DUST: What does the flag capture?

My suspicion is that I have less to say on this subject of national flags than I’d like to think, but I’m still feeling my way around in terms of the appropriateness of featuring certain material on this blog, so in the meantime it is best that I linger on the fluffier subjects. And I can’t help but indulge in my love of flags and all their expressive content while I live on a multinational military base. As my previous Afghanistan post indicated, they’re everywhere. They are less prevalent in their original, fluttering cloth form on an American base like Bagram Air Field. But the other two bases in which I have lived, Kandahar and now Camp Marmal, lack a single nation’s dominant military presence, and flag poles stand sentinel at various points across both bases.

The above photos, both taken at Kandahar, are hardly the greatest at capturing the semantic properties of flags. In the first photo, the flag—possibly German—projects just to the right of the street sign with “Illinois” misspelled, and in the second photo, a Danish flag (if I recall correctly) spears the sky in the distance on the left, slightly higher than the power lines. I never intended the flag to be a focal point in these photos. But they do at least suggest the flags’ power to serve as monuments in a base setting, primarily through two different expressive tools. When propelled on poles or stanchions, they punctuate the landscape by simply being taller than most structures amidst a flat, treeless terrain. And the banners themselves achieve prominence through their hues: bold colors contrast to the sepia tones of dust and particulate matter that veils the horizon, even when low wind levels keep the flag furled. The example below in Camp Marmal with a Norwegian flag gets the point across somewhat better, thanks to cleaner air and the relative absence of power lines.

These contrasts help to explain how flags engage with their surroundings at the sensory level, but the question remains how they operate spatially. In short, how do they govern the area around them, if they have any control at all? Obviously the devices used in display of the flag matter critically here. Within the context of a coalition base made up of multiple national armies such as this, the flag most clearly connotes two seemingly paradoxical territorial ideas: 1) that the area below the flag is part of that nation’s compound and “belongs” to it, so that the flag presides over that portion of the base; and 2) that the particular nation has a presence on this base and is a “team player” in the Afghanistan conflict as a whole. It’s quite simple. It operates much the same way when flags project from a particular movable object, such as the Croatian flags on the MRAPs below:The red white and blue (also an adhesive on the side of the vehicle) is the national flag; the other one pertains to a particular mission. Obviously these vehicular flags serve primarily to identify the nationality owning that vehicle, which means they do not appropriate the same amount of space as the ones tethered to poles planted in the ground. But these flags can venture outside the wire and still effectively indicate Croatia’s participation in combat.

The use of words “govern”, “preside”, and “appropriate” only effectively applies, though, to flags in isolation. Throughout many of these coalition bases, flags are grouped in a formation of multiple poles, like the one below in Camp Nidaros, a Norwegian compound nestled within Camp Marmal:Despite the fact that Marmal is a German-owned base and is the headquarters for Northern Regional Command (led by a German General), these flag formations tend to be as egalitarian as possible, most likely in an effort to demonstrate that no one country’s forces are hierarchically superior to another. The formation in the above photo seems particularly self-abnegating, because the banners attached to the poles are not even national flags: they are narrow streamers with a different configuration of each country’s respective national colors. They diffidently reference the country without proclaiming it. If I can interpret them correctly, this display shows, from left to right, the colors of Norway, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, and Germany. All of those nationalities with the exception of Germany have troops stationed in this particular compound called Camp Nidaros; billeting for Germany is scattered elsewhere across the base. One would think that either the compound’s commander (Norway) or the base commander (Germany) would occupy the central flag pole to show ownership. Instead, that pole belongs to Latvia, while Norway and Germany occupy the peripheries. I have no doubt that this configuration was conscious. Place a flag in the company of others and the aforementioned territorial paradox—that of simultaneous individual ownership and operating as a team—immediately collapses, because the ability to denote “owning” a portion of the base evaporates. Here’s another formation at Camp Marmal that coyly dissolves hierarchy:

national flags at half mast in Afghanistan

The flags of the United States, Germany, Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy all hang at half-mast. The deployment of an even number of flags clearly avoids placing any one flag at the center, and in this case, the host nation, Afghanistan, gets equal representation with two countries and one branch of the military of that same country. The building to the left houses exclusively US forces, predominantly associated with the Navy, yet two other nations’ flags wave out front.

The half-mast configuration, nearly always intended to show mournful deference for the recently deceased, assumes a new poignancy with the next photo, taken just minutes after the previous, as dusk had set in:This event comprises an unannounced visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the evening of December 18, 2010, speaking at the memorial of a German soldier who had died in an accident the preceding day. Notice that in the first of those two photos, the German flag is half-mast. But here as elsewhere, the presentation soon diverted to the shared responsibility, as Merkel continued her brief speech about Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. By the conclusion, the flag was full-mast along with the others.

Again, the flag formation avoids placing any nation in a position of primacy. Germany, the owner of the base, stands at an unremarkable position of third from the left. The United States, the second largest presence, sits on the far right. And while there are an odd number of poles (21), allowing the potential for one pole to take center place, the framing of the poles around a central memorial places eleven on the left and ten on the right; no nation takes the center stage. Here are some close-ups of the memorial in daylight without the crowd:row of national flags in Afghanistan such than none are central - egalitarian positioningrow of national flags in Afghanistan such than none are central - egalitarian positioning

Protocol for the display of the US flag requires that it observe international standards when juxtaposed with other nations, and none should rest above another at a time of peace. Obviously the existence of Camp Marmal is predicated on this precisely not being a time of peace, and yet the coalition nations (including the euphemistic “host nation” Afghanistan) still observe the peaceful display here as in every other location where multiple national flags preside over the space. Yet every time the flag waves in isolation, it proclaims its territory. The difference, it seems, is the level of conscious thought invested in the display: asserting national presence and ownership requires demands very little additional scrutiny, and, cheaply fluttering from the back of a Hummer, almost seems like an afterthought. Conversely, the assembly of a group of national flags in mutual respect requires serious deliberation.

The semiotics that underpins any display of multiple national flags operate differently when the display takes place indoors. The pictures below take place in a DFAC (Dining Facility) at Kandahar Air Field:national flags at Kandahar Air FieldIt seems to be common practice to decorate the dining halls in the larger bases with national flags. But the flags preside over clearly bounded space here; any assertion of territoriality simply adds a dimension to the message already communicated by four walls. The display of national flags indoors does not convey the potentially contentious air of imperial entitlement that it has the potential to suggest when outdoors; the flags address an enclosed space and not the open air, or the land itself. Perhaps it’s just me, but flags also lose expressive impact when they are limp and static; the fluttering of a flag from wind, however mild that wind may be, projects authority that it is hard for a motionless flag to muster. So while the exterior display of flags seems particularly sensitive to the fact that these nations collectively occupy a land with which they are waging war against a certain faction, all the rules fall by the wayside when national flags hang indoors. No one seems particularly sensitive of who owns what. The PAX terminal at Camp Marmal is an excellent example:national flags at the Camp Marmal PAX terminal

Near the back of the building on the right is a colossal German flag—the country that owns the base. The other flags in the photo represent the three nationalities with the next largest presence on the base: in the far distance (with the checkered shield) is Croatia; to the right of the German flag is the American flag; to its right (partly cut off by the picture’s edge) is the Norwegian flag. All of these flags occupy a noticeable second tier to Germany. Pan to the right, however, and the message becomes a bit more muddled.national flags at the Camp Marmal PAX terminalFrom left to right, the picture shows Norway again (same flag as the previous photo), Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Montenegro, Slovakia, Latvia, and part of Turkey. The positioning, size, and even the choice of nationalities here seem to be based more on expediency than any sort of conceived arrangement. The spacing between them seems inconsistent, the size does not fit with either a hierarchy or an egalitarian coalition, and while Turkey and Slovakia may be part of the coalition, they have yet to show any presence at Camp Marmal, while other nations clearly berthed here have had their flags omitted. Anyone plunked into this facility while blindfolded would draw the conclusion, upon removing the blindfold, that it is a German-run building. Provided that he or she knows the German flag, the enormous mural makes it obvious. But the participation of these other nations and how they fit into the system on this base is completely undefined. The flags help add color to an otherwise sparse terminal; otherwise they might as well be garland.

The DFAC at Camp Marmal has a similar configuration on one of its walls, with even more diluted semantic results:national flags on display at a dining facility in Afghanistannational flags on display at a DFAC in Camp MarmalAgain, we see a row of thumbtacked flags used as decoration, with little regard for placement. Is this display trying to show a hierarchy, with the NATO flag (the white compass on a blue field) taking precedence in the middle of all the participating partners? That doesn’t work, because the NATO flag is not in the middle; there cannot be a middle position with twelve flags. Are the participants all on equal footing? Perhaps they are, but the disparity in size of the flags would not suggest it:national flags on display at a DFAC in Camp Marmalnational flags on display at a DFAC in Camp Marmal

Montenegro and Latvia are huge compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States, and NATO. Again, it seems the decorators bought whatever size flag was available (and whatever relevant nationality they could find) in order simply to decorate, without intending any other message. Compare this to the precision and thought that they applied to the adornment of another wall, with photos of the Afghan countryside:It’s much easier to get away with a sloppy flag display in an indoor setting, where there is less at stake.

No doubt this analysis may come across as one of my much-ado-about-nothing posts. After all, they’re just flags, and it is possible that I’m projecting my own fascination with the topic by inferring more out of it than anyone ever intended. But flags are also a powerful diplomatic tool, and they may be the most widely available, transportable material to clearly convey both a nation-state’s government and often the very essence of the land. Witness the recent global coverage of burnings of the American, Danish, or Israeli flag and it would be hard to shrug aside its potency within a broader understanding of semiotics. In a multinational setting rife with the potential for a serious imbroglio, a blasé display of a nation’s flag could set tempers flaring.

The use of national flags on these bases suggests that the outdoor display has significant political ramifications, but indoor displays do not matter so much. Maybe it’s true that an indoor display will never carry the same territorial weight, but it can still result in a transnational contretemps. A recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted by President Obama in New York City, aroused some ire and international press when the Philippine flag was accidentally displayed upside-down, indicating the nation to be in a state of war. The problem with the indoor settings at the PAX and DFAC in Camp Marmal isn’t that they’re purely hierarchical or egalitarian; it’s that they’re neither, or a little of both. National flags might be beautiful to some, but they are too semantically rich to serve a purely aesthetic purpose.

I conclude with one particularly interesting flag that can serve on its own as a microcosm for what a carless flag display loses semantically. The national flag of Croatia has already graced this blog post a couple of times; they constitute one of the largest forces at Camp Marmal.

This brief analysis constitutes a bit more of what I know about vexillology, the study of flags as semiotics, which I covered at much greater length in a blog post on the Maryland flag many moons ago. The Croatian flag is by no means a particularly bad flag; it certainly looks far more elegant than the contrived, deer-on-hind-legs antiques that constitute many of the US state flags. But the real core of the flag is the checkered shield, serving as the flag’s central charge; this escutcheon pattern predominates on a lot of the exercise gear that the Croats wear around the base in their down time. I particularly like the way the checkers align with the bottom blue fess (stripe). The decorative “flair” sitting in the place of a coronet above the checkers might help to embellish the shield, but they erode the symmetry, suggest hierarchy (some emblems might be more important than others), and they complicate the entire presentation, thereby diluting the message and the overall readability of the flag. The North American Vexillological Association asserts that the key indicator of an effective flag is that a child should be able to draw it from memory. Its impact should be immediate and unforced. By no means is the code of the NAVA the Gospel on national flags, but I cannot imagine most six-year olds reproducing the Croatian flag after just a few minutes. Most 40-year-olds wouldn’t do a great job either.

The weaknesses in the Croatian flag echo the problems with the display of national flags in the interior public spaces of Camp Marmal, or many other situations where they serve an ornamental purpose. The display of national flags to convey either hierarchy or egalitarianism is fine; there are no inherent faults in either of these organizing principles. The deficiency lies in when the display blurs the line between the two—when it is ambiguous as to which entity, if any, should stand out—which is precisely the problem with the array of symbols in the Croatian flag and the panoply in the DFAC. Ambiguity serves a distinct aesthetic purpose, but a flag’s communicative intent should always be clear. We don’t make light of the most prominent proxy for nationhood, whether in an Olympic natatorium or in a war zone.

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6 thoughts on “DUST: What does the flag capture?

  1. Nici

    The seemingly ordinary and overlooked flags in my daily life became alive after I read this post. I had never noticed while coming out of the drive way to my apartment there was 4 American flags with in my eyesight. Or that when walking out of the office there are 3 American flags visible, if one only stops and looks around. Once I started to notice these flags, I asked myself what are they “saying” as being on American soil they are not necessary to claim that piece of land. What I noticed, was depending on their placement they spoke volumes of the intention (or lack of) the person that “planted” the flag. I don’t know if I can explain in words what I mean by that statement. Some flags are isolated, placed in a prominent spot; the intention is clear, the flag is a symbol of America and is to be treated with respect. While some flags clearly stand as an advertisement gimmick which I find tend to be oversized. An enormous flag over a car dealership or an oversized flag in front of a house that happens to be next to a for sale sign. Other American flags are crowded around a building or other objects, these flags lack the deference given to the ones mentioned before. Their placement suggests they where an afterthought or that the person in charge of placement was saying “I know I need to put an American flag up as it’s expected; now where can I stick this thing?” To me the lack of deference given to these flags is worse than using it as an advertising tool.

    Another thing I became aware of after reading this post was what emotion the flag invoked depending if it was still or in motion. Still, whether on a flag pole, hung on a ceiling, with a color guard or especially draped over a coffin, a flag commands respect and deference. Moving with the wind running through it, it inspires the soul and calls it to action. Take the movie the Patriot, at the end Mel Gibson’s character takes the American flag, runs waving it franticly to get the attention of the troops to call them to stop retreating and fight. While I know that this movie scene is fiction it is based on the fact flags have almost always been used to call troops to action. The best real life example is the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag raising is arguably one of the most reproduced photos in the history of photography. That picture became a symbol of the US war bond campaign having a huge impact on the outcome of WWII. This was four years into WWII, while we on this side of history know that to be almost the end of the war, at the time no one knew how much longer it would last. The US government knew either instinctively or deliberately that that photo of soldiers raising a waving flag would inspire Americans to dig deeper into their pockets, to keep supporting a war that had already taken so much. It has been said “In that moment, Rosenthal’s camera recorded the soul of a nation” is it no wonder that the soul of a nation was an image of the prominent proxy for nationhood?

    I cannot end my comment without complementing one of your photos. The picture of the German flag at half mast with solders gathered is absolutely stunning! The composition is perfect! While most photos read left to right. The moon and over head lighting being on the right draws your eyes right to left. The red and white bollards also help draw your eye to the right. Overhead light and the bollards draw your eye naturally to the left bottom third of the picture, where the soldiers are standing in the dark then your eye moves right to left to find soldiers at parade rest highlighted in the overhead light.

    Wonderful Article, Keep Writing!!

  2. AmericanDirt

    Thanks, Nici, for your great comments, and sorry it’s taken me this long to respond. I’m glad you appreciate the difference in meaning conveyed from flags in isolation versus groups, and how the slightest differences in its display can convey such different meanings. I have no doubt that some of the “rules” for flags comes from medieval heraldry customs, but some of it cannot help but be modern: does a plastic miniature American flag attached to the roof of a car still have the same significance that it did in the months after September 11th?

    I like that you mention the famous Iwo Jima photo and all of its connotations, because I’ve always thought that it was much more powerful because the flagpole wasn’t quite fully planted in the ground. If it had been fully planted, and the soldiers were simply standing around it, would it have had the same effect? That’s a perfect example of the flag’s metaphoric potency: the pole was not fully upright, just as, at that point, we were not completely victorious in the war.

    “Soul of the nation” indeed, and it shows the versatility of the flag when used in contexts that are both noble and ghastly. Another famous/notorious use of the flag from about 30 years later, Stanley Forman’s depiction of anti-integration rallies in Boston http://www.slate.com/id/2188648/slideshow/2188675/ show the American soul at its most tainted–with the American flag being used as a weapon. A great flag can convey meanings beyond the colors and pattern of symbols that it uses. That’s why regardless people think about what it represents, the Confederate flag is a great flag: it conveyed its message powerfully and simply, so that today the context in which it is used can mean hundreds of different things–sometimes simultaneously! Try waving the Louisiana flag (not a bad flag, by the way, but certainly not among the best the States have to offer) and getting any specific message across.

  3. Nici

    Truth is stranger than fiction; I had never seen that picture before and was quite shocked to see it. The flag being used by an American against another American is something I never would have dreamed could happen. The Soiling of Old Glory and The Iwo Jima Flag Raising, each picture commands a strong emotional response; sadness, disbelief, even shame, then courage, hope and pride. The same flag but two polar opposite emotions, but what if there was a one picture of the same flag that could invoke both sets of emotions?

    I do believe one exists, Ted Jackson’s picture of a man in poverty sleeping using a torn American flag as a blanket. http://www.tedjackson.net/completed_files/FEATURES%20gallery%20II/index.htm I had heard Ted talk about this picture and how the man had a huge lump on his chest and told Ted he needed to lay down while Ted was interviewing him. I’m not sure what exactly the lump on his chest was but one could assume it was a tumor, possibly cancer, whatever it was the man obviously needed a doctor and for whatever reason was not getting proper health care. He was living in a small camper on the back of a pickup truck and went to lie down that’s when Ted had the opportunity to take this picture. At first what I saw was the poverty and lack and was saddened by the fact he was using the American flag as a blanket. I was sadden not because the simple fact the flag is sacred but because using the flag showed the desperation that one must have to use something sacred as an everyday item. I felt shame because somewhere in American, the land of opportunity, this man, like so many, had fallen through a crack. But then after a while, something started to change in the way I saw the picture. The sadness was replaced by hope. That hope came from one thing in that picture, the American flag. Our flag that flies over everything we hold dear; the White House, our schools and even military bases overseas providing a sense of freedom and protection literally in this picture provides protection to an American in need. The basic foundation of America, hope, courage and pride that is symbolized by the American flag is in that picture. How wonderful, how powerful is the symbolism of “a good” flag.

    You mentioned before that one of the hallmarks of a good flag is that it is simple and that the Confederate flag while fairly simple can evoke a range of emotions depending on how it is displayed. I can’t help but think of the simplest flag of all and how it only means one thing no matter how or where in the world it is used: The white flag, the flag of surrender. Not only is the use of the white flag in the Geneva Convention, the improper use of it constitutes a war crime. One flag, one meaning, well it is something to think about.

    As always keep writing as I do so enjoy reading your perspective on the world around me. No worries about your late response after all it’s not like I was waiting since August for a response to my messages. But even if I was, I think I would be understanding for at least little while longer……

  4. AmericanDirt

    Thanks again for the response Nici, and I was trying to guess which “universal” flag you were talking about up until right when you revealed it: good point about the flag of surrender. It’s interesting because so many other solid color flags can stand for a variety of meanings–heck, a solid green flag is the national flag of Libya–but white seems to mean, as you say, pretty much the same thing across the map.

    A more recently famous (and closer to home) photo http://empirestatefx.com/economy/census-estimates-suggest-1-in-6-americans-live-in-poverty-65-crowd-expanding-rapidly/ from Hurricane again shows the potency of the flag in much the same way as your Ted Jackson pic–well, a towel actually, but still a representation of the US flag. It has almost become an embodiment of poverty in America. The collision of two seemingly contradictory ideas–the freedom and prosperity America conveys both home and abroad, juxtaposed with obvious deprivation and vulnerability–has obviously hit home for a lot of people. This picture and that tragic elderly lady would not be so famous if she weren’t draped in the US flag.


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