Flag waving

The Times (London)
April 27, 2004, Tuesday

Flag waving

Iraq’s Governing Council has just created employment for thousands of
tailors and seamstresses. The Iraqi flag, which for 40 years
fluttered across courts, barracks and stadiums, has been changed. The
three stars, adopted by the Baathists as symbols of their ideology,
have given way to a pale blue crescent, intended to symbolise peace,
surmounting two lines of blue, the Tigris and the Euphrates, with a
strip of yellow sand. At least this new flag, unlike our own, will
not be inadvertently flown upside down.

Flags are today the most potent symbols of nationhood. When a border,
system or constitution changes, so does the flag. Apartheid and
communism have been consigned to the dustbin of history and so has
the hammer and sickle, as well as the old South African symbols of
Dutch and British settlement. The Rising Sun shed its rays after
Hiroshima and the swastika mercifully was obliterated. The Arab world
has had its share of changes: in the heady 1960s, when short-lived
unions inspired nationalist fervour, stars were sewn on or ripped off
at a dizzying rate.

The United States slowly added stars to the 13 bars as states joined
the union.

Indeed, the most persuasive argument against statehood for Puerto
Rico is the havoc an extra star would play with the constellation.
The European Union, thankfully, has stuck at 12, even though it is
soon to be 25.

Flags were originally markers, “colours” to rally troops lost in the
confusion of the battlefield. They then were used to designate the
lands and cities over which the king’s writ held sway. For centuries
they were iconic symbols, emblematic of patron saints, mercantile
interests or national history. England chose St George – a saint
rescued from right-wing extremism by football, his banner now greased
on a thousand supporters’ faces. Some countries made confusingly
similar choices: in strong sunlight the Italian flag could be
mistaken for the Irish, the Dutch for the flag of Luxembourg. Newer
countries wanted clearer symbols: the Lebanese chose a cedar tree,
the Cypriots a map (which ought, perhaps, to be divided now), the
Saudis a Koranic credo.

Colours matter too. Blue is the universal favourite. Communists had a
passion for red, Muslims prefer any combination of the sacred colours
red, green, black and white, and the old maxim that blue and green
should never be seen largely holds true. Politics is never far away.
The Greeks were furious at Macedonia’s claim to the many-pointed
star. The best retort was that of Gromyko to the Turks’ objection
that Soviet Armenia’s flag pictured Mount Ararat, in Turkey: “Your
flag has a crescent. Do you claim the moon?” Let us hope that no one
else now lays claim to the Euphrates.