I’m not particularly moved by the U.S. flag. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriot. I joined the military and did my four years in uniform. I’ve spent most of my life engaged in some form of public service — prison counselor, criminal defense investigator, teacher. I stand up when they play the national anthem at ball games. But I’m not a flag-waver. The flag just doesn’t move me as a symbol. It’s been brandished too often by too many hypocrites for too many cynical reasons for me to get very emotional about it.
However, there are two exceptions. First, I get weepy every time I see a military funeral. I’m going to guess a lot of you have only seen a military funeral on television or in the movies. Even so, you know there’s a military tradition that involves folding the flag and presenting it to the next of kin. Believe it or not, there wasn’t any actual written protocol for this ceremony until about five or six years ago. There was, however, the awesome weight of tradition, and tradition is a very big deal in the military.
By tradition, when the flag was presented to the next of kin the Casualty Assistance Officer (yeah, they actually have a title for this person; it’s the military) would kneel, offer the flag, and then say some variation of this:
This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.
The moment I hear the words a grateful nation I get totally choked up and by the time they get to honorable and faithful service I’ve been known to cry like a fucking baby. Partly because it’s so often a lie. The service was real. I’m not going to judge whether it was honorable or faithful, the fact is that person served. But let’s face it — the nation is rarely very grateful.
The other exception to my flag-related apathy is Memorial Day. This wasn’t always the case. As a holiday, Memorial Day has pretty much lost all meaning. I’ve written about this before. I’ve written about how ‘patriotic’ Republicans treat one of their own on Memorial Day. And three years ago I wrote about accidentally stumbling across a cemetery in a small town in Iowa on Memorial Day.
I went back to Maxwell, Iowa last year and again yesterday. I keep going back because the good people of Maxwell make Memorial Day feel like it’s supposed to feel. The flags they display are large, and they display a lot of them. But what moves me isn’t the number or size of the flags; it’s about the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging service. Maxwell shows appreciation for the inherent sacrifice of serving.
These weren’t necessarily big sacrifices. Very few of the veterans in Maxwell’s cemetery died while in uniform. They weren’t all heroes (when you call everyone a hero you devalue actual heroism). They were just ordinary folks who felt they owed something to their country or their community. The vast majority of the veterans did their time in military harness, came home, got a job, and lived an ordinary life. And each year, on this one day, the town of Maxwell basically says ‘Thank you.’ They don’t just say it to the dead who served in the military, mind you. The town also puts little flags on the graves of volunteer firefighters and police officers — red for firefighters, blue for police. It’s all about service, regardless of its form.
There’s a good chance, if you live in the US, that over the Memorial Day weekend you’ll pass by a cemetery, and you’ll have seen all those little flags scattered amongst the tombstones. Think about this: somebody put those flags there. Somebody walked out into the cemetery with a little chart showing where the bodies of veterans are located, and planted a little flag by each of those graves. In a few days, they’ll collect those flags and everything will go back to normal until next year. The vast majority of veteran’s graves will go unremembered. Nobody will visit their graves, except the persons planting those flags.
That’s probably not true in a small town like Maxwell. In a town of only a few hundred people, there’s a good chance whoever put those small flags by those graves knew the deceased. Or knew his kin. Maybe they learned geography or math from the person, or maybe grew up with the person’s grandson, or maybe bought their used car. There’s a good chance whoever put those flags in place in Maxwell wasn’t a stranger.
That moves me. It moves me in a very different way than when I visit the graves of my own family’s veterans. It moves me because what I see in Maxwell isn’t just honoring the dead, they’re honoring of the concept of service. It reminds me that service — the act of doing work for the benefit of the community — works both ways. By honoring service itself, the community of Maxwell makes itself worthy of that service. That’s a lesson for every community — every community across scales: neighborhood, small town, city, state, nation.
If you want a proud professional military, be sure you create a nation worthy of pride. If you want a good police force, make sure the city serves and protects everybody who lives there. If you want good teachers, give them good schools and provide them with the material they need to teach. It’s really very simple. If you want good service, give people a good reason to serve.
I’ll probably go back to Maxwell again next year. It doesn’t make me feel any more patriotic, and it won’t really change how I feel about the flag. But it reminds me that the reasons so many of us put on the uniform are valid. It reminds me service is honorable.