“I fought for that flag. I lost friends who died fighting for that flag.” I’ve been thinking about this all morning. The remark was meant to be a condemnation of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who recently refused to stand for the anthem. I mean no disrespect to the angry veteran who said it, but if left unglossed his statement reduces literal combat — a man’s literal experience of destruction, blood, and death — to figurative ceremony, which I somehow doubt that he intended.
A flag is a rectangle of fabric. It flaps from a tall post. Or it hangs limp as in Richard Misrach’s photograph (“Waiting, Edwards Air Force Base, 1983”), used as the cover image for a 2010 English reprint of Jean Baudrillard’s America. (Famously Baudrillard commented on the weird ubiquity of our flag, bespeaking a nation obsessed “with vindicating itself, perpetually seeking to justify its own existence.”)
It seems to me that a flag is at best a physical metonymy, a shorthand representation of something either too variable and unwieldy to talk about or, in an epistemic sense, utterly evasive of articulation. Why fight for, possibly die for, a piece of flapping cloth except insofar as it represents a reality more significant than stitching, pigment, and a pleasing arrangement of graphic elements? Wouldn’t it need to represent or in some way symbolize things — things beyond itself — that are worth protecting, that are worth fighting for? We have a flag. But what does it symbolize? That’s not a statement. That’s a question. I’m asking.