I’ve been to the moon. I’ve been burned. But more often I’m honored. I’m your American flag.
With 13 stars for Colonies clamoring for freedom, I was first flown at Fort Stanwix in New York in 1777 — and then carried into battle for the first time at Brandywine in Pennsylvania. By war’s end, I was saluted as the emblem of a sovereign nation, new and free. I’m your American flag.
But challenges lay ahead. With 15 stars and 15 stripes, I survived shock and shell at Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814. With the aid of rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, I was spied from afar at dawn’s early light by a patriot poet. I was then celebrated in sight and song by a fledgling nation. I’m your American flag.
A half century later and with 33 stars and 13 stripes, I was saddened to see our nation divided. Our brothers’ blood was spilled in battle north and south. But by war’s end, Lincoln’s iconic words at Gettyburg prevailed — a unique nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But that pledge was yet to be fully fulfilled.
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I survived mustard gas and ghastly death in European trenches in WWI and, 48 stars strong, was hoisted by six soldiers on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima in WWII. I’m proud to be your American flag.
I was carried into battle over frozen turf in Korea, waved more proudly on flagpoles here at home with civil rights and women’s rights rising, and was saluted by a little boy as the horse-drawn caisson with his father’s casket passed by on the streets of our nation’s capital. It was the best of times and the worst of times, but through it all, I was your American flag.
I lost sons and daughters in the rice paddies and hellish jungles of Vietnam, saw some succumb to Agent Orange, and witnessed renewed conflict about taking me, your American flag, to faraway lands like Iraq and Afghanistan. When and where warfare should be waged is an issue still troubling us today.
When our nation celebrated its bicentennial birthday in 1976 — 200 years after declaring our independence — I was there. When people parade on the Fourth of July and other occasions, I generally lead the parade. As I pass by, children along the parade route often stand at attention and proudly salute me while their parents or a grandmother behind them might have a tear rolling down their cheek in memory of a loved one who served in uniform and didn’t make it back home.
Often I’m inconspicuous, standing silently in the corner of a meeting hall or classroom — though far fewer of them nowadays. Indeed, I’ve fallen from favor for some incensed by actions our government takes. But I suffer in silence when abused or defiled for I represent all of our rights, including protesting and speaking our minds.
Though I spend most of my time here at home, I represent us around the globe at various foreign outposts, including military bases, embassies and consulates. And row upon row of white crosses above the cliffs of Normandy and elsewhere where we left our honored dead are often decorated with my colors of red, white and blue. I’m your American flag.
But most of all I represent the American spirit, the indomitable demand and yearning for freedom, excellence and opportunity. I am not the flag of a ruling regime or royal family. I am the American flag, representing rights emanating from a higher and transcendent authority honored on our coinage.
Look up to me as you salute or stand at attention. Pledge yourself to fulfill lofty goals symbolized by my heavenly sky-blue field for 50 stars. With red for valor and zeal and white for hope and purity, look up and salute with pride what the patriot poet hailed as a worthy star-spangled banner. May it forever wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.