BY LEE SUSTAR
The public display of the American flag has been hailed as a symbol of "national unity" and "resolve" by George Bush, network news anchors and politicians of both mainstream parties. But many protests against the US war drive have included people carrying the flag, too.
On a protest march in Washington, DC, September 30, a leading member of the Washington Peace Union carried a flag so large that he had difficulty walking. He said he was determined to "take back" a symbol from the warmongers — and assert what he called the "positive values" of the flag and patriotism.
There are four problems with this argument.
First, the widespread flying of American flags isn't a spontaneous upsurge of patriotism but an orchestrated political campaign. Newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times urged readers to "FLY THE FLAG" on their front pages.
Sports teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals handed out American flags — often made in China — to people who came to games. Giant retail chains displayed — and distributed — flag paraphernalia across the US.
Carrying the flag on an anti-war march in this atmosphere can only be seen as a concession to the pressure of the drive to war.
The second point to be made is that the US flag became inescapably identified with militarism long ago.
In his successful campaign for a US Senate seat in Indiana in 1898, Albert Beveridge gave a notorious speech called "The March of the Flag" that called for the annexation of the Philippines.
"[W]e are of the ruling race of the world", Beveridge declared. "Ours is the blood of government; ours the heart of dominion; ours the brain and genius of administration... will you remember that we do but what our fathers did — we but pitch the tents of liberty further westward, further southward — we only continue the march of the flag?"
The third point is that the US flag can't be a symbol of justice and freedom when it was used to justify the genocidal conquest of Native Americans, the seizure of half of Mexico and the slavery and racism suffered by African Americans.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted that blacks had to struggle for the right to vote despite fighting under the American flag in the Civil War — while ex-Confederates received pardons. "Do you intend to sacrifice the very men who have come to the rescue of your banner in the South and incurred the lasting displeasure of their masters thereby?" Douglass asked. "Do you intend to sacrifice them and reward your enemies? Do you mean to give your enemies the right to vote and take it away from your friends?"
A century later, African Americans were still struggling — and dying — for the right to vote. "Being born here in America doesn't make you an American", the black revolutionary Malcolm X said in a 1964 speech. "I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American or a patriot or a flag-saluter or a flag-waver — no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."
Finally, how can the flag of the government that supported death squads and dictators from Latin America to the Middle East to Africa be seen in the Third World as anything but a symbol of imperialist domination?
S. Brian Wilson, a Vietnam War veteran who became a peace activist, wrote an essay on how he changed his view of the flag while reading the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
"There was a story about an arrest for flag burning somewhere in the United States", Wilson wrote. "I had recently experienced the horror of seeing numerous bodies of young women and children that were burned alive in a small Delta village devastated by napalm... I wondered why it was okay to burn innocent human beings 10,000 miles from my hometown, but not okay to burn a piece of cloth that was symbolic of the country that had horribly napalmed those villagers.
"Something was terribly wrong with the Cold War rhetoric of fighting communism that made me question what our nation stood for. There was a grand lie, an American myth, that was being fraudulently preserved under the cloak of our flag. So when I see the flag and think of the Declaration of Independence, instead of the United States of America, I see the United Corporations of America; I see the blood and bones of people all over the globe who have been dehumanised, then exterminated by its imperialism; and I see a symbol that represents a monstrous lie maintained by excessive, deadly force. It makes me feel sick and ashamed."
The American flag is a symbol of a government that bankrolls Israel, enforces murderous sanctions against Iraq and supports brutal regimes wherever it serves US interests.
That is why those of us opposed to Washington's war must march under a different banner — one that stands for international solidarity and justice.
[From Socialist Worker, weekly paper of the US International Socialist Organization. Visit <http://www.socialistworker.org>.]