Books: Still blowing in the wind

Written By: Martin Griffin
Published: August 2, 2017 Last modified: August 2, 2017

Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags
by Tim Marshall
Elliott & Thompson £9.99

Though nobody would claim the British disdain symbolic display, edespite the national tendency to avoid drawing attention to oneself, the UK is not one of those countries where flying the national flag from a pole in the front garden is normal practice. Add to that the complexities of the Union; the persistence of and even preference for the individual flags of Scotland and Wales (England and Northern Ireland are even odder cases); the rampant commercialization of the flag; and the Union Jack ends up ironically as both ubiquitous around the world, and a somewhat shy party-goer at home.

Tim Marshall’s energetic study seeks to provide some kind of historical background and clarity for humanity’s flags, beginning with the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack, and roaming cheerfully thereafter to all corners of the globe. The book delves into several aspects that will have already struck observers on a superficial level: for example, the way regional flag clusters seem to echo each other, such as the asymmetric cross in the flags of the Nordic countries, or the red-black-white-green combination that emerged from Pan-Arabist circles in the early part of the 20th century, and is echoed in many North African and Middle Eastern flags today. Marshall teases out the political, social, and often religious forces that have pushed certain symbols to the fore and suppressed others.

One of the most fascinating sections focuses on the Middle East and, in particular, the flags of semi-state and non-state actors in the region. The flag that the world has come to know recently, mostly in a morbid context, is the ISIS banner, a white circle on a black background and the Islamic declaration of faith in black letters on white, and vice versa. While many will recognize the lettering to be identical to the text on the green-and-white flag of Saudi Arabia, Marshall emphasizes that the ISIS flag deliberately uses rough and inelegant script – almost a punk graphic style – to underline its combative and anti-establishment vision of Islamic purity and commitment. Most westerners do not grasp the subtle play on text and image tthese flags engage in.

Marshall explores the development of national flags on all continents, and shows a lot of understanding for the struggles of postcolonial nations to either invent or recover symbols and motifs that could give a sense of coherent identity to countries that were often far from ‘natural’ creations. He notes, in particular, that the main differences between African and Latin American nations are that the former were colonies for, in most cases, a much shorter time than the latter, and that while anticolonial movements in Africa were mostly indigenous, in Latin America they were the creation of the Hispanic settler societies with little to no involvement of the aboriginal peoples of the continent. Some of the new African states had easier access to local images and histories, while the Latin countries, a century earlier, were trying to replicate the American Revolution, and their flags reflected the dynamics of European nationalism.

Worth Dying For contains some interesting surprises, and while national flags may be greeted with a certain nose-wrinkling by the traditional Left, it is worth grasping that these rectangles of silk can move individuals and communities to remarkable efforts, for good or ill.