Worth Dying For: everything you never realised you needed to know about flags

Tim Marshall's guide to the flags of the world is an intricate lesson in national identity, culture, and geopolitics

BY Rachel Cunliffe | RMCunliffe   /  19 December 2016

Over the festive period, Reaction authors are writing in with their favourite books from 2016 that they feel would make perfect gifts for Christmas or ideal New Year reading.

Donald Trump, who infamously tweeted last month that people who burn the American flag should face jail time or have their citizenship revoked, could learn a thing or two from Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags. Tim Marshall’s definitive guide to flag-studies (or vexillology as it is formally called) would have told the president-elect that the right to burn the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, as per a 1984 Supreme Court judgement protecting flag-burning as free speech. He might also be surprised to learn that burning is actually the only acceptable method to dispose of a flag that is too worn out to “serve”, and that the cremation should be performed as part of a flag funeral in which the flag is “burnt in a fire including redwood, ‘to remind us of the red-blooded Americans who fought and died to build our nation under this flag’”.

Flags are funny things, as Marshall makes clear on this whistle-stop tour around the globe, analysing their history, geography, politics and culture by the strange emblems they use to define themselves. They symbolise both unity and division, bringing populations together under banners that essentially signify “us versus them” while attempting to make the astoundingly complex simple enough to depict on a piece of cloth.

Take Iran, for example. The Iranian flag takes the historic colours of the pan-Arab movement (red, green, white) and stamps over them a tulip symbol that manages to represent Iranian culture, the Five Pillars of Islam, the word Allah, Shia martyrdom, political defiance, and love – select/delete as appropriate, depending on the perspective of the viewer. Or China’s flag, on which the largest yellow star means the Communist Party and the smaller stars are Mao’s “united front” of the pre-Communist social classes, but that simultaneously brings together all five stars to signify the five elements of ancient Chinese philosophy.

Flags can also cause the kind of obscure and seemingly-trivial problems that define geopolitics, which is Marshall’s speciality. Macedonia first flag, designed in 1991 when the nation became independent, featured an eye-catching sixteen-rayed sun emblem that was used by Alexander the Great and his father Philip of Macedon in the 4th Century BC. Greece, who likes to claim Alexander as its hero rather than Macedonia’s (and also insists that the Greek region of Macedonia has nothing to do with the neighbouring country of the same name), saw the flag as act of territorial aggression. Greece imposed an economic blockade, and Macedonia was forced to alter its flag into the eight-rayed sun we see today.

The Macedonian dispute gets to the heart of what a flag can do. To Macedonia, it was a proud representation of the country’s heritage. To Greece, it was a hostile attempt at laying claims to a Greek region. Such tensions over symbols play out across the world, even in places where the debate is thought to have been settled. The Confederate flag was only removed from the South Carolina capitol building in 2015 after Dylan Roof murdered nine black churchgoers. (The choice to remove it fell to Governor Nikki Haley, who was recently appointed UN envoy by Trump.) In Northern Ireland, the Belfast Council’s decision to limit the number of days the Union Jack could fly from the City Hall sparked riots. And thanks to China’s insistence that Taiwan is a province and not a sovereign state, the Taiwanese flag is not permitted at international events.

All of these incidents, and countless more, are explored as Worth Dying For leaps from region to region, spanning at least two millennia of history. It’s a remarkably easy book to get into, thanks to the fun and often irreverent style that prioritises light-hearted anecdotes over too much scholarly detail. I have no doubt there is much, much more information that could have been included, but the end result is more a serendipitous overview than comprehensive reference tome (at 250 pages, a great many flags must sadly be left out). For flag geeks, this book is the key to mysteries such as why Hawaii’s flag still features a Union Jack, why the colours of red, gold, green and black are found on so many flags across the African continent, or why the number of stars on the EU flag has never born any relation to the number of member states. For those of us who have never really noticed flags, except during the Olympics, it’s a history of global politics, as told through symbols. You don’t need to be able to list the names and colours of the world’s flags to understand that what makes it onto a country’s emblem is an intricate lesson in national identity. I can’t think of a better cheat-sheet for analysing the background to the geopolitical tensions sure to flare up in 2017.

Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags. Tim Marshall, Elliot & Thompson, 2016.