The above photos, both taken at Kandahar, are hardly the greatest at capturing the semantic properties of flags. In the first photo, the flag—possibly German—projects just to the right of the street sign with “Illinois” misspelled, and in the second photo, a Danish flag (if I recall correctly) spears the sky in the distance on the left, slightly higher than the power lines. I never intended the flag to be a focal point in these photos. But they do at least suggest the flags’ power to serve as monuments in a base setting, primarily through two different expressive tools. When propelled on poles or stanchions, they punctuate the landscape by simply being taller than most structures amidst a flat, treeless terrain. And the banners themselves achieve prominence through their hues: bold colors contrast to the sepia tones of dust and particulate matter that veils the horizon, even when low wind levels keep the flag furled. The example below in Camp Marmal with a Norwegian flag gets the point across somewhat better, thanks to cleaner air and the relative absence of power lines.
These contrasts help to explain how flags engage with their surroundings at the sensory level, but the question remains how they operate spatially. In short, how do they govern the area around them, if they have any control at all? Obviously the devices used in display of the flag matter critically here. Within the context of a coalition base made up of multiple national armies such as this, the flag most clearly connotes two seemingly paradoxical territorial ideas: 1) that the area below the flag is part of that nation’s compound and “belongs” to it, so that the flag presides over that portion of the base; and 2) that the particular nation has a presence on this base and is a “team player” in the Afghanistan conflict as a whole. It’s quite simple. It operates much the same way when flags project from a particular movable object, such as the Croatian flags on the MRAPs below:
The red white and blue (also an adhesive on the side of the vehicle) is the national flag; the other one pertains to a particular mission. Obviously these vehicular flags serve primarily to identify the nationality owning that vehicle, which means they do not appropriate the same amount of space as the ones tethered to poles planted in the ground. But these flags can venture outside the wire and still effectively indicate Croatia’s participation in combat.
The use of words “govern”, “preside”, and “appropriate” only effectively applies, though, to flags in isolation. Throughout many of these coalition bases, flags are grouped in a formation of multiple poles, like the one below in Camp Nidaros, a Norwegian compound nestled within Camp Marmal:
Despite the fact that Marmal is a German-owned base and is the headquarters for Northern Regional Command (led by a German General), these flag formations tend to be as egalitarian as possible, most likely in an effort to demonstrate that no one country’s forces are hierarchically superior to another. The formation in the above photo seems particularly self-abnegating, because the banners attached to the poles are not even national flags: they are narrow streamers with a different configuration of each country’s respective national colors. They diffidently reference the country without proclaiming it. If I can interpret them correctly, this display shows, from left to right, the colors of Norway, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, and Germany. All of those nationalities with the exception of Germany have troops stationed in this particular compound Camp Nidaros; billeting for Germany is scattered elsewhere across the base. One would think that either the compound’s commander (Norway) or the base commander (Germany) would occupy the central flag pole to show ownership. Instead, that pole belongs to Latvia, while Norway and Germany occupy the peripheries. I have no doubt that this configuration was conscious. Place a flag in the company of others and the aforementioned territorial paradox—that of simultaneous individual ownership and operating as a team—immediately collapses, because the ability to denote “owning” a portion of the base evaporates. Here’s another formation at Camp Marmal that coyly dissolves hierarchy:
The flags of the United States, Germany, Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy all hang at half-mast. The deployment of an even number of flags clearly avoids placing any one flag at the center, and in this case, the host nation, Afghanistan, gets equal representation with two countries and one branch of the military of that same country. The building to the left houses exclusively US forces, predominantly associated with the Navy, yet two other nations’ flags wave out front.
The half-mast configuration, nearly always intended to show mournful deference for the recently deceased, assumes a new poignancy with the next photo, taken just minutes after the previous, as dusk had set in:
This event comprises an unannounced visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the evening of December 18, 2010, speaking at the memorial of a German soldier who had died in an accident the preceding day . Notice that in the first of those two photos, the German flag is half-mast. But here as elsewhere, the presentation soon diverted to the shared responsibility, as Merkel continued her brief speech about Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. By the conclusion, the flag was full-mast along with the others.
Again, the flag formation avoids placing any nation in a position of primacy. Germany, the owner of the base, stands at an unremarkable position of third from the left. The United States, the second largest presence, sits on the far right. And while there are an odd number of poles (21), allowing the potential for one pole to take center place, the framing of the poles around a central memorial places eleven on the left and ten on the right; no nation takes the center stage. Here are some close-ups of the memorial in daylight without the crowd:
Protocol for the display of the US flag requires that it observe international standards when juxtaposed with other nations, and none should rest above another at a time of peace. Obviously the existence of Camp Marmal is predicated on this precisely not being a time of peace, and yet the coalition nations (including the euphemistic “host nation” Afghanistan) still observe the peaceful display here as in every other location where more than one national flag presides over the space. Yet every time the flag waves in isolation, it proclaims its territory. The difference, it seems, is the level of conscious thought invested in the display: asserting national presence and ownership requires demands very little additional scrutiny, and, cheaply fluttering from the back of a Hummer, almost seems like an afterthought. Conversely, the assembly of a group of national flags in mutual respect requires serious deliberation.
The semiotics that underpins any display of multiple flags operate differently when the display takes place indoors. The pictures below take place in a DFAC (Dining Facility) at Kandahar Air Field:
It seems to be common practice to decorate the dining halls in the larger bases with national flags. But the flags preside over clearly bounded space here; any assertion of territoriality simply adds a dimension to the message already communicated by four walls. The display of flags indoors does not convey the potentially contentious air of imperial entitlement that it has the potential to suggest when outdoors; the flags address an enclosed space and not the open air, or the land itself. Perhaps it’s just me, but flags also lose expressive impact when they are limp and static; the fluttering of a flag from wind, however mild that wind may be, projects authority that it is hard for a motionless flag to muster. So while the exterior display of flags seems particularly sensitive to the fact that these nations collectively occupy a land with which they are waging war against a certain faction, all the rules fall by the wayside when flags hang indoors. No one seems particularly sensitive of who owns what. The PAX terminal at Camp Marmal is an excellent example:
Near the back of the building on the right is a colossal German flag—the country that owns the base. The other flags in the photo represent the three nationalities with the next largest presence on the base: in the far distance (with the checkered shield) is Croatia; to the right of the German flag is the American flag; to its right (partly cut off by the picture’s edge) is the Norwegian flag. All of these flags occupy a noticeable second tier to Germany. Pan to the right, however, and the message becomes a bit more muddled.
From left to right, the picture shows Norway again (same flag as the previous photo), Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Montenegro, Slovakia, Latvia, and part of Turkey. The positioning, size, and even the choice of nationalities here seem to be based more on expediency than any sort of conceived arrangement. The spacing between them seems inconsistent, the size does not fit with either a hierarchy or an egalitarian coalition, and while Turkey and Slovakia may be part of the coalition, they have yet to show any presence at Camp Marmal, while other nations clearly berthed here have had their flags omitted. Anyone plunked into this facility while blindfolded would draw the conclusion, upon removing the blindfold, that it is a German-run building. Provided that he or she knows the German flag, the enormous mural makes it obvious. But the participation of these other nations and how they fit into the system on this base is completely undefined. The flags help add color to an otherwise sparse terminal; otherwise they might as well be garland.
The DFAC at Camp Marmal has a similar configuration on one of its walls, with even more diluted semantic results:
Again, we see a row of thumbtacked flags used as decoration, with little regard for placement. Is this display trying to show a hierarchy, with the NATO flag (the white compass on a blue field) taking precedence in the middle of all the participating partners? That doesn’t work, because the NATO flag is not in the middle; there cannot be a middle position with twelve flags. Are the participants all on equal footing? Perhaps they are, but the disparity in size of the flags would not suggest it:
Montenegro and Latvia are huge compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States, and NATO. Again, it seems the decorators bought whatever size flag was available (and whatever relevant nationality they could find) in order simply to decorate, without intending any other message. Compare this to the precision and thought that they applied to the adornment of another wall, with photos of the Afghan countryside:
It’s much easier to get away with a sloppy flag display in an indoor setting, where there is less at stake.
No doubt this analysis may come across as one of my much-ado-about-nothing posts. After all, they’re just flags, and it is possible that I’m projecting my own fascination with the topic by inferring more out of it than anyone ever intended. But flags are also a powerful diplomatic tool, and they may be the most widely available, transportable material to clearly convey both a nation-state’s government and often the very essence of the land. Witness the recent global coverage of burnings of the American, Danish, or Israeli flag and it would be hard to shrug aside its potency within a broader understanding of semiotics. In a multinational setting rife with the potential for a serious imbroglio, a blasé display of a nation’s flag could set tempers flaring.
The use of flags on these bases suggests that the outdoor display has significant political ramifications, but indoor displays do not matter so much. Maybe it’s true that an indoor display will never carry the same territorial weight, but it can still result in a transnational contretemps. A recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted by President Obama in New York City, aroused some ire and international press when the Philippine flag was accidentally displayed upside-down, indicating the nation to be in a state of war. The problem with the indoor settings at the PAX and DFAC in Camp Marmal isn’t that they’re purely hierarchical or egalitarian; it’s that they’re neither, or a little of both. National flags might be beautiful to some, but they are too semantically rich to serve a purely aesthetic purpose.
I conclude with one particularly interesting flag that can serve on its own as a microcosm for what a carless flag display loses semantically. The national flag of Croatia has already graced this blog post a couple of times; they constitute one of the largest forces at Camp Marmal.
This brief analysis constitutes a bit more of what I know about vexillology, the study of flags as semiotics, which I covered at much greater length in a blog post on the Maryland flag many moons ago. The Croatian flag is by no means a particularly bad flag; it certainly looks far more elegant than the contrived, deer-on-hind-legs antiques that constitute many of the US state flags. But the real core of the flag is the checkered shield, serving as the flag's central charge; this escutcheon pattern predominates on a lot of the exercise gear that the Croats wear around the base in their down time. I particularly like the way the checkers align with the bottom blue fess (stripe). The decorative "flair" sitting in the place of a coronet above the checkers might help to embellish the shield, but they erode the symmetry, suggest hierarchy (some emblems might be more important than others), and they complicate the entire presentation, thereby diluting the message and the overall readability of the flag. The North American Vexillological Association asserts that the key indicator of an effective flag is that a child should be able to draw it from memory. Its impact should be immediate and unforced. By no means is the code of the NAVA the Gospel on flags, but I cannot imagine most six-year olds reproducing the Croatian flag after just a few minutes. Most 40-year-olds wouldn’t do a great job either.
The weaknesses in the Croatian flag echo the problems with the display of national flags in the interior public spaces of Camp Marmal, or many other situations where they serve an ornamental purpose. The display of flags to convey either hierarchy or egalitarianism is fine; there are no inherent faults in either of these organizing principles. The deficiency lies in when the display blurs the line between the two—when it is ambiguous as to which entity, if any, should stand out—which is precisely the problem with the array of symbols in the Croatian flag and the panoply in the DFAC. Ambiguity serves a distinct aesthetic purpose, but a flag’s communicative intent should always be clear. We don’t make light of the most prominent proxy for nationhood, whether in an Olympic natatorium or in a war zone.