By Scott Mainwaring, Vexilloid Tabloid #56
This is a story about flag quote that has taken on a life of its own, thanks in part to a photo of it written on a flag held by a soldier.
“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people” is an abridged quote from American leftist historian Howard Zinn. It’s from his 1986 essay, “Terrorism Over Tripoli”, decrying the U.S. bombing of Libya to retaliate for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque.
Here is the full quote in context:
[Those] who defend this, tried to wrap their moral nakedness in the American flag. But it dishonors the flag to wave it proudly over the killing of a college student, or a child sleeping in a crib. There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.
From the beginning, then, this quote was about the American flag, its honor and dishonor, its use and abuse. Writing it on a U.S. flag, especially an inverted flag to show distress, makes a great deal of rhetorical sense—it raises exactly the questions that Zinn originally raised. It also quite literally fits onto the U.S. flag, whose white stripes have encouraged people to write messages on them for over two centuries. So in a way the flag and the quote were made for each other, and protesters—especially in the “War on Terrorism” era—have capitalized upon this.
U.S. flags inscribed with the Zinn quote make effective protest displays. Images of these circulate on the internet, certainly; but it wasn’t until someone uploaded this photo of a US soldier in uniform holding one of these protest flags, that the quote morphed into a viral anti-war meme.
The protest message is underscored by the way the mind immediately jumps to the conclusion that the soldier in the photo not only agrees with the message on the flag, and condones it being “defaced” in this way, but is in fact posing with the flag in order to express his dissent with U.S. war policies and broadcast this over the Internet. Thus this photo has generated and periodically continues to generate an uproar online, polarizing commenters who either praise or condemn the soldier for his ostensible act of public protest and flag modification.
It only takes a second look and a bit of thought, however, to doubt these interpretations of this image. The setting appears to be an empty office, and judging by the poster in the window, it’s a military recruiting office. The flag is worn and dirty. There are no spectators, except the presumed photographer.
Now, it’s possible that this photo was taken as an act of dissent, but it’s more likely that the photograph is simply documenting a flag that had been discovered, perhaps affixed to the outside of the recruiting office. It’s being held upside down so that the message is legible, with no other intended meaning. As image circulates, this “documentation, not protest” theory is raised periodically by skeptical commenters.
I have yet to locate any explanation of the photo by those involved in taking it. An early appearance, possibly the first, was a 7 August 2006 upload entitled “truthflag” by Flickr user “fiatbrat70”.
It’s been viewed over 380,000 times and has generated 225 comments. Metadata in the photo itself indicates it was taken by a Fujifilm FinePix S5000 digital camera on 23 January 2003 (although such data can be faked). Furthermore, there is a 2011 thread on the Snopes.com message board trying to determine the origin of the photo, in which an anonymous user claimed that her friend “James” is the soldier in the picture, and this he “saved” this flag “desecrated and used by anti-war protestors in Lawrence, KS in 2007”; but there’s no way to verify this and the story provided offers no explanation of why the photo was taken in the first place, or why its metadata indicates it originated in 2003.
Whatever the circumstances of the taking (or faking) of this mysterious photo, whoever uploaded it to the Internet set into motion a perceptually powerful if contextually problematic piece of anti-war viral propaganda.
Various other photos and graphics of flags inscribed with the Zinn quote have circulated on the Internet and in the media. Many have been from protests against U.S. wars and foreign policy, but recently it has spread to Black Lives Matter protests (on the left of the political spectrum) and Defund Planned Parenthood protests (on the right). The music group System of a Down included a version of the phrase in a 2002 album.