How to Honor Those in Uniform?

From the December 24th Daily Tribune in Mount Pleasant, Texas comes this image of seven flags sharing a pole.
Service flags fly at the courthouse in Mt Pleasant, Texas. Photo by Lou Antonelli, Mt Pleasant Daily Tribune.

In order, they are:

Flag of the US Army (adopted 1956)
Flag of the US Marine Corps (adopted 1939)
Flag of the US Navy (adopted 1959)
Flag of the US Air Force (adopted 1951)
Flag of the US Coast Guard (adopted 1964)
Flag of the US Merchant Marine (adopted 1994)
National League of Families POW/MIA Flag (recognized by US Congress 1990)

Although the flags are in the correct order, and there doesn’t seem to be any written rule about how many flags is too many when flown in this fashion, the overall effect is problematic:

  • They just look unwieldy and awkward. We expect flags to be longer than they are wide, but taken together these flags group into something like one very wide but short composite flag.  In other words, they create something in “profile” orientation, when we expect to see “landscape”.
  • When sharing a pole in this way, they necessarily reinforce the pecking order (defined, in part, by DoD Directive 1005.8) that gives precedence to certain organizations over others.  But is this pecking order relevant this context?  For example, it demonstrates that the Army ranks much, much more highly than the lowly Merchant Marine — which is technically true, but does it have to be so rubbed in?
  • They all feature printed text, which comes out backwards (reading AIM/WOP, etc.) when the wind is blowing in the “wrong” direction, from right to left, as it is in this photo.
  • Even if the wind direction were cooperating, these flapping flags would still be hard to read, with the possible exception of the bold white-on-black design of the POW/MIA flag (which it shares with the flags of buccaneers, and ISIS). Designs of this complexity may work OK when used in some contexts (for example, in military color guard ceremonies), but as Good Flag, Bad Flag points out they don’t work particularly well here.

So what is the poor courthouse to do?  Go to the expense of installing six additional poles?  Well, on behalf of flag and flag pole businesses everywhere, the answer would be an emphatic YES!  Let’s get some more cash circulating in the economy.

A more economical alternative could be to replace the six service flags with a single flag that represents all of them.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any such flag.

Could we at least reduce the number of flags?  The Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and (in times of war) Coast Guard all are part of the Department of Defense; the Coast Guard is usually part of the Department of Homeland Security; and the Merchant Marine is part of the Department of Transportation.  So six of the flags above might be replaced with these three:

Unofficial flag of the Department of Defense
Flag of the US Department of Homeland Security (adopted 2003)
Flag of the Department of Transportation

This isn’t a whole lot better, though.  For one thing, the DoD doesn’t have an official flag, despite (or perhaps because) many of its officials and components having flags themselves.  For another, the intent here is to honor those serving in uniform within these departments, not all of their march larger populations of federal employees.  These departmental flags just look strange in this context — they are not viable substitutes.

By the way, there are seven federal uniformed services, each with its own flag: the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard as shown above, but also the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (which doesn’t have a flag) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (which does, see below). Strangely, although members of the Merchant Marine (US Maritime Service) wear uniforms, the USMS isn’t counted as an official “uniformed service” but instead as a “volunteer service”.  Why honor them, but not, for example, Public Health officers dealing with Ebola and other dangers?

Flag of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps (from the Voice of Vexillology, Flags & Heraldry blog)

So until new ways are developed to distinguish and represent “especially honorable” employees of the federal government, unwieldy, rank-ordered, multiple-flag displays may be the best anyone can do.  At least, this is good news for our friends in NIFDA.

Blog entry by Scott Mainwaring

2 thoughts on “How to Honor Those in Uniform?”

  1. Just a little info to add re the PHS. The flag represents the entire agency, not just the commissioned corps. The PHS is made up of both commissioned officers and civil service employees. The PHS is currently made up of 8 agencies. The PHS is in turn part of the Dept of Health and Human Services at the top level (which also has a flag).

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