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Boy Scouts and Burning American Flags

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When I was a Boy Scout, I burned hundreds of American flags. Once or twice a year, at summer camp or at a Court of Honor (basically a barbeque where merit badges and rank advancements were awarded), my scoutmaster would bring boxes and boxes of tattered and worn American flags to be “retired,” as he called it. This was done in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code provision that directs: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The flags themselves varied in size; some were the size of envelopes, while some were so big it took six people at each bisector of the rectangle to hold the flag so that no part of it touched the ground. My scoutmaster was a notable man in the small town where he had lived in all his life. He had been fire chief and he was head of the security at a large hospital nearby, he smoked cigarettes and was the scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop. By virtue of all these different hats he wore, he came into contact with many people who regularly felt compelled to give him their torn and tattered flags to be respectfully disintegrated. Additionally, my scoutmaster regularly put American flags on the graves of war veterans, many of which were the recently uncovered graves of Civil War veterans buried nearby in an overgrown church yard that had been cleared by an enterprising Eagle Scout at the request of my scoutmaster. Putting flags on the graves meant checking to make sure they were still in good condition, and those that did not meet the standard were also added to the collection of doomed flags my scoutmaster would accumulate.

The flags also varied in material, meaning they all burned differently. Some were made out of some kind of thin cloth, and these would burn fast and turn immediately to dust. Some were plastic and only melted when the fire became extremely hot, leaving a hardened mass of black goo behind the next day. Some of the flags were truly massive and would throw off tremendous heat and light and burn in a spectacular variety of ways depending on the angle at which the cloth was lying and such variables. Pretty much everything burned, since fire does a very good job of burning things. For some reason though, the little sticks with the small American flags that are put on soldier’s graves or used as decoration for somebody’s walk for the fourth of July, mostly didn’t burn up but just blackened a little.

I do not remember exactly what was said at these ceremonies, but it was very much like the, to turn a phrase, “typical flag patriotic stuff” they play in big stadiums from loud speakers you cannot see, from an announcer who does not sound human. I do remember that several times a particular speech was read that described the symbolism of each part of the American flag, including the white stars, the blue field on which they lie, and each of the thirteen stripes, which were said to stand not for the colonies but for the cardinal American principles and supreme sacrifices that were made and would continue to be made by those fighting in our wars on behalf of our government. After each statement was read to some effect, a stripe would be torn by a Scout and thrown into the fire.

The fire gave off an unbelievable amount of light and heat.  Everyone had to move back behind the benches that enriched the fire circle, and it was as light as day when the fire reached its zenith, illuminating us as we stood around in silence watching all the flags burn.

I have more patriotic leanings than the average swattie, partially for ideological reasons, but in no small part because of the terrific impression left on me by watching these ceremonies two or three times a year during my adolescence.

That being said, I think the idea of outlawing the burning of American flags is dangerous and hypocritical. Additionally, the idea of people facing social or economic consequences for protests related to the flag seems unbelievably authoritarian and stupid. To treat such protests like a problem that needs to be stamped out is woefully unpatriotic, since it takes a clear attempt at engagement and treats it like some sort of curse-imposing magic trick. These people treat refusing to stand for the national anthem as if it were the greatest political problem we have in America, as if Colin Kaepernick is causing more social ill in this country than then the ill-gotten gains of some of the billionaire owners of NFL teams. Additionally, the idea that burning an American flag is somehow ipso facto “desecrating it” is ill-informed considering 1) that it is the prescribed manner of disposal, and 2) because the American flag code, which is the source of the directive to stand for the national anthem, also specifically bans using the American flag to emblazon clothing or as festoonment. Where’s the outrage over American flag ties and suits and t-shirts and underwear?

When I heard about the group of Native students burning an American flag on Columbus Day, I was incredibly moved by the events described. I cannot begin to understand what something like Columbus Day means for Native students going to this school anymore than I can understand what life in America is for many other minorities living in this country; I cannot ever even know what an American flag looks like to them.

But I was also struck by the similarities I saw between what the students did on Columbus Day and what I used to do in Boy Scouts. The destruction of the American flag in the exact same way, done solemnly and silently and accompanied by words of considered reflection. I do not want to equivocate the two very different events. I, feel, though that there must be some common ground that sees much meaning in the burning of the same symbol, whatever that meaning may be. The flag code says, somewhat mystically, that “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” But debates over the flag are certainly lively, and it seems the meaning of America is being continuously examined and reconsidered in the minds of all those people fighting the good fight. And if America’s meaning is up in the air, so too is its future up for grabs.

 

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