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Wars and Meanings

Lots of commonplace objects are fraught with meanings. Think of a favorite toy, a wedding ring, a snapshot, an autograph, a wooden cross, a coffin. Any of them can carry a world of emotionally charged meanings. A flag, however, is about as pure a symbol as an object can be. At one level, it is simply a piece of fabric. It has no utility. It could be worn as a shawl, perhaps, or spread out as a tablecloth. But most national flags, like our stars and stripes banner, have become so freighted with so many meanings, both individual and communal, that most people would feel very uncomfortable using a flag for any practical purpose, as anything other than a pure symbol.

Cataloguing all the personal, official, historical, political, legal and philosophi­cal meanings borne by the American flag would be impossible, not to mention tedious. But in seeking to understand what this flag symbolizes, it’s important to note that those deep layers of meaning did not accrue to the flag overnight when the Continental Congress resolved on June 14, 1777, that the still-embattled United States have a stars and stripes flag. Its meanings have accreted historically through myriad individual acts and common events. As author Marc Leepson notes in his cover story, many of those common events over the generations since 1777 have been wars, in which citizens struggled and died in community with a stars and stripes flag. Wars, from 1812 all the way to the conflict in Iraq, have been sharply important as shared experiences in shaping the meanings of the flag. For instance, it became the thing to “rally round” — at least for the North — in the Civil War–era lyrics of George Frederick Root’s song “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” And when it was photographed rising over Iwo Jima, the flag became the symbol of all that America was avowedly fighting for in World War II.

As those meanings have accrued over the years, it should come as no surprise that the flag has accordingly changed its appearance, from the earliest banner that bore a confusing resemblance to the Union Jack of the British forces against whom our Revolutionary War was fought, to the current 50-star version projected around the globe.

Worldwide, the American flag has become an ambiguous symbol, carrying both good and bad associations, but on America’s home ground the flag has evolved into a shorthand symbol of all those “goods” that Americans presumably cherish in common: the Constitution, the rule of law, justice, fair play, a free and open society, a way of life that offers the hope of individual success, to name only a few of the specific values to which citizens routinely pledge their allegiance — and for which some in extreme circumstances have been prepared to die. It is that last fact, a characteristic of war, that gives this flag its core meaning.