NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

November 16th, 2009

The March of the Flag

war hearse

November 11th was originally proclaimed Armistice Day by President Wilson in 1919 as a day for remembering those who sacrificed their lives in the first “war to end all wars.”  In 1926 the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution in which November 11th was designated as a day for commemorating “with thanksgiving and prayer exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”  In 1954 Armistice Day was renamed “Veteran’s Day” by President Eisenhower in order to acknowledge and honor all veterans in the wake of World War II and the Korean conflict. The movement from commemorating a “war to end all wars” in the name of peace, good will and mutual understanding to a day for honoring Veterans of all wars without prejudice is not subtle, although we rarely if ever seem to acknowledge the difference.  The point to be made here, however, is that this very shift in meaning correlates in no small way with the difficulty we have had in recent times in judging any national military aggression lest we risk doing harm to those who actually do the fighting.

The many slide shows at mainstream journalistic websites marking Veteran’s Day this past week make the point, as photograph after photograph presents visually eloquent and decorous displays of the sacrifices of those who nobly served and often died in the service of their country without any specific reflection on the particular wars being fought. This battle, that invasion, it doesn’t really seem to matter, as the reasons for fighting are visually trumped by an abstract, visual display of national sacrifice that, in the end, reduces the individual to the nation-state.  The photograph above from the Wall Street Journal is a case in point. The hearse carries the flag draped remains of a soldier recently killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.  There is nothing in the image that marks that fact, although the caption does give the deceased’s name and rank, but notice how the photograph itself works to deflect attention from the particular sacrifice inside the hearse to the wall of flags that extends to infinity reflected on the vehicle’s highly polished, exterior surface.  The hearse is thus cast as a mirror, and as the photograph invites us to view it as such, what we see—as with any mirror—is a reflection of ourselves.  And what that reflection reveals is not the individual per se, but the nation signified by an inexorable march of the flag.  Whatever specific cause took the life of this soldier seems to pale in comparison, and certainly is not subject to question.

A second photograph from the same paper on the same day underscores and extends the nationalist implications of the first image above.

Junior Officer

Here we have a boy who is described without a name as a “Junior Reserve Offices Training Corps honor guard” participating in a Veteran’s Day ceremony.  Lacking a name, he takes on the quality of a individuated aggregate—an individual cast in the role of a collective.  He stands for something more than himself.  But what?  The eyes, we are told, are the windows to the soul.  But here, notice that his  eyes are hidden from view; if he has an individual soul it is not accessible to us.  What we have instead is his serious countenance defined by the set of his jaw balanced against the bright, mirror-like surface of his highly polished helmet, an instrument of war turned to ceremonial purposes.  The helmet reflects both the deeply saturated colors of the national flag that he appears to be holding, and which shrouds his head and shoulders, as well as another flag, more difficult to make out, that appears to be in his line of vision.  There is no hint of the boy here, let alone the individual veteran, but a connection between past (behind him) and future (in front of him) defined only by the national colors.  His (and our) present is defined  by  a direct line from past to future and the trajectory is … well, fated.  And once again, the flag marches on.

We can and should remember those who sacrifice their lives for the common good.  But in doing so we are well advised to recognize and reflect on what is being sacrificed to what, and to avoid the temptation—however comforting it might be—to make a fetish of the flag and what it represents in the process.

Credit:  Darron Cummings/AP; Nati Harnick/AP

2 Responses to ' The March of the Flag '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' The March of the Flag '.

  1. Marilee Reid said,

    on November 18th, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    This picture really touched me because it reminded me when I went to my grandfather’s brother’s funeral that I was very close to. He was in the military so he was buried with a flag over his casket and a whole special ceremony of his fellow military friends. It represents how when an American soldier dies for our country how they are honored in a respectable way by their fellow soldiers. All the support from fellow soldiers are seen in the lower part of the car.

  2. Lindsey Blackmon said,

    on November 19th, 2009 at 2:27 am

    These images definitely hit home for me on a personal level because my father is retired from the military where he served 20 years. Veterans Day is always a holiday that we make a big deal of because, to our family, it is important to show that gratitude to my father as well as anyone else who has served in the military. Seeing these images also reminded me of the idea of reproduction. When holidays such as Veterans Day and Independence Day roll around, it is interesting to see the reproduction of our American flag in all different shapes and forms. Hanging from a house or traditional flag pole to replicas on t-shirts and miniaturized versions of the flag; the reproduction of the flag itself seems endless. But does the meaning of our flag change in this reproduction? For me, the meaning remains the same: showing ones national pride, support, and celebrating the idea of freedom. No matter how our flag is reproduced, on a t-shirt or even in these images in particular, the symbolic meaning behind it stays constant. This idea, I feel, is exemplified in both pictures. The first, although as the author discussed does not indicate where or which event this was related to, displays the overall feeling of national pride and thanks to those who serve in our armed forces. The second, although the flag is used in a more traditional sense rather than for memorial service, still carries the same meaning behind it. It symbolizes an idea bigger than the one individual honor guard member who is holding the flag. It symbolizes everyone; every soldier past and present, every American, and in this case, all the Veterans who have protected and served our country.

Leave a reply


FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.