How have flags come to mean so much?

Published

Credit: Unsplash

Adam Paton
Writer

Pieces of fabric have become a marker of sovereignty and identity.

The first flags were displayed on the battlefields of early empires – Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia – and used as symbols for worship. With these early battlefields often becoming a chaotic mix of blood, bodies, and mud, these primitive flags were little more than dyed cloth designed as a rallying point for friendly soldiers or emblems of success. Often made from cloth, painted with dyes or dipped in the blood of defeated foes, these flags are far removed from what modern nation-states use to imbue a sense of identity. Described as vexilloids, the battle standards would be placed on large staves of food, accompanied by the carving of an animal on its mast. These were too heavy to billow in the wind, and would instead hand vertically until the Chinese came to produce fabric from silk.

From the innovative lands of China, silk and silk flags spread along the Silk Road. These were first adopted by Arab civilizations before European nations copied the practice during the Crusades. Unlike the prior cloth flags, these middle-age flags were intricately detailed and could be held aloft and more easily moved on the battlefield. Soon banners would be a mainstay on the battlefield, prior to the development of flags. Tim Marshall – author of Worth Dying For: The power and politics of flags, argues that the transition to silk was fundamental in the proliferation of flags as a marker of identity and symbols of nationalism.

Today, wars are fought with GPS and often by highly trained and regimented individuals rather than a peasant mass looking for an opposition banner, and yet flags have come to dominate both civilian and military life. Flags are a fundamental element in state identity, with countries holding referendums on changes in design; the USA has code on how to “Respect the Flag” and no Scottish Independence march is complete without a sea of saltires. In all three situations, flags play a distinctive and deliberate role: namely as a rallying point designed to represent a nation.

In a referendum period that felt unbearably long and drawn out, New Zealand spent NZ$26 Million to keep their current flag. As New Zealand comedian Melanie Bracewell put it, “I wish we just divided the 26 million up and got $6 each instead of this #nzflag.” Whilst many New Zealanders were bound to agree with Bracewell, there was some method to the madness with an initial attitude for change amongst the public. A flag in the 21st century must represent the land and people of the city, region, state or nation. The current Kiwi flag has colours representing the Union Jack, and two symbols, one commemorating the link to the British Empire and one representing New Zealand’s geographic place in the world. Kiwis appear to be satisfied with a flag representing its colonial past which is a near replica of its closest neighbour’s, but allowing the chance to change what represents you is just as important as what represents you.

It may seem overkill to have a legal document explaining how to hang a flag, but the United States isn’t alone in this practice. The Nepalese flag is a rare example of a non-rectangular flag used by a sovereign state. Something so important to the small Himalayan nation that it has codified how to create a Nepalese flag in its constitution. The hanging of the US flag is just as important to the United States of America as the design of the flag is to the Nepalese. Some of the USA’s brightest and darkest moments have been captured in photos of the flag being raised. Whether at Ground Zero or Iwo Jima, the USA has built a national identity around its flag. The Stars and Stripes act as a conjoining point for 325 million people, individuals with global roots, who are divided into fifty states. If you’re unconvinced about the power of the Star-Spangled Banner, then look only as far as the Pledge of Allegiance given in schools across the USA every morning or the colour palette for the Fourth of July.

Common unity explains the sea of saltires at the recent All Under One Banner march in Edinburgh, the flood of European Flags in London a few weeks ago, and why FC Barcelona display the Senyera on their home kit. In an interconnected world, flags serve to truly represent the idea of a nation of people. Indy supporters march with flags that represent the sovereign nation-state they want to see; no other symbol will come close to representing that vision. The Flag of Europe binds together 513 million people spread over 4 million square kilometres who speak dozens of different official languages. It is no wonder that so much time and effort was put into the design of the flag of the newly formed state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was established as an independent state in 1992 despite no ethnic group making up a majority of the population. Quickly, agitation from its Serbian minority led to the descent of the new-born state into civil war. After three years of fighting, a crucial part of the Dayton Accords (1995) and future peace in the region was the unification of the three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) into a shared identity. Rather than draw on historic imagery, the flag was designed to build a future for a unified Bosnia. White, blue and yellow were chosen as they represented peace, Europe, and Bosnia. The symbol of a triangle and a row of stars symbolise the three main ethnic groups of Bosnia as well as Europe. Finally, the half stars on the top and bottom suggest that the stars are infinite with the unified country a part of a peaceful Europe.

The flag was imposed on Bosnia and Herzegovina by the International High Representative for Bosnia after the new Bosnian Parliament failed to come to a conclusion in 1998. The flag was used less than a week after its unveiling, with the Bosnian Winter Olympics team marching in behind it at the 1998 Nagano games. The flag is far from universally popular, and each federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina possesses its own flag and emblem. A study of how those living in Bosnia and Herzegovina felt about dividing the new state into separate states along ethnic lines was completed in 2005 and followed up in 2015. In 2005 a slender majority (50.5%) disagreed with the separation of territories by ethnicities. Yet in 2015, attitudes had shifted with between 10-15% now stating they too did not favour separation. This demonstrates a hugely symbolic shift in how confidently ethnic groups perceive their place in the country.

Whilst Bosnia and Herzegovina remains challenged by its difficult past, a new generation have benefitted from growing up in a post-war environment, in a country that is now actively pursuing EU membership. Of course, it would be questionable to attribute this to an imposed flag, but markers of shared identity played a key role in shifting the nature of dialogue and conflict in the country.

The value and nature of flags have changed drastically across the millennia. No longer as a rallying point in conflict, they have come to represent states and act as a symbol of common unity. Although it may seem strange that so much time and money has been spent on the design, implementation, and even referendums on the issue of flags, they have made a tremendous difference in outlining difference and shared heritage around the world. Indeed, flags are one of the only tangible ways states have come to represent themselves. The basis for a stimulating conversation on national identity in New Zealand, or a rallying point for a country in the wake of 9/11, these strips of fabric have come to mean a lot.

If you would like to read (or listen) to more riveting vexillology talk then here are a few starting points.

“Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags” by Tim Marshall is the definitive, one-stop-shop for a whole range of flag talk. But if flag design is more your jam then try a twenty-minute TED talk from (the most soothing podcast host around) Roman Mars –

https://www.ted.com/talks/roman_mars_why_city_flags_may_be_the_worst_designed_thing_you_ve_never_noticed?language=en.

For those who’ve made it through the Brexit chaos and are ready for even more referenda talk, then I’d suggest taking a journey back to when referenda were still new and fun. The Hello Internet podcast covered the New Zealand flag referenda in a surprising level of detail before even completing their own referenda for an “Official HI Flag.” The suggested start point is episode 38 (http://www.hellointernet.fm/podcast/38) but episode 53 (the one where the votes are counted) and episode 55 (the one where they discuss the results) are a fun way of exploring how a flag referendum would look if the public really cared.

Finally, the only place on the internet where a true flag addict can get their daily fix is https://www.reddit.com/r/vexillology/. I’d suggest permanently bookmarking the page or investing in a separate laptop so it can be permanently open.