Of flags grand and old, black and blue, marking us and them and giving us all the license we need to kill.
Flags, writes British journalist Marshall (Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, 2015), are fairly modern expressions of identity; they required the genius of China’s silk industry in order to “flourish and spread” and “accompany armies onto battlefields.” So they have done from the time of the Silk Road on, each bearing such significance that people have been willing to fight and die in its shadow. The tricolors of Italy and France, for instance, bear red, indicating “the usual blood spilled for independence.” The flags of the Scandinavian countries are marked by crosses even though those countries are among the least churchly in the world—and on that note, Marshall points out the apparent irony that the most intensely Christian nations on the planet tend not to have Christian symbols on their flags. Not so the Muslim nations, whose flags bear the symbology of Islam. Bosnians, though predominantly Muslim, could not agree on a flag after the bloody civil war there, so the United Nations imposed one from outside, “devoid of religious or historical symbols.” As for the black flags of various groups such as the Islamic State, so reminiscent of the pirates’ Jolly Roger, they mean to suggest no good. Conversely, Marshall recounts the history of the LGBT flag, meant, in the view of its creator, the recently deceased Gilbert Baker, to suggest “the diversity of nature” and of people but now absent of its original pink stripe because pink is an unusual color for a flag and thus more expensive to manufacture. Country by country the author considers the great diversity of the world’s flags, serving up with offhand affection a lively text full of interesting anecdotes and telling details.
A treasure vault for vexillologists, full of meaning beyond the hue and thread of the world’s banners.