By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
A scene from the Hard Hat Riot, March 8, 1970 (source)
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
— “The Stars-Spangled Banner“
Bottom line first. The main point of this piece is — we should stop pretending.
In light of the recent protests by black athletes during the playing of “The Stars–Spangled Banner” before football games — the “stars-spangled banner” being the American flag, so-named in Francis Scott Key’s memorable (and musically deficient) American national anthem — it seems fair to ask, What does the American flag stand for?
Let me offer several answers.
A Symbol of Abolition and Militarily Forced Unity
During the Civil War, the American flag went from being a simple banner to a powerful symbol of the Union (and the union) cause (my emphasis throughout):
The modern meaning of the flag was forged in December 1860, when Major Robert Anderson moved the U.S. garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Author Adam Goodheart argues this was the opening move of the American Civil War, and the flag was used throughout northern states to symbolize American nationalism and rejection of secessionism. [emphasis added]
In the prologue to his book 1861, Goodheart writes:
Before that day [in December 1860], the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson’s surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11 attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads. For the first time American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand. As the long winter of 1861 turned into spring, that old flag meant something new. The abstraction of the Union cause was transfigured into a physical thing: strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.
Note two things about this transformation from flag to symbol. First, it represents military conquest — originally the reconquest of the South, “strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.”
Second, those conquests are always presented as defensive — in this case, “preserving the Union” as opposed to re-annexing territory whose inhabitants were exercising, however good or ill their reasons, the right of self-determination, a prime example of which was the nation’s own Revolutionary War of 1776.
The Flag of a Warrior Nation
To expand the second point: We like to think of our warrior nation’s wars as fought in defense — with the flag representing that brave defensive posture — but I can’t think of a single defensive war after the War of 1776, save World War II (a war whose causative attack, some historians argue, we invited).
The War of 1812 was, in large part, a failed U.S. attempt to annex Canada while the British were tied up with Napoleon on the European continent (see also below). The Mexican American War was fought, ultimately, as a result of a dispute over Texas, which had seceded (irony alert) from Mexico and was subsequently welcomed into the U.S. In other words, a war of territorial expansion.
In the Civil War, the U.S. government took the position of the government of Mexico a decade and a half earlier and fought to disallow the secession of Southern states from the national government. One could call that war, among other things, a war to retain territory. Of course, the Civil War was also a war to abolish slavery, but that entirely moral motive came relatively late in the discussion.
The Spanish-American War was also a war of territorial expansion, as Gore Vidal, among many others, so well elucidated. Out of that war, along with other possessions, we acquired the Spanish-speaking island of Puerto Rico, which we’re now mightily abusing.
World War I was certainly not a defensive war, whatever else it was. The sinking of the Lusitania, for example, owed as much to American banking and industrial support France and England and the resultant German blockade of England, one that ships carrying U.S-sourced war matériel refused to honor, as it owed to the barbarity of “the Hun,” however propagandistically that attack was later portrayed.
Both the Korean War and the Vietnam War were products of U.S. intervention into the Cold War in Asia, though with some differences. In Korea, the U.S. was helping South Korea (a post-World War II created nation) repel an invasion from North Korea (a similarly created nation).
In Vietnam, the U.S. and its World War II allies violated an agreement with Ho Chi Minh, who had fought with them against the Japanese, not to return Vietnam, his homeland, to French colonial rule. Vietnam was returned to the French, however, and Ho went back to war. He defeated the French in 1954, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned so the defeated French could evacuate, and unifying elections were set for 1956. Realizing that Ho Chi Minh would win overwhelmingly, the U.S. under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles allowed Vietnam south of the demilitarized zone to be declared a separate nation, and Ho again went back to war, with results that are with us today.
It goes without saying that neither of the Iraq wars were defensive, nor are the multiple places in the Middle East with insurrections we are currently bombing, droning, or supporting those (the Saudis, for example) who are doing both with our help.
What does the American flag stand for, militarily? Certainly not defending the nation from attack, since we’ve so rarely had to do it. Our enemies would say it stands for national aggression. Which leads to the next point.
A Symbol of National Obedience
Take a look at the image at the top. During the Nixon era, enemies of Vietnam War protestors and draft dodgers appropriated the flag as a symbol of their own aggression and anger — anger at “the hippies”; at free love (which to a man they envied); at “unpatriotic” protests against the nation’s wrongdoing; at anything and anyone who didn’t rejoice, in essence, in the macho, patriarchic, authoritarian demands for obedience to right-wing leaders like Richard Nixon.
That’s not an overstatement, and everyone reading this knows it, given just a little thought. Why do cops wear flags on their uniforms, for example, but not nurses? Ignore the cover-story explanations and ask, is it “national pride” and patriotism the police are expressing, or something closer to the authoritarian anger shown in the image above?
To the Black Lives Matter movement, the answer is obvious. Thus it should be to the rest of us. The obvious reason why cops wear flags is rarely stated though, so I won’t say more of it here, except to add the following: The complaint against football players who “took a knee” in protest to American racism — perpetrated in large part by aggressive, race-angry, flag-decorated police — is that they don’t “honor the flag” and what it represents.
Perhaps, unknowingly, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
So we’re back to the question — what does the American flag represent beyond its meaning as a heraldic device? What does the American flag stand for?
The answer, of course, is all of the above. Again: all of the above. We should stop pretending.
“The Stars Spangled Banner”
Which brings us back to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem. Jonathan Schwartz (of A Tiny Revolution) astutely writes this at The Intercept in a piece subtitled “The National Anthem is a Celebration of Slavery”:
Before a preseason game on Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When he explained why, he only spoke about the present: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.
Few people know this because we only ever sing the first verse. But read the end of the third verse and you’ll see why “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not just a musical atrocity, it’s an intellectual and moral one, too:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.
And about those slaves…
[O]ne of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves. …
Whole families found their way to the ships of the British, who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their “owners.” Adult men were trained to create a regiment called the Colonial Marines, who participated in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington….
So when Key penned “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.
Thus we come full circle, from the Hard Hat Riot by those who would morph from “Silent Majority” into “Reagan Democrats” and then form part of the Donald Trump base (the racist part), to those who angrily hate the “anti-flag” protesters. All of them fans of police in their most brutal manifestation. All of them fans of American football, a violent sport, as Donald Trump admiringly reminds us. All of them fans of aggressive, manly, “no one pushes us around” wars. And all of them fans of obedience to authority, so long as it’s the one they also obey.
What does the American flag stand for? We may as well all stop pretending and admit it — it stand for all of the above. Every bit of it. Because that’s what its wearers want it to stand for.