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Proudly unfurled



Published: Sun, July 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The flag is one of the most mysterious and revered icons of our country.

By MICHAEL ALISON CHANDLER

WASHINGTON POST

While Navy pilot Michael Christian was being held in the infamous prison complex known as the Hanoi Hilton after he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, he made a small American flag by sewing some ragged bits of red and white cloth inside his blue prison garb.

Every day, Christian would hang his shirt on the wall and he and his cellmates, including future senator John McCain, would pledge allegiance to the makeshift flag. When guards finally discovered it, they beat Christian. Back in his cell, while recovering from serious injuries, Christian began making a replacement flag with his original bamboo needle.

"This is a man who literally put his life on the line" for the flag, said Marc Leepson, a Middleburg, Va., author who served in Vietnam around the same time as Christian and has thought about that act often. "After all, it's cloth. It's a piece of cloth. But obviously it's much more than a piece of cloth. That got me thinking, 'What more is behind this?'"

Those thoughts led him to write the recently published "Flag: An American Biography," which explores the evolution in the culture and meaning of the Stars and Stripes, and includes an account of Christian's flag-making.

Flag culture

The book traces the life story of the flag, from its creation in 1777 -- not at the hands of Betsy Ross -- to its emergence as a popular symbol of patriotism during the Civil War, its burning by protesters during the Vietnam War and its use as a symbol of a united nation at war against terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Americans have a unique and special feeling for our flag," Leepson wrote in the introduction to his book. "And that's putting it mildly. ... No country in the world can match the intensity of the American citizenry's attachment to the 50-star, 13-stripe Stars and Stripes, which is as familiar an icon as any that has existed in the nation's history."

Nowhere else, Leepson said, do people display their flag as often, as passionately and as ubiquitously as do Americans, especially on the Fourth of July -- when it flies from front porches and its image appears on everything from bikinis and bandannas to paper plates.

Leepson and flag scholars say the flag is an important and accessible unifying symbol for a country of immigrants with no common religion, monarchy, race or mythology. While Mexicans adorn household shrines and handbags with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Britons raise their glasses to the queen, Americans revere and display their flag.

Only Americans pledge allegiance to their flag. The national anthem is a hymn of praise to the flag. There is an official U.S. Flag code, and a Flag Day, June 14.

Visitors to this country are sometimes "amazed to see so many U.S. flags flying," said Joyce Doody, executive director of the National Flag Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh that promotes patriotism and respect for the flag. In some countries, she said, "it's more a symbol of the government, not the people."

National ownership

Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass., and author of 26 books about flags, agreed. He said that when considering the degree to which countries are attached to their flags, it helps to try to answer one key question: Who owns the flag, the people or the government?

"There is a spectrum," said Smith, between authoritarian regimes, where the government tells people when and how to use the flag, and the United States, where people feel free to use it all kinds of ways. The lines of distinction are sometimes blurred, he said, even in this country.

Particularly during times of war, there have been laws governing how people should use the flag. During World War I, Congress made it illegal to manufacture, sell or advertise goods decorated with the flag, and several states outlawed defacing or defiling the flag, the book says. A constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to ban flag burning was approved by the House of Representatives this month and for the first time stands a chance of passing the Senate, congressional leaders have said, after which it would be sent to the states for ratification. The House has passed the measure four times before.

For the most part, Smith said, "there is a broad and deep attachment" to the flag in America, "because people use it in their own special ways," including artistic display or as a personal accessory. Although some people dislike -- and the flag code forbids -- use of the flag for commercial purposes or personal attire, the practice is widespread and the code is not legally enforceable.

In some countries, the flag may be a formality, something to show the world that you are a country, but not a source of deep feeling, Smith said. In Afghanistan, for example, which is made up of many ethnic groups, "their allegiances are to their people and languages and self-interests and regions," Smith said.

Smith, a political scientist, founded the field of flag research more than 40 years ago and called it vexillology. He coined the term from the Latin word vexillum, which means "little sail" or flag.

Unity of purpose

Self-proclaimed flag geek Peter Orenski, of New Milford, Conn., said he thinks that personal flag use is more common in countries with histories of a struggle for independence or national identity. Flags were also pervasive under communist regimes, but in a more controlled way.

"A flag was what I carried in a parade on the first of May," said Orenski, who grew up in Romania under communism. "Flags were an instrument of propaganda."




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