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Not found in the Flag Code

What the Flag Code doesn’t say

ScreenHunter_251 Jun. 24 15.44

There were a lot of news stories last week about flag retirement ceremonies, held in conjunction with Flag Day. Here are excerpts from three that I found especially troubling due to misinformation.  I edited them to remove names and other identifying information because I like these people and I don’t want to embarrass them: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the American Legion.

What the Flag Code says about retiring our American flag is short and succinct:

§8. Respect for flag:  (k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

We are given great latitude in how we conduct flag retirements. I am very grateful to the organizations that conduct these ceremonies; it is an honorable and welcome service that they perform. But imagine my surprise when I found a news story about a flag retirement ceremony that said this,

“ … the scouts recently participated in a flag retirement ceremony. This ceremony is necessary when a flag has become too worn to be displayed. In these cases, the respectful way to dispose of the  flag is for it to be burned. Only three entities can officially retire a flag. They are VFW posts, Scout troops and American Legion posts.” 

What? That’s not what the Flag Code says. Anyone can retire the flag. The Daughters of the American Revolution would be quite surprised to be told they can’t retire their own flags. I frequently encourage families to have their own flag retirement ceremonies. Get the children to write some sweet script, and take a moment to talk about important flags in American history.  I am willing to trust the average American to retire his own flag. We are all official when it comes to retiring the flag.

From another news story:

 “The various elements of the flag … The stars, the red and white stripes and the blue background are included on the flag for a specific purpose.  Once the description has been read, the flag is cut apart.

The stars are saved and will be presented to veterans at a later date [ … ]. The stripes are individually cut off the flag and placed in a fire. The fire container must only be used for flag retirement and nothing else. During the burning portion of the ceremony, no one is to speak and silence has to be maintained out of respect.  [ … ]  Flags are burned one at a time and only after a flag is completely burned will the next one be burned. Silence is observed throughout the entire ceremony.

In the Flag Code, directly above Subsection (k) is Subsection (j) which says [ … ] The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. [ … .]

If the flag is “considered a living thing,” then dismembering a flag so old and worn out that it’s ready for retirement is rather egregious in my opinion. The flag has already served in honor—now it’s faded, ripped and torn, tattered on the fly.  Isn’t that enough?

And why would cutting out the stars and saving them (set aside to be given away later) be more important than the stripes? The flag was never meant to be parceled out in bits and pieces. That’s why we set it on fire in a ceremony, and burn it to ashes. Otherwise we could be making quilts out of the stripes—or kites, and patriotically flying them on the 4th of July.

Our most popular flag myth

And I read this:

 “ … flags should be retired for a number of reasons. The first indication a flag has become unserviceable is faded colors, but [ … ]  a flag should be retired if it has touched the ground. It’s just been a principle of the flag etiquette for years in the country, which is to keep all flags from touching the ground … . “

“When it comes to proper disposal, [ … ] it’s best to leave it to the experts [said the American Legion commander, who ] discourages anyone from burning their own flag, and invites area residents to turn their worn out flags over to the American Legion or any other veterans organization.”

No where in the Flag Code does it say that if a flag touches the ground, it should be destroyed. Yes, every effort should be made to keep the flag from touching the ground and other things beneath it (landscaping for example, and automobiles at giant car dealerships), but destroying a perfectly good flag is unnecessary, and not supported by the text. I am certain if those who codified the Flag Code meant for us to retire a dropped flag, they would have mentioned it specifically.

Flags fall down. Home flags mounted on diagonal poles are especially vulnerable to being blown out of the mount. The wind can pull one out of your hands while putting it up or taking it down (it’s happened to me). It’s a good idea to have a back up flag, if the flag does get dirty, but it doesn’t have to be destroyed, it just needs to be laundered or sent to the dry cleaners.

From the same newspaper article:

How to properly retire a U.S. flag:  Once a U.S. flag becomes worn, frayed or dirty, the flag is considered unserviceable and unable to properly fly. In order to suitably retire a U.S. or other American national flag, several procedures are to be followed in order to avoid any disrespect or desecration. According to the Veterans Department of Affairs and U.S. Flag Code, here are the steps to burn a flag: (my italics–DH)

1. Prepare a fire large enough to sufficiently burn the entire flag.

2. Fold the flag in a customary triangle manner.

3. Place the flag on the fire carefully and respectfully.

4. Individuals should salute or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as observe a moment of silence.

5. Allow the flag to be completely consumed.

6. Once the fire is cool, collect the ashes and any pieces of the flag.

7. Bury the ashes.

[The American Legion commander said] “ in order to ensure the flag is disposed properly, the flag must be given to a veteran’s organization. [He] encourages anyone with an unserviceable flag to donate it to any local American Legion post.

The Department of Veterans Affairs compiled a 52-page booklet about American history, veterans, the flag, and the scope of the department. No where in the booklet does it say anything about flag retirement ceremonies except to repeat the same section from the Flag Code:

§8. Respect for flag:  (k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

Lastly, from the American Legion’s own website, in a section called Flag Myths, it identifies this myth:

You must destroy the flag when it touches the ground.
As long as the flag remains suitable for display, the flag may continue to be displayed as a symbol of our great country.

As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to civic and service organizations who perform the job of retiring our American flags. It’s an important service and it’s a big job, too. And they can choose any ceremony they want, but please make sure your script says, “This is how we like to retire the flag,” because it’s highly inappropriate and misleading to say “this is what the Flag Code says” when it doesn’t.

And don’t tell me I can’t retire my own flag.

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2 thoughts on “Not found in the Flag Code

  1. Very good, Deborah. I might add that the Legion Commander requests the flags be turned in to one of the Veteran’s organizations because we have found that people will not retire their own flags but just place them in a dumpster, which is not respectful. His wording may be off but the idea is there. The Veteran’s will give the flag a proper disposal. I do it every year.

    1. Hi Sarge. I absolutely trust the VSOs to do the right thing. But to the extent that I am able, I will not let deliberate mis-information about the flag code go unchallenged. Perhaps the American Legion and other VSOs should make a point of informing and educating the public in general that they can retire their own flags—then teach them how. It will scarcely make a dent in the pile of old flags that will still come to you. Deb

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