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“Look, Mommy, the flag is broken!”, sang out a child’s voice. “No, honey, it’s not broken. It’s just been raised to the top and then lowered halfway to honor some people who died.”
“What does ‘honor’ mean?” inquired the youngster.
I wish now that I had stopped that September 12 morning’s walk past the local community club playground and listened to her mother’s reply. That child’s innocent inquiry sparked a speculation in me that Americans might be using gestures of symbolism which no longer make sense. Or at least they might be reconsidered.
That flag was at half-mast to pay tribute and remember the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago. It occurred to me that seeing our flag flying proudly from the highest point on the pole has always communicated strength, resolve, and determination in the face of adversity. But when it was lowered to half staff, it seemed to convey a sense of weakness, woundedness, and even perhaps defeat.
Our culture reveres symbols. They have the power to electrify people to a cause and once a symbol’s meaning is embedded in a person’s mind, it is hard to change. Our flag’s image moves people to intense patriotism and can impart the energy to change a nation and be a call to action.
The founder of this blog site, Dr. Karl Albrecht, and I were in New York City from Sept. 4th through the 7th in 2001, to “pilot” a Brain Power seminar for the American Management Association. We left town on the Friday before the terrorist attacks of 9-11. The symbolism in that iconic photo of three exhausted New York firefighters raising Old Glory on a shattered piece of tower has never been lost on me.
The practice of raising our flag to full staff and then lowering it to half-staff traces back to a British expedition to Canada in 1612 aboard the ship Heart’s Ease. The captain, James Hall, was killed by an Inuit spear, and the crew lowered the ship’s flag to half-mast. According to tradition, the ship’s flag was put at half-mast to make room for the invisible flag of Death.
One of the first accounts we have of this practice in American history is from 1799, when the Navy Department ordered all of its ships to lower their flags to half-mast upon the death of George Washington. The tradition continued, spreading from a maritime practice to a national one, but remained informal until President Dwight Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3044, which legally standardized the custom in 1954 for the national flags of all federal buildings.
Most often, half-masting is done to mark the death of a political leader, military member, or first responder; in honor of Memorial Day or other national day of remembrance; or following a national tragedy. The current rules regarding the treatment of the national flag at half-staff can be found in the United States Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7.
I’ve had personal experiences with the symbolism of our flag, which are indelibly etched in my mind and which guide my own zeal to keep this democracy alive. When I met a Pearl Harbor Navy veteran who described his last view of his battleship’s ensign flying on the stern of his blasted and burning ship as he dove overboard into oil-fueled flaming water, his teary-eyed recollection and gaze of determined remembrance drilled into my memory. I cried with him.
And I could not withhold tears as I watched the scene in the Civil War movie “Glory” when the Colonel of the Union’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment asked his all-black troops, doomed to face a murderous frontal assault against a Confederate fort, “If this flag should fall, who will pick it up and carry it?” A young trooper, voice quivering, boldly stepped forward and announced “I will.”
I spent a week in a mock North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp as I trained to become an intelligence officer supporting Navy SEAL teams in Vietnam. Burned on the frontal lobe of my brain is the image of our last day of a week of being beaten, water-boarded, locked in boxes until our legs were numb, and near-brutally treated as “prisoners.” Greeting us, as we were commanded to raise our bowed heads for the first time during training, was the image of our billowing flag flying over our POW “camp.” and the national anthem playing strongly in the sea breeze. “Gentlemen, you remained steadfast. Now honor your true country. Rise and stand fast!” Every face was resolute. Every eye was moist. Every throat was choked. We stood. We saluted as one. We will forever remember that flag and its message of hope.
Why would I want to change anything about our past practices in recognizing the sacrifices of others by posting our colors at half-mast? Should we consider changing our customs and symbols to reflect new viewpoints about our democracy and its role in the world? Should we start with small changes?
Perhaps we should have a second flag—a Memorial Flag, or pennant. That flag could fly just below the national colors and would symbolize the respect and remembrance of anyone or group who made the ultimate sacrifice for the Republic and its people. It would signal that this was a memorial occasion, while the national colors would still fly at full staff. The message would always be: “We keep our colors high, and bow to no foe.”
We might even have a national movement to design a proper Memorial Flag, with the proper colors and a fitting message or image on it. Just as we had designs created for the U. S. Marine Corps memorial Vietnam Wall, we could solicit Americans’ ideas for the Memorial Flag.
When Afghanistan recently fell, social media captured the Taliban mocking the U. S. Marines by parodying the Iwo Jima Memorial flag-raising statue in Washington D. C. I wonder if that group or any other such faction considers the half-masting of the flag over the loss of U. S. troops during the evacuation as just another way to demean our flag and convey to the world that we are being defeated and insulted.
I’d like to see that thinking eliminated. Let’s create a Memorial Flag so that our National Ensign can always fly high and we can truly honor it and remember what it represents.