When the white supremacist behind the mass shooting in South Carolina was planning his crime, he probably did not foresee that one of the main consequences of his act would be further damage to the popularity of the Confederate flag. In no small part, thanks to the suspected shooter Dylann Roof, the stock of the Confederacy symbol is now at an all-time low in the eyes of the US mainstream.
The lower the status of the Confederate flag, the better. Having said that, the internal debate in the United States on the acceptability of various political insignia is absorbing not only for what it focuses on, but also for what it omits.
How does one assess whether a flag can be regarded as legitimate? With the official symbols of Rhodesia, apartheid-era South Africa and the Confederacy (all prominently embraced by Dylann Roof), the determining factor appears to be the atrocious human rights abuses committed by these entities, in combination with their openly racist legal systems. Fair enough – these are reasonable criteria. So what about other national symbols?
If the determining factors for the legitimacy of a political or national symbol is either the human rights record of that entity or the entity’s support for openly racist legal systems, US liberals could perhaps extend their dissatisfaction from the Confederate flag to more widely-used and present-day insignia. For starters, they might want to ponder their own take on the current US flag.
When it comes to collaborating full steam with racist legal systems, the US and its flag are hardly unstained. The US was a crucial ally to South Africa under apartheid and remains the primary international backer of Israel. The legal system Israel has constructed in the occupied West Bank is the last surviving apartheid regime in the world.
Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of US citizens who are eager to replace the notorious Confederate flag with the more presentable Stars and Stripes, the violent character of US foreign policy does not appear to be much of a concern.
When it comes to countries whose political culture has a near-pathological relationship with the official flag, not too many countries rank higher than the United States. From radical right-wing organizations and fundamentalist Christian groups, to a considerable portion of the many sub-currents of US liberalism, an opportunity to display the Stars and Stripes is rarely missed. To assess the love affair of most US political traditions with the country’s flag, one turns to the same criteria as with Rhodesia, apartheid-era South Africa and the Confederacy.
Even a cursory survey of the US track record on human rights leaves little room for interpretation. Although there is a tenable case to be made that most (if not all) nations have some issues with adherence to human rights standards, there is a spectrum from relatively small-scale violations to human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in colossal proportions. Evaluating that continuum post-World War II, one finds the United States on the latter end of that spectrum.
Let us think about just one single case of illegal US military aggression: the US war on Vietnam. The United States dropped more than twice the amount of bombs during the Vietnam War than the total amount of bombs dropped by all sides in World War II put together. The US ravaged 25 million acres of Vietnam’s farmland and 12 million acres of forest, and sprayed more than 70 million liters of highly poisonous herbicidal agents over the country. The US onslaught wounded 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians, and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the US in large parts of the country. Finally, when the US was forced to withdraw, Vietnam was left with 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees. All that on top of the at least 3.8 million Vietnamese killed by US aggression.
Unfortunately, the ugly story does not end there. The United States has never issued an apology for any of this – much less paid any reparations. Still, perhaps the most disturbing part of the legacy of the war is that this unspeakable crime is still being praised lavishly in the US mainstream.
Keeping in mind the above overview of the US track record in Vietnam, consider these remarks by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama. The speech was delivered in 2012 at Memorial Day ceremonies at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. The audience was composed mainly of US soldiers who were directly complicit in US illegalities in Vietnam, as well as their families.
Addressing them and referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Obama asserted:
“Fifty years later, we come to this wall – to this sacred place – to remember. We can step towards its granite wall and reach out, touch a name. Today is Memorial Day, when we recall all those who gave everything in the darkness of war so we could stand here in the glory of spring. And today begins the 50th commemoration of our war in Vietnam. We honor each of those names etched in stone – 58,282 American patriots. We salute all who served with them.”
Waxing lyrical on the overall performance of the US and its military, Obama went on to proclaim:
“You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. … For you are all true heroes and you will all be remembered.”
Illegal mass invasion, a bombing campaign of unprecedented proportions, apocalyptic destruction, millions butchered, the entire country destroyed. No apologies. No reparations. After US withdrawal, unrestrained glorification of US crimes year after year, decade after decade.
This is neither Rhodesia nor apartheid-era South Africa. This is not the Confederacy. This is the United States of America.
For most of the international community, the domestic status of the Confederate symbol in the US is probably not more pertinent an issue than the toll of US realpolitik. In the end of 2013, a massive WIN/Gallup International poll posed the following question to more than 66,000 people in 65 countries: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?” The winner was not North Korea, Pakistan, Israel or Iran. With three times the votes of Pakistan, which took second place, the country identified as the gravest threat to world peace was the United States.
Such a perception is not without basis. The willingness and ability of the US to use its military might to further its interests is among the most recurring themes of post-World War II world history. Besides the use or threat of military force, the United States has used and keeps using a plethora of other instruments – proxy war, coups, gigantic foreign aid programs – to shape international political reality to serve its agenda.
It is not uncommon that a society begins to fully reconcile with tragic historical phases of the past only after a substantial period of time has elapsed. It is nothing but a healthy sign that vast segments of US society are advocating for putting an end to all forms of official state affiliation with the Confederate flag. However, from the perspective of human rights, it remains as alarming as ever that US liberalism still seeks to justify the unjustifiable reality of US foreign policy.