Project Fortress: Flag Wavers
Polling reveals that American adults born between 1981 and 2004 (the Millennial Generation and Generation Z) are less proud of America than older generational cohorts, less likely to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism than older generations, and more likely than older generations to view the American flag as a symbol of “imperialism,” “greed” or “intolerance,” rather than a symbol of “freedom.”
This is largely a function of inadequate and/or inaccurate civic education. The way to reverse this decades-long trend is not through civic education that’s uncritical of American history. After all, one of the characteristics that makes America exceptional—and indeed strengthens America—is our capacity for self-criticism, which leads to self-correction. But after being taught in our classrooms and by our culture that America is no better than—perhaps worse than—other countries, many members of the Millennial Generation and Generation Z engage not in healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections, but rather in moral relativism that results in the patriotism gap revealed by those polls.
What Americans need is more complete, more accurate civic education. Ironically, the best place to begin this effort is overseas. Much of the world sees America in a much better light than Americans see themselves.
Let’s start on the frontlines of freedom. American flag patches can be glimpsed Velcroed onto the helmets of Ukrainian soldiers defending Snake Island and the fatigues of commanders around Bakhmut and the flak jackets of the liberators of Kherson. President Volodymyr Zelensky explains why: “For almost 250 years, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces have prevailed against tyranny, often against great odds…Your example inspires Ukrainians today to fight back against Russian tyranny.”
When they rallied in Minsk against the sham re-election of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, protestors used that universal symbol of freedom and defiance: the American flag.
Likewise, when they protested Russian interference in their political system, Georgians waved American flags in the capital city Tbilisi.
In Kosovo, Old Glory flies freely, proudly and ubiquitously. “Our people were at risk of being exterminated, and it was the U.S. that stood by us,” a Kosovar lawyer told NPR in 2018, as the tiny nation celebrated its tenth birthday. “Because of America, my country exists,” a Kosovar farmer added.
For similar reasons, Belgian children travel to Flanders Field American Cemetery to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” every Memorial Day. They’ve done this since 1919.
When U.S. troops began arriving in Poland after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, they were greeted by throngs of Poles waving American flags. The reason: Poles understand that there’s no greater friend of freedom—and no better deterrent against the forces of tyranny—than America’s military.
Finland’s Sanna Marin would agree. With a revisionist Russia tearing through Ukraine and taking aim at the rest of Europe, Marin bluntly declared during her time as prime minister, “We would be in trouble without the United States.”
People’s Republic of China
As the PRC began to absorb Hong Kong in 2019—in brazen violation of international treaties— thousands in that once-free city waved American flags. Thousands more protested by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” China observers report that some of the courageous dissenters speaking out against Xi Jinping’s inhuman COVID-19 lockdowns and Orwellian surveillance state do so under the slogan: “End the one-party dictatorship! Give me liberty or give me death!”—a phrase famously used by one of America’s founding fathers: Patrick Henry.
Middle East/North Africa
As America scrambled to withdraw from Afghanistan in August 2021—and a mix of chaos, terror and hopelessness filled the vacuum left in America’s wake—desperate mothers gave their babies to American soldiers and Marines. Tearfully handing their precious children over razor-wire barricades, they trusted America to do what’s right because they understood that’s what America strives to do. And America’s defenders lived up to America’s reputation. Those who think that any soldier from any country would show the same kind of humanity forget what Saddam’s soldiers did to Kurdish kids, what Milosevic’s men did to Bosnian boys, what PRC security forces are doing to Uighur mothers and babies, what Russian soldiers have done to Ukrainian children and Ukrainian maternity hospitals, what Soviet troops did to Afghan children. As Abdul Rahim Wardak, former Afghan defense minister, said of America, “Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild”—a distinction underscored by what Afghanistan was before American forces withdrew and what it is today.
College students and young people in Tehran are using the American flag to make a political statement, albeit in a unique way: The terrorists and tyrants who rule Iran had the American flag painted onto campus sidewalks, forcing students to walk on the flag and thus insult America. But as the BBC reports, students have begun walking around the American flag—a quiet act of defiance against the regime.
American flags fly from Kurdish homes in Iraq. Shops across Iraqi Kurdistan sell the Stars and Stripes. The reason: America protected Iraqi Kurdistan from Saddam’s vengeance after the Gulf War, encouraged Kurdish autonomy after Saddam’s toppling and supported Iraqi Kurds in the battle against ISIS. But it’s more than self-interest that motivates Kurdish affinity for America. “Imagine if America didn’t exist,” a Kurdish businessman sagely suggests. “Without America, the world would be run by China or Iran. America represents freedom.”
Such sentiment isn’t restricted to Iraqi Kurds. Noting that “it’s much better to have freedom and democracy rather than a dictatorship,” Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid says Americans helped “save” Iraq. “Americans,” adds former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, “tend to believe negative propaganda against America…Iraqis recognize that the U.S. got rid of an evil dictator and helped build a democracy.”
After the ouster of Moammar Qadhafi, Libyans waved American flags at rallies, painted American flags onto buildings and wore the Stars and Stripes on clothing. “I fly the flag,” a Libyan airline pilot told the Los Angeles Times, “to support American-style freedoms that we all want…It stands for freedom and democracy.”
Tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana in 2021 to protest shortages of food and medicine—and an absolute absence of liberty. As they chanted “We want freedom!” some Cubans wore T-shirts emblazoned with images of the Statue of Liberty. Some even waved the American flag. Predictably, Cuba’s tyrant regime deployed secret police to smother the pro-freedom protests. But the damage had already been done—and the message already sent: Cuba’s longsuffering people want to be free, and they used symbols of the Land of the Free—not Lenin, Che or Castro—to make their case.
Speaking of the Statue of Liberty, there are replicas of Lady Liberty in more than 30 countries—Argentina and Austria, Belarus and Britain, Japan and Germany, India and Israel, Taiwan and Thailand.
Historians at Monticello point out that since 1776, freedom-seeking peoples across 120 countries have imitated America’s Declaration of Independence in asserting their sovereignty and liberty.
Our enemies understand the power of these words penned by Americans and these symbols of America. Why else would PRC censors demand that Sony remove images of Lady Liberty from the movie Spider-Man: No Way Home? (Sony didn’t comply.) Why else would Iran’s tyranny have a factory that makes American flags for the sole purpose of distributing them to be burned by regime rent-a-mobs?
The examples aren’t limited to the National Anthem, Lady Liberty and Old Glory.
Although our culture tends to celebrate blame-America and even anti-American movements nowadays—the defacing of monuments to Lincoln and Grant, efforts to “de-name” schools honoring Washington and Jefferson, the disrespect for the flag and National Anthem at public events, the poisoned version of American history taught in many schools, the muzzling of free speech on college campuses, the moral equivalency oozing from our TVs and handhelds—there are, happily, some exceptions.
Consider the musical Hamilton, which tells the story of America’s founding ideas. After setting records on Broadway and across America, Hamilton has taken Britain and Australia by storm, is now playing in Germany and France, and is headed to Asia. Or consider the movie Top Gun: Maverick. The 2022 red-white-and-blue blockbuster netted more overseas than in America.
Even in countries governed by regimes openly hostile to America, the power of American culture is undeniable—and sometimes unbelievable.
Western correspondents in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan report that Afghans devour Breaking Bad, Stranger Things and other American TV shows.
In Iran, six young adults posted a video on the made-in-America social-media site YouTube of them dancing to Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy.” The awful irony is that for daring to imitate this innocuous American music video, their government sentenced them to a year in prison and 91 lashes.
Ant-Man: Quantumania and Avatar: The Way of Water top the box office in Vietnam.
Xi’s diplomats publicly mock “U.S.-style democracy” and harangue America “to change its own image.” Yet Xi’s subjects seem to be recreating their country in America’s image: KFC has more restaurants in China than in America. Starbucks opens a new store in China every 15 hours. When The Big Bang Theory was blocked by PRC censors, Foreign Policy magazine reports that Xi’s angry subjects “went online to deem China ‘West North Korea.’” And 56 percent of Chinese college students like America’s political system; just 28 percent like China’s.
Why is this? Why do peoples from faraway lands want to emulate America’s culture and political system? Why do they use our flag, sing our national anthem, display our symbols and quote our founding fathers to pursue their freedom? And why aren’t they waving Russian and Chinese flags, wearing T-shirts adorned with images of Red Square and the Great Wall, or flocking to musicals and movies about Lenin, Mao and the czars?
The answer is twofold, and we can hear it in the words of our neighbors overseas: First, as that Kurdish businessman matter-of-factly puts it, “America represents freedom.” Russia, China, Iran and their ilk don’t.
Second, freedom is something “we all want,” to quote that Libyan pilot—all Libyans and Africans, all Kosovars and Europeans, all Hongkongers and Asians, all Cubans and peoples of the Americas. “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit,” as President Reagan explained. Tyrants want to eradicate it; America has always wanted to help it grow.
These anecdotes about freedom-seekers using America’s flag and America’s symbols to lay claim to their liberty aren’t mirror-gazing myths, patriotic PR or CIA psyops. They are real, and they are exactly what the founders envisioned for America. The Declaration of Independence—with its stirring announcement that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—was intended as beacon of freedom: Jefferson saw America maturing into “an empire of liberty” destined to become the driving force for the “freedom of the globe.”
Jefferson’s prediction is confirmed by all those around the world who wave America’s flag to defy despots and grasp at freedoms most Americans take for granted.
In Tripoli and Tbilisi, Kiev and Kosovo, Hong Kong and Havana, they know that America’s founding document triggered a global freedom revolution, that America tore itself apart to extirpate its original sin of slavery, that Lady Liberty is a reflection of America, that America is a great power and a good neighbor. Yazidis and Kurds know that America protected them from mass-murderers masquerading as holy men. Kuwaitis and Kosovars know that America delivered them from brutal neighbors. Vietnamese and Afghans know that America bled for them. West Germans and South Koreans know that America rescued them from the prison yard of communism. The entire Free World knows that America shielded religious freedom, political freedom, and economic freedom from Nazism and Stalinism.
In the remote villages of Angola, Pakistan and Zambia, they may not know that American generosity, industry and ingenuity have rescued uncounted millions from AIDS, COVID-19 and malaria. But Americans should. They may not know in Somalia and Sumatra that Americans have shared uncounted billions providing food and shelter to those in need. But Americans should. The world’s friendless and forgotten may not know that America has invested uncounted trillions serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. But Americans should.
Every American should know these things about America.
Alan W. Dowd leads the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay was published in The American Legion Magazine.