Book Review — A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols

A Flag Worth Dying For by Tim Marshall

A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols by Tim Marshall is a look at the flags of the world and their origins. Marshall is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster, known for his analysis of developments in foreign news and international diplomacy. Marshall (formerly diplomatic editor and also foreign affairs editor for Sky News) is a guest commentator on world events for the BBC, Sky News, and a guest presenter on LBC. He has written four books, including Prisoners of Geography which I reviewed September 2015.

Americans, in particular, hold the flag in higher esteem than other nations. We pledge it. We stand for it at sporting events. We display it more than people of most nations. To many, the red, white and blue colors on the cloth represent the nation itself. It must be displayed in a particular manner, not allowed to touch the ground, or (arguably) burned except in a proper retirement ceremony. The American flag followed by the British Union Jack receive the lion’s share of the coverage in this book. Each nation rating their own chapter. Rightly so in that, both have flown over the most countries and territories and all the continents. Both flags inspire both love and hate around the world. The Union Jack is only represented on five other flags Fiji, Tuvalu, Australia, and New Zealand are the four commonwealth countries. The fifth is surprisingly the state flag of Hawaii.

Europe is covered in a chapter. There is a solid history behind each nation’s flag and to many a nod to Christianity. Europe, for the most part, is a collection of tri-colored striped flags with a careful selection of colors or flags with crosses in two or three colors. The Balkan states are the exception to the rule with each trying to make their flag all inclusive in a region that is prone to fighting and ethnic strife. Turkey is the only European nation with a religious symbol other than Christian. The crescent moon has been adopted by Islam but predates the religion by hundreds of years. The chapter also includes the politics of making a flag for the European Union and in a later chapter, the politics of the NATO flag is covered.

The Near East is cover in another chapter and the commonality of the colors and designs of the flags. Here Saudi Arabia and Israel stand out as a display of religious identity. Other nations flags are covered and their design changes are noted and explained. Some are changed for major reasons like the revolution in Iran and others are minor adjustments. In the following chapter, non-nation flags that are connected geographically with the Middle East are included. Some of the flags are well known like the ISIS flag. Other flags like that flown by Hezbollah are less widely known outside the region. Each flag has its story.

In Asia, the flags of China (and Taiwan), Japan and the two Koreas are given attention. China also makes history as the third nation to have its flag on the surface of the moon. The newly independent former Soviet republics’ flags are covered as well as Afghanistan. Nepal is the only country with a non-rectangular flag and is perhaps is the most difficult to manufacture with an extremely complex set of instructions. The evolution of India’s flag is also cover in some detail and includes Gandhi’s initial disappointment at losing the spinning wheel as the center design.

Africa provides the greatest diversity in flag designs but many holding to the traditional colors of red, green, black, and gold. The meaning of the colors vary but each has a long tradition on the continent. The new South African flag that replaced the former Dutch-like flag is a flag meant to promote healing and unity in a country that was moving out of apartheid. The colors and the pattern were carefully thought out. Ironically to have enough flags to fly from government buildings in time for the changing of the governments, a Dutch company helped produce the necessary number of flags. The flag that stands out in Africa is Mozambique’s flag. It is the only flag to have a weapon of war. An AK-47 is crossed with a hoe in the right side of the flag. The weapon does not symbolize killing, but the revolutionary spirit of the country.

South and Latin America are covered with an interesting story of the Mexican flag as well as the Brazilain flag. A bit of Panama’s history particularly in the canal zone is covered. The book closes with a section on international organization flags and the attempt to draw the world in as an all-inclusive group of people.

This is a well written and very interesting history and reference book that attempts to be informative without being an encyclopedia of flags. Some countries are excluded with Canada being the one that jumps out at the reader first. The South Pacific and Indian ocean countries do not get much coverage either. But the purpose of the book is not to be all-inclusive but rather to highlight points of interest and commonalities of nations and flags, it does an excellent job at this. We identify people by flags. At international sporting events like soccer and the Olympics, a flag identifies a people. It can bring together a nation. Historically, flags are powerful symbols, from the Jolly Rogers to the Nazi flag. The hammer and sickle still represent communism even though the Soviet Union no longer exists. Americans still rally around the flag in hard times and in celebration. Flags unify and identify. An excellent book with deep meaning for many people.

Available July 4, 2017

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “Book Review — A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols

  1. I am halfway through Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and loving it!
    I will definitely put this one on my reading list.

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