The Soul of Old Glory
It’s a matter of the flag being the symbol of a people conjoined in harmony. It doesn’t belong to a party or group or a president, but a people united under shared principles.
Nearly twenty years ago on a cloudless day, I walked up Rockaway Boulevard’s subway stairs towards the United States Air Force recruitment office. This was a few weeks after a Tuesday morning in 2001; it had looked like another cloudless day as the train pulled away from my Queens neighborhood. I remember walking past the Off Track Betting where my father once spent many of his waking hours: a cigarette in his mouth, the paper folded back to the race section, the old United Artist theatre with the classic façade across the way, the often-visited neighborhood pizzeria at the base of the subway stairs. I always think that time would stop and restart if and when I ever came back home, but the neighborhood has changed in more ways than I would’ve expected. When in previous times of uncertainty, the flag was used as a uniting force to join together for the sake of a stronger union, now it’s become a tool to decide one’s own Americanism.
Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, I knew that I wanted to serve my country, like so many others. I also did it for my city. I still remember walking through the streets, large plumes of black and gray smoke flying overhead. It was surreal, strangely apocalyptic, to hear the streets void of car horns and yelling pedestrians. Besides memories of the mostly extinct establishments, one of the few things that always stood out to me in the neighborhood were the American flags perched beside residential doorways, windows facing the streets, and businesses with signs of “Never Forget.” Close neighbors and complete strangers alike exchanged friendly pleasantries, something that would otherwise be amiss in a typical New York day.
9/11 not only moved New York City into a new era, but the United States and the entirety of the globe into a new chapter in world history. While lower Manhattan smoldered and burned, everyone sought solace in a symbol which has roots as far back as the battlefields of the American Revolution when we faced off against an increasingly tyrannical motherland across the Atlantic. Over the following centuries, refugees viewed the flag as a promise to a better life as they passed the torch of Lady Liberty on ships cruising up New York Harbor, and over recent decades many more have sought solace in its symbolism as they crossed the border along the southern reaches of America’s vast frontier.
This same symbol was used by members of the FDNY, conjuring images of Marines at Iwo Jima, as they raised it before pillars of twisted steel remnants of the World Trade Center towers. This led many from my generation to pick up arms for a cause greater than ourselves – though, unfortunately, this same cause has been degraded and questioned as we moved in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past twenty years, including the final withdrawal of troops as they boarded a C-17 out of Kabul, concluding a war that has persisted as long as the lifetimes of many of the final casualties.
I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2002, where I spent six years and several duty assignments from a fighter wing in Europe, a few command assignments stateside, and some time in Iraq before finally returning back to New York City. I was homesick: I missed the smell of the streets, the sounds of subway cars clinking along rails, the flags across doorways and windows.
It’s been years since I came back, but it wasn’t until recently that I took notice of American flags above utility poles and doorways throughout the modest blue-collar neighborhood of Ozone Park. Others streamed below, not the occasional POW/MIA flags or flags in support of a household preference to the Mets or Yankees or Giants or Jets, but blue banners emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” or “Keep America Great Again.” Months after a contentious election as well as days after the entrance of a new Commander-in-Chief, many of them continue to grace the entrance of many households. This felt different than those flags flying after 9/11: this time around represents a growing divide in our country abnormally high doses of nationalism, plastic patriotism at its best.
When I used to envision home from far off places, I always thought of the flag streaming behind firetrucks as they rushed towards whatever danger they sought to extinguish. I imagined its colors across the neighborhood, in small businesses. When my morale was low when I questioned my role in the bigger picture I thought of the people representing the flag.
While deployed to Baghdad International Airport, our unit would receive announcements for Patriot Details on a regular basis. The first time, out of curiosity, I reported to the loading area right off the runway to the rear bay of an open C-130 along with a dozen or so other airmen. After waiting a few minutes, several Humvees rolled in and we presented a three-second salute to a silver metal coffin draped with Old Glory. I thought that this was it, but one by one, two more coffins passed us. I wondered about the fallen and who they were. I thought about their families and about how they would never be able to hold each other one last time. After brief prayers by the camp chaplain, we walked down the lowered ramp in silence.
Not long ago, the topic of “Make America Great Again” came up in a conversation with a good friend and mentor, someone knowledgeable and experienced from his formative years in Harlem during the 1950s and 60s. The rhetoric asserted that America was great back in the 50s, yet history has proven that the country still struggled in coming to terms with what that meant. The effects of Jim Crow persisted, McCarthyism allowed for unfound accusations and prosecutions of American citizens, and President Eisenhower warned the nation of the Military Industrial Complex. Yet today’s forever wars, racial inequality, and brazen spread of misinformation indicate we are far from great.
Another good friend once told me that “if we seek to resolve these issues, we need to have an open and honest conversation about the truth, even if that seems like a remote possibility.” This friend, with stories of a grandmother carrying him as an infant across treacherous terrain from Central America, risked life and limb during his tours in Fallujah as a Green-Card-holding Marine. Even with his circumstances, and his personal concerns over heightened xenophobia of northern triangle immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, he still envisions a flag brightened by optimism and hope.
Amidst the chaos of COVID-19, with growing concerns over social policies in regard to policing, communities of color, as well as growing economic differences, the flag has come to the center of a contested divide in America. The sacking of the nation’s Capital building while Congress was in the process of certifying the electoral win of the then President-Elect Joe Biden has further revealed the fragility of an American democracy which has stood as a template for other nations to follow. Although such an attempt was at the urging of the current office bearer on Pennsylvania Avenue, the flaming rhetoric of recent years has opened up a wound beyond words as American flags emblazoned the frontlines of this insurrectionist attempt along with Confederate and Nazi flags – rather ironic considering both had once been enemies, now long defeated, of the same Red, White and Blue.
This insurrection at the Capitol, along with the divide, should stand as a modest reflection of the American consciousness in how we need to move forward. This should be a reflection on what the flag means, an interpretation through occasions of uncertainty, like the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, and the bearing of the flag in support of a Commander-in-Chief, rather than a republic in search of its soul. As much as “Make America Great Again” is a vision very much desirous in the eyes of many, it is far from true. Just because the past may have been “great” for some doesn’t mean it was for a multitude of others. And as much as we want it to be, America is not free of its own historical shame; a nation seeking the way forward must reckon with its past. Choosing to overlook unresolved issues long embedded in history is something that can only be relegated to the deepest parts of our collective memory for so long. History offers so much in pleading avoidance to the same mistakes, but time and time again the wheel has been forged to the same round object. America has so much to offer, but as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Although a new President graces that great big office on Pennsylvania Avenue, we are still a country very much in need of reckoning with the truth.
Now that I’m home, things have changed, new stores and names are plastered across the neighborhood through generations of strife and turmoil, and memories of the flags that once stood beyond homes, apartment windows, and mom and pop stores have disappeared with the passing of time. This same neighborhood, a small microcosm of the diverse Queens universe, with people from all corners of the world stretching back many generations reminds me of the goodness of the flag. I see it flying on utility poles, hoping America will find its truth and become a renewed beacon of hope. I think of Old Glory, remembering New York City during those unpredictable months following 9/11, feeling unity among all else.
It’s a matter of the flag being the symbol of a people conjoined in harmony. It doesn’t belong to a party or group or a president, but a people united under shared principles. Inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem from New York writer Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Whether it was German, Irish, or Italian immigrants who passed this same plaque over the preceding century, or today as Afghan refugees enter through the gates of America’s airports, it is important we hold onto these principles of peace and hope. America isn’t perfect and we shouldn’t expect it to be, as nothing really is, but it can be a source of pride and opportunity. When I think back to the day I left for basic training, passing through the turnstiles at that subway station, or that day on an airfield in Baghdad sending off those who perished much too soon, I realize it is more than a symbol belonging to a single person, but a people in search of peace.
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Ryan Graham is an Air Force and Iraq War Veteran from Queens, New York City. He holds a BS from St. John's University, is an alumni of the Words After War workshop, and is currently at work on his first novel.