Fought and died “for the flag”?

The historical flag displayed for the auction

The historical flag displayed for the auction

One thing that leaped out at me during the media blitz on the Battle of Trafalgar flag that fetched a record price at auction is that it brought out one of my least favourite pieces of rhetoric from the anonymous flag collector who won the auction, in a radio interview, about the connection he felt to those who had “fought and died for this flag” (paraphrase) (see addendum in footnote).

Sweet FSM, that phrase raises all my hackles. Don’t get me wrong, as a history buff I’m thrilled that this relic has been discovered for us all to share its history, and the personal details in the story of this particular flag are dramatically satisfying to boot (see this Times Online article, especially the last section). But I’d like to get past this particular flag to concentrate on that particular phrase.

Obviously, flags do very heavy lifting work in the freighted symbology department, and rhetorical clichés save time and effort in communication. But it’s that very convenience of this venerable cliché (and many others) that I view askance: the rhetorical framing glosses over way too much, its freight is fraught with troubling implications.

People do not fight and die for flags, FFS. What a monumentally minimising and trivialising description of the motives of people who go to war in the service of their nation. They fight and die for their understanding of what those flags represent, and that’s a very variable individual response to how people have been imbued with their socio-cultural identity. People fight and die for people and principles they care about, and in modern organised warfare that involves being part of large coordinated units who end up fighting and dying for people they don’t know but who (they believe) share some core principles as well as a shared territory, and they value the security of their territory as bound by those principles highly enough to defend it.

Some people will respond with “but that’s what flags mean” to which my response is “that’s only part of what flags mean”. Flags also mean conspicuous jingoism that cynically facilitates political posturing and manipulation of the masses through obfuscating complex issues by waving some coloured cloth in front of them. The more a nation indoctrinates its children to a passionate attachment to its flag, the more suspicious I am of that nation’s governing elites.

It’s also worth remembering in the context of Trafalgar that many of the sailors were there involuntarily due to press-ganging, and that they fought and died in battle at least partly because if they didn’t fight the penalty was to be flogged “around the fleet”and then hanged (often the prolonged flogging would be fatal, in which case I believe the corpse would still be hanged, as an example to others). What do you think that Union Jack meant to such men? Some men made the best of being press-ganged, and fought with full patriotic fervour (including Lt. Clepham, to whom the flag was presented after the battle), but I very much doubt that every single sailor felt privileged to serve rather than coerced by government force.

Interestingly, the British auction house confined itself to describing how “extremely evocative” this particular example of “the national emblem” was, which doesn’t raise one solitary hackle for me, because acknowledging it as an emblem of the nation includes acknowledging all that symbolical freight, rather than glossing over it.

Footnote: ABC Online now has a transcript of their interview, and the collector’s phrasing in total is more nuanced than I parsed it as while driving.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Was this for you just an investment or is there a bit more sort of attached to it than that?

FLAG COLLECTOR: These relics, particularly flags, are something that people will not only die for, but they will also kill for, and I was very interested in this concept that all the value that we give a flag is what we interpret it as.

In other words, a flag has no meaning it’s what we think of it that’s important. And this abstract concept has always intrigued me for four decades – that something made of a piece of cloth could cause people to act in the extreme both ways.

TONY EASTLEY: The old flag by the way, the only one left to have flown at Trafalgar, has bullet holes in it and still smells of gun smoke, according to the auctioneers.

I still think he’s not quite there – that combatants will die and kill in in places where a flag is used to signal the need for them to do so is not the same thing at all as them dying and killing for the flag itself, and it’s entirely the wrong emphasis to take on how flags act as emblems of nationhood IMO.

Categories: history, language, media, Politics, Sociology

Tags: ,

5 replies

  1. Speaking as a former sailor, I think you pretty well nailed it.

    Although I *still* get teary-eyed at colors (the raising or lower of the flag at sunrise or sunset).

  2. I agree with all of the sentiments in this post but will still admit that the first time I saw the Eureka flag in its exhibit in Ballarat, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

  3. I agree too, really; interestingly, when I said that I found the Australian flag a depressing sight, one of the students in my class was horrified… and started talking about how it was representative of the ‘good’ stuff as well as the ‘bad’ stuff about Australia. I didn’t want to get further off track, but the question I wanted to ask was ‘exactly what good stuff?’ 😛
    In relation to the Eureka flag, Liam, I have a similar reaction. Except part of what’s going on there, for me, is that it was, more than anything else, a flag that represented resistance to an oppressive state (well, to its ludicrous policing practices, anyway). Its place in Australian history seems quite a unique story: in many ways, for me, it was about at least a partial rejection of British government (especially given the racism that was at work in the police officers’ responses to miners, predominantly Irish, with some Welsh, American and others who weren’t considered as being of good British stock—though of course the Chinese miners were almost completely excluded from the resistance, I think). So to me, it challenges not only the status quo in Australia, but actually, at least a little, though of course not enough, the British colonialist structures in a larger sense. Which is part of why I’m a tad peeved that racist young white men have adopted it as representative of *their* resistance to the alleged ‘status quo’. Pfft.

  4. Indeed, WildlyParenthetical. The way it’s become associated with puerile Fascism is a genuine tragedy. (Although I do often enjoy the irony of seeing the Southern Cross insignia on young blokes’ cars next to the registration sticker showing a several-hundred-dollar yearly payment made to the State roads and traffic authority).
    I was just surprised at my own visceral reaction to the physical presence of the cut-up tatty old Eureka flag, despite all inclinations against jingoism and in favour of historicity. I don’t know if it’s a “connection” with the dead, as the interviewed fellow TT mentioned described it, but there’s something powerful about objects like these.

    • There’s your freight of symbology, right there. People do have a strong reaction to the emblem of the nation, or to the emblem of a movement to which they have any sort of emotional attachment (I don’t doubt that on Bathurst racing weekends there are some getting tears in their eyes over the Holden and Ford flags). The developing iconography of flags over the centuries is a fascinating historical/sociological area that I’ve not had the time to delve as deeply into as I’d like, but flags are indeed more than just the rallying signals they started out as.

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