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Disrespected: why flag etiquette matters

He witnessed the bombardment from the deck of a sixty-foot sloop anchored snugly beside a British frigate. For 25 hours, the British Fleet rained down a hailstorm of ordnance and desperation for triumph over the Americans defending Fort McHenry. And as the man on the sloop watched in horror, more than 1,500 two hundred and twenty-pound bombs had their fuses lit by the British before being launched at the fort. Unfortunately for the British, there was a flaw to their new mortars: they often exploded in midair rather than upon impact. From the HMS Erebus, the new British Congreve rockets were launched, tracing uneven red arcs across the night skies in their wake. In all, the British used five bomb ketches, ten small warships, and the Erebus to assault Fort McHenry that day and night. And from the deck of the sloop, whose name has been lost in the annals of history, Sir Francis Scott Key stood, watching, waiting, praying for a glimpse of our stars and stripes.

At Chinook Elementary School, three students raised the Washington state flag above the national flag - again.
Photo by: Katherine Ainsworth

When dawn broke the horizon, Major George Armistead ordered the fort’s smaller storm flag be lowered and replaced with a truly impressive sight: a 42x30-foot American flag. During the summer of 1813, Armistead had requested local “maker of colours” Mary Young Pickersgill sew a flag so large “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.” Mary and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Caroline, set about sewing what would become one of the most famous flags in American history. Using 400 yards of high-quality wool bunting, they cut eight red and seven white stripes, each two feet wide(at the time, those fifteen stripes represented the fifteen states). The fifteen stars were two feet from point to point; laying the pieces out on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, a neighborhood establishment, they sewed together a masterpiece of American pride. And it was this flag Armistead raised in triumph at dawn on September 14, 1814. And, from the deck of the sloop where Key had been forced to wait out the battle due to British concern over what he had gleaned while obtaining the release of an American prisoner, Dr. Beanes, Key finally saw it. The stars and stripes appeared in the dawn’s first light, snapping in the breeze and proclaiming America’s strength with no words needed. Filled with pride and relief, Key penned these words on the back of a letter he had in his pocket:

“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light/what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight/O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming/And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there/Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” (Sir Francis Scott Key, 1814, full text shown at bottom of this article)

Historical legend tells of George Washington, who was, at the time, the leader of the Continental Army, going to Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross in May of 1776 and creating the first American flag. The story goes that Washington and two other men visited her shop with a sketch of the flag, and after Ross convinced the men a five-pointed star would be better than a six-pointed star – mostly for ease of cutting – she sewed the flag. Although historians do not agree on the legitimacy of this tale, Ross’ grandson, William Canby, passed the story down in 1870 during a speech he gave to the Philadelphia Historical Society. Regardless, we know Washington was absolutely involved in the creation and raising of the first flag, and on June 14, 1777, the United States Continental Congress officially approved our first national flag. In 1818, Congress passed legislation so our national flag would always have thirteen stripes to represent the thirteen original colonies and one star to represent each state.

The American flag has a rich history. Blood has been and continues to be spilled in its protection, and some of the most courageous moments in our history have been marked by the raising of Old Glory. On July 1, 1898, at the Battle of San Juan Hill, then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders to victory against the Spanish and, at the end, victoriously planted the American flag atop the hill. And on February 23, 1945, the famous raising of the flag at Iwo Jima took place. But our flag is not only a symbol of national pride; it is also used to mark sorrow and grief. The flag is flown at half-staff as a sign of national mourning, and often locally, as well, for example, when an area service member is killed in action. For those of us born in decades prior to the 1990’s, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was a morning ritual at school, whether private or public. And for many, learning how to handle the flag with respect and fold it, too, was considered a normal and expected part of our childhoods. What are our children learning today?

“My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!” Thomas Jefferson

The decay and outright desecration of patriotism began decades ago, but it seems to have ramped up in the 1990’s. By 2002, a three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance could no longer be recited in schools because it contains a First Amendment violation: by saying “one nation under God,” government and states seemed to be endorsing religion. The initial ban affected nine Western states, including Washington. Unsurprisingly, a number of county or district-wide bans have gone into effect across the country, but many have been in California. Gone are the days of a morning Pledge of Allegiance recital, let alone the times where children were taught to respect and honor the flag itself. As time ticks away, a generation is being raised not only ignorant of but outright flippant about even bothering to care for the American flag.

At Chinook Elementary School in Auburn, Washington, fifth grade students are tasked with raising and lowering the flag each day. Once, at the start of the school year, the teachers herd the children out to the flag pole and demonstrate raising and lowering the flag. After that demonstration, the fifth-graders go to the pole at the start of every school day and raise the Washington state flag and the American flag. In one classroom, which is, unsurprisingly, the class of a military veteran, the details and importance of the American flag are discussed, and a demonstration of proper flag-folding is given. Since there are three classes, they rotate, so for one month at a time, a particular fifth-grade class is responsible for the flags, and the monthly rotations continue throughout the school year. Sounds good, right?

June 19th, 2014, was the day of the fifth-grade “graduation,” which is another story in itself. Before this writer’s own arrival at the school, well over one hundred parents had congregated in the school’s gymnasium. In order to reach the gym, each and every one of them passed the flag pole. It was standing-room only, folding chairs were packed and adults lined the walls and stood in open doorways. And yet, approaching the school entrance, an atrocity was on open display, and had been apparently ignored: the Washington state flag sat atop the American flag.

“A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.” Benjamin Franklin

While this placement of the national colors below the state colors may not cause a collective gasp of horror, it should. Here’s why: first, it’s disrespectful. It is a flagrant violation of flag etiquette, and the entire point of etiquette is to show pride and gratitude to this symbol of our nation, which so many have sacrificed and given their lives to build and maintain. Second, it showed the students who raised it did not care; it was thoughtless. However, it also shows a lack of caring on the part of the school administration. Can no one be bothered to make sure the flag is properly displayed? Third, it is absolutely impossible that no other adult entering the school noticed. Of course some did, although many said they didn’t even notice when they were asked. Those who did notice displayed one of two traits: ignorance of flag etiquette and/or flat-out not caring. What a sad state of affairs.

“If you are ashamed to stand by your colors, you had better seek another flag.” Anonymous

Worse yet, it turns out this has happened before. Although there are students who take pride in and respect the flag that is not the case across the board; in fact, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Students admit they’re aware some of their classmates simply do not care and see the raising of the flag as an unwanted chore. When they fold the flag at the day's end, they do so sloppily and incorrectly, out of both ignorance and laziness. And then there are the students who drop the American flag on the ground, step on it, and drag it, laughing all the while. Are these the children we are raising? Children with absolutely no respect or understanding of what our nation’s colors stand for? Do they truly lack any comprehension whatsoever that by allowing or purposefully touching the flag to the ground, they are, in essence, spitting on the graves and uniforms of those in uniform? Do they realize they are dishonoring our founding fathers? Do they care? Do their parents, having walked past this disgraceful display of ineptitude and irreverence, care one iota?

My friend and I were a few minutes later for the ceremony. After informing the office of the problem with a politeness I am sure those who know me best would find stunning, we went back outside, lowered the flags – the state flag was much larger than the national flag, as well – and rectified the situation. Both flags had to be entirely reversed in order to be properly raised, and the entire experience drove home a simple, heartbreaking point: patriotism is taking its final, gasping breaths in America.

This is not about shaming a particular student, teacher, or school. The cold, hard reality is this total lack of understanding has spread across the country like wildfire on a steady diet of gasoline. It is not only the young whose patriotism is glaringly absent, either, because they are getting this abhorrent behavior from somewhere else: their parents. Not only from their parents, though, but from the adults in their lives, in general. When was the last time you attended a parade and saw those present doff their hats, remove their hands from their pockets, and show proper respect for a passing flag? How about at a sporting event? The American flag rarely receives the honor it is due in this day and age, and for such a disgrace, your heart should not only break, but your anger should be stirred in a justified, heated manner. Abraham Lincoln may have said it best when he said “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” Patriotism is not displayed only in the living, though, it is prominently displayed in the dead.

“The American flag does not fly because the wind moves it. The American flag flies because of the last breath of every military member who died defending it.” Anonymous

Tomorrow, here in Washington state, flags will be flown at half-staff as we welcome back Corporal Justin Clouse, a Washington native who was killed in Afghanistan during a fight with the Taliban on June 9, 2014. Here is a true patriot. And as the students who raised our national colors twisted and beneath the state colors on Thursday, June 19th, pass by a flag pole on their way to some celebration of the start of summer vacation, will they ask their parents why the flag is not raised all the way? If they ask, will their parents even know? Will they care? Sadly, the answer seems to be a resounding “no” on all counts. And as patriotism struggles to rise up, as the flag is dishonored and service members are mistreated through pay and meal cuts and horrific VA care, what will you do? Will you stand and fight, or will you fold under the pressure? Stand and fight. Patriotism is not dead, and bringing back its glory is sometimes as simple as removing the suffocating weight of ignorance crushing its throat. Fly your American flags proudly, and with respect, and when you see it being done wrong, do not shuffle past in silence. If you want to keep patriotism in America, it must be fought for; stand your ground. Fight back.

“Patriotism is not about simply waving your American flag when everyone else does. It’s about beating the sh-t out of the asshole next to you who is trying to burn it.” Anonymous

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The Star-Spangled Banner, by Sir Francis Scott Key:
(Key wrote several versions which are on display in various locations; this is one of the most commonly known.)

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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