What Does The American Flag Mean to Me?

After some urging, I reprint this essay submitted to “The Grio’s” Writing Challenge.
What Does The American Flag Mean to Me?
© 2012 Gene Cartwright

Few questions are more thought-provoking. For many, the flag is a symbol of freedom valiantly earned; for hope eternally lifted to the world; and inspiration that endures. When I see the American flag, I see more than “Old Glory Red,” “Old Glory Blue,” and brilliant white. I see more than precisely sized and spaced stars and stripes—the whole of it waving proudly. No, for me, that is an idealized view that is but a symbol of another American flag even more majestic, and awe-inspiring.

The American flag I see, does not beg for idolatrous worship but demands devotion to seeking to make real its promise. It boasts the same number of stars; the same number of stripes, and embodies the same symbolism as the first yet more. Her colors are faded; the blue not so blue anymore; the red not so brilliant, and the white is stained and soiled.

The American flag I see is stained with the blood of heroes long gone. It is soiled by the countless hands of those who, despite their circumstances lifted her to keep her waving high. It is the flag saluted by those who did not yet enjoy all the freedoms she promised, yet still raised right hand to heart or brow.


The American flag I see is the one raised on Iwo Jima; the one that draped the coffin of an assassinated President saluted by his young son, and the one at the front of the funeral procession of an assassinated “Dreamer.” I see this flag in the flags presented to the bereaved families of those who have given all for their country. That is the flag I see.

Yes, the American flag I see is tattered, soiled yet ever waving, never to be ceremoniously torched and replaced by one not threadbare. It is the enduring American flag that inspires even the infirmed to rise when the Star Spangled Banner plays, and the flag unfurls. It is the flag I have seen saluted by the weak and unsteady hands of those who, likely only see it as a blur now.

The American flag I see, honor, and salute is the one that does not lend itself to piety and empty, self-serving rhetoric. It cannot be reduced to a lapel pin, freshly made in some far away factory in a place devoid of the freedoms it represents. The flag I see cannot be ripped down, dragged in the dirt by enemies, or burned in protest. It is the flag that truly belongs to us all, and it forever waves, even when the air is still.

As an American, and as a proud, inactive Marine (never former), that is the flag I see. That is what the flag means to me, and I am certain I am not alone. So, when next you gaze upon the American flag, look deeply—look deeply. I invite you to see the flag I see.
Gene Cartwright