This was written by a classmate of mine
Joseph R. Tomczak, Class of 2009
United States Air Force Academy
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A flag is usually made from tightly woven, high-quality cotton. Its corners are carefully double stitched to prevent fraying. It has brass rings on the corners and dark, bold colors stained into the fabric. It’s the kind of flag you put out in front of your house on Memorial Day. But not this flag. This flag is made of one-hundred percent nylon because it is easier to pack. This flag was probably stitched together somewhere in a warehouse in the middle of Tennessee by a sowing machine operator paid slightly higher than the minimum wage. Then it was packaged and shipped to a USO in Germany where flags were being given out to deploying Marines and that’s how it ended up in the back of a humvee on a street corner in southern Iraq.
So when a captain crawled into the back of the abandoned vehicle to retrieve medical supplies for his Marines he also grabbed the tightly folded flag as bullets ricocheted off the humvee’s armor. He ran back to his wounded comrades taking cover across the street while other Marines were repelling the ambush with the sound of hundreds of brass casings hitting the ground. Later the captain will recall that he didn’t even feel the bullet wound in his leg as he called in an air strike against the enemy sniper position just a few blocks away. All he remembered was the sound of the fighter pilot’s voice over the radio as she confirmed the target and put a laser guided bomb through the sniper’s window.
Having fought their way through the last remaining enemy holdout in the small port city, the Marines took down the old Iraqi flag which bore the words “God is great” inscribed from Saddam’s own handwriting. It was promptly replaced it with that nylon American flag atop one of the tallest buildings. The creases in the material were still visible as it flew in the breeze that day and the colors of the flag flew in stark contrast with the brown buildings and dust covered streets. Later, the media-conscience commanders would decide that the flag had to come down, and the Marines would take it down – but they would never forget the sacrifice and the courage it took to raise it.
It is clear why there is such opposition to the desecration of the American flag. Millions of Americans have worn the uniform of the United States and served under the flag. We have shed countless tears and beads of sweat under the flag; many have bled under it – thousands have died under it. For America’s uniformed men and women, and the veterans who came before us, the flag embodies more than just the ideals of freedom and human liberty that most citizens love and cherish… the flag is a part of who we have become. For us, the flag represents a higher cause and purpose than one’s self. For soldiers like us, the flag is the sum of all of our experiences – both the pride and the pain, both the service and the sacrifice, both the courage and the cost. As college professor Michael Geisler describes it, the flag is a “metaphor to die for.”1 More appropriately still, the flag is a metaphor worth dying for.
Furthermore, we as military members have pledged to defend the United States against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Some see those who would desecrate the flag as domestic enemies who threaten the rights of others when they propagate anti-American sentiment so publicly. It is true that when military members and their families see the flag disgraced by citizens of their own country, it has a weakening affect on the morale and sense of purpose that every soldier carries into combat. It is true when a citizen burns the flag, he or she is disgracing the sacrifice and contributions of millions of Americans to the cause of freedom around the world.
Desecration of the flag is a senseless act, born out of ignorance and perceived injustice. The action itself accomplishes very little, with much more attention placed on the act of desecration than on the political message an individual is attempting to convey to the public. When a citizen burns the flag, they also incinerate their legitimacy, their credibility, and their perceived moral high-ground.
I have never witnessed an American flag set on fire, and I hope I never will. But if I were to imagine for a moment what it would feel like, I imagine it would be like standing in New Jersey on the bank of the Hudson River on a warm late-summer morning. It would feel like standing on that bank and watching Lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke and flames, and waiting for tugboats to bring the first wave of casualties across the river… a feeling of violation, of vulnerability, of helplessness.
Yet despite all of this, we must protect a citizen’s right to burn the flag. The reason for this originates from the very fundamental principle the American military stands for, the protection of the freedom the United States provides. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent with the concept of limiting the rights of others, regardless of how shameful and contemptible that right may be. Our task, and ultimately our calling, is to defend the Constitution of the United States, which protects the rights of all citizens as long as their actions do not infringe on the rights of others. As members of the military we must remember that we are fighting not only for those citizens who hold our same political views – we serve every citizen and protect their rights to express themselves however they wish, even if it means the degradation of the very symbol we hold dear.
So, an American flag is made from tightly woven fabric, double stitched seams, and the hopes and dreams of millions of free people across the globe. Despite the shame of flag burning, as citizens who wear the uniform we must be prepared to defend the right of expression and degradation of our symbol of freedom… We may not agree with everything that our citizens do, but we must be prepared to fight and even die to defend their right to do it.
We cannot allow for the limitation of the rights of the American people. We cannot join the ranks of those countries that jail or punish their citizens for speaking out against the government. Dissent, whether it is verbal, written, or demonstrated must be protected. It is fundamental to our society as a beacon and example for free expression and human liberty. It is the essential difference between America and her enemies who have no regard for such principles. It is what separates us… from them.