Friday, June 5, 2009

These Colors Don't Run

My last unit in the U.S. Army was the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colorado. Fort Carson happens to be one of the few attractive army posts in the country. Situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD lies, I served out the last year and a half of my military service there. In early 2000, my unit was deployed to Bosnia for six months, which meant that, since the Bosnia mission was an international affair, every one of us in the unit had to have a small American flag patch sewn on the right shoulder of our BDUs.

On examining these patches, many of us wondered why the flag was backwards. When it is normally represented in two dimensions, the flag is supposed to look like it is flying from a pole on the left, with the stars in the upper left corner. On our uniforms, the flag was represented the opposite way, with the stars on the upper right. It was explained to us that if the flag were made the usual way, it would make us appear to be moving backwards, i.e., retreating. Since the U.S. Army never retreats, the patches were designed to show that we were always advancing.

Except, of course, when we were lying down, either on our backs or our stomachs, in which case we would appear from the flag's attitude to be ascending into the air or burrowing into the ground. And even in the impossible actuality of our retreating, or making what is now known as a strategic withdrawal, the flag would still make us look as if we were advancing - but to the rear.

As most Americans already know, the flag must be destroyed, according to tradition, if it touches the ground or is otherwise defiled in some way. I had always understood that the manner of its destruction was supposed to be fire, but since burning the flag has long since become a statement of protest and a deliberate provocation*, the official ritual of flag destruction has taken on rather elaborate and methodical details. (I was told these details by an Army reservist I met in Iowa, who had himself performed the ritual.) The flag must first be disassembled: the thirteen stripes and fifty stars must be removed one by one. When finished, the flag has been reduced to its component parts - seven red stripes, six white stripes, a blue field with fifty holes, and fifty individual white stars - and it is ready to be burned. Not all at once, in a pile, but one piece of cloth at a time.

Early one morning in May 1988, on the parade ground at RTC Orlando (long since closed), I had my first opportunity to salute the flag. We recruits were being instructed in drill and ceremony, when a bugle call was sounded over the loudspeakers on the base, giving everyone who is out-of-doors a few moments to face the site where the flag is being raised. Our company commander brought all eighty of us to attention and turned us around so that we were facing a small building behind which a tall flagpole was standing. And when the national anthem started blaring from the loudspeakers, he ordered us all to salute. As the national anthem played, I felt like I was at the Olympics and had won a gold medal, since only the gold medal winner's national anthem is played. It was an indescribable mixture of pride and what I can only call glory. It was probably the most emotional salute of my life, except for the one I gave to another flag, three months later, that was being folded over my father's remains on Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

*What anti-U.S. protesters around the world never seem to realize is that a piece of cloth painted to look like an American flag - is not an American flag. So burning it has nothing more than symbolic value.

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