. Their back windows now sport Union flags alongside the Confederate ones that used to reign supreme. I get schoolmarmish: I want to say, "Can't you get a razor blade and take that Confederate flag off the window before you put something else up? Isn't that a little bit of a mixed message you're sending?"
Speaking of mixed messages, what about those trophy wives roaming the Westside in SUV's as big as hippos--bigger than hippos--machines that gobble gas the way whales eat minnows. The American flags flapping from their side windows make me want to deliver a lecture: "Don't you know that excess gas and oil consumption is part of the problem in this ongoing conflict, and that flying a flag off one of those monstrosities verges on either the obscene or the absurd?" And don't get me going about the people who don't take down their flags at night or the ones who paint their cars with the Stars and Stripes.
But I don't deliver the lectures. They're really not the point. Those flags annoy me not because I'm persnickety about how the flag should be displayed, but because they terrify me. For the people displaying them, they symbolize something different, I'm sure. But to me, they're omens of bad things to come. Flying flags--when it's not Memorial Day or the Fourth of July--is a portent of war, and this time the casualties, as we already know far too well, won't just be people who speak strange languages and wear funny clothes, people with handcarts instead of SUVs. There are going to be a lot more people like that 7-month-old baby, a genuine American, who was taken by her mother, an ABC employee, to be shown off at work. Sure, the baby's getting well, but just by the skin of her baby teeth. There will be more people like those secretaries and CEOs in the World Trade Center minding their own business. They're dead, because of institutionalized, madly irrational, national, religious hatreds. And now we're flying flags, as if this were the Laker playoffs.
"I think it's just so cheerful to see all those flags fluttering, all around the Valley," a dear friend said to me the other day--a friend I've known and loved since she was 12. But I don't think the flags are cheerful. You might even say I love my country too much to think they're cheerful.
As an English professor, I try to look on the bright side. At the beginning of World Wars I and II, there was plenty of mindless flag- waving (and fearful flag-waving by foreigners). There were dreadful songs: "You're a sap, Mr. Jap. You make a Yankee cranky. You're a sap, Mr. Jap: Uncle Sam is gonna spanky." When the killing began in earnest, in World War I, battles gave birth to some of the best poems in the English language, and World War II produced beautiful novels. The flags came down; gold stars went up in family windows when sons died. And finally it was over.
It's not that I'm a peacenik. This war has been forced upon us: Our civilians and soldiers have already been killed, and many of our servicemen and women will probably suffer the same fate. And those flags won't protect us. It won't be long before we'll be seeing them on coffins. And then no one will see them as cheerful.