Tuesday, October 3, 2017



By Tim Marshall

Scribner, $26, 290 pages

The most powerful passage in veteran journalist Tim Marshall’s breezy if somewhat superficial book on flags comes not from him, but from a man usually associated with universalist nonviolence rather than nationalism:

“A flag is a necessity for all nations. Millions have died for it. It is no doubt a kind of idolatry which it would be a sin to destroy. For a flag represents an Ideal. The unfurling of the Union Jack evokes in the English breast sentiments whose strength it is difficult to measure. The Stars and Stripes mean a world to the Americans. The Star and the Crescent will call forth the best bravery of Islam. It will be necessary for us Indians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsis and all others to whom India is their home to recognize a common flag to live and to die for.”

So said Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted to place the image of a spinning wheel — symbol of traditional Indian village life and self-sufficiency — at the center of the saffron, white and green tricolor that would become the banner of newly independent India. Gandhi’s choice was passed over in favor of the rather pretentious “wheel of the dharma chakra” representing “the eternal cosmic law that upholds the order of the universe of cyclic reincarnation,” which today’s average Indian would be hard-pressed to define, much less explain. But Gandhi’s words on the importance of flags remain true.

Flags tell a lot about what countries have been and what they want to become. The red, white and black horizontal stripes shared by the flags of Egypt, Syria and Iraq all originally symbolized the ideal of a United Arab Republic that never jelled. The blue-white-blue tricolors of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala reflect a short period of united rule after the Spaniards were driven out of Central America.

On a larger scale, the yellow, blue and white tricolors of Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela remind us that they were all briefly part of Simon Bolivar’s vision of a South American megastate. As with many flamboyant revolutionary figures, Bolivar’s reach exceeded his grasp. He drove the Spaniards out of South America but failed miserably as a unifying leader in the post-colonial vacuum.

Nowhere is the contrast between kindred origins and fratricidal strife more striking than in the flags of several of the former component republics of Yugoslavia. Serbian, Slovenian and Croatian flags all sport the same white, black and red horizontal stripes, even after fighting a bloody war of separation. For consistency and continuity, the most enduring flags tend to be those of countries with minimal regime changes.

Long-running monarchies like Denmark and Sweden, or constitutionally stable republics like the United States, have kept essentially the same flag in place for centuries. Indeed, the simple “Dannebrog,” Denmark’s red-background, white-crossed banner is considered the oldest national flag in the world.

The cross is perhaps the most widely used symbol in national flags, originally for religious reasons but also as symbolic heraldry in countries no longer known for their religious commitment. The runner-up symbol would probably be the star and crescent to be found on the flags of many Muslim nations today. Turkey’s star and crescent banner, originally with a green (the color of the Prophet) background, but since 1793 with a red background, once flew over countries including Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, to name only a few.

As the power of the Ottoman Empire declined, virtually independent hereditary rulers like the Khedives of Egypt and the Deys of Tunis continued to fly flags featuring the star and crescent. Tunisia still does today, and Egypt did until a military coup toppled its monarchy in the 1950s. When the partition of India led to the creation of a new, Muslim-majority Pakistan, the star and crescent was the predictable emblem for its flag.

Mr. Marshall doesn’t strictly confine himself to national flags, however. Important non- or supranational flags such as those of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, European Union and United Nations are also covered. He even gives us a brief history of the world’s only sex-oriented flag, the LGBT (“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual”) Rainbow Flag. The latter was the creation of one Gilbert Baker, we are told, who earned his livelihood in San Francisco “as a drag queen and making banners for gay rallies and events.” Whether or not he ever performed under the stage name “Betsy Ross” is not known.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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