From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Put A Flag On It

By Amber Zora

The first question people asked me as I was preparing to travel to Iowa City for Flag Day was, "What is Flag Day?"

Flag Day is a pretty obscure holiday to civilians and service members alike. Most have seen the holiday listed on a wall calendar but don't know much about it.

Flag Day is celebrated on June 14 to commemorate the day the US adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag on June 14, 1777. Flag Day is also an important day for decommissioning unserviceable flags through burning, burying, or recycling.

I received an email inviting me to Drew Cameron and Zen Cohen's backyard for their annual Flag Day event.

I met Drew at the Haystack School of Mountain Crafts during a veteran art weekend. After I moved to the Bay Area I frequently stopped by their place in The Mission for Full Moon Parties and various hangouts. They now live in Iowa City.

This year's Flag Day theme was "Make it Your Own."

What I knew about the weekend before I got there was that I could camp in their backyard, there would be a grill and food, and we would be making paper out of a retired flag

There is a lot to unpack about a group of veterans working with the local community to decommission an American Flag and turn it into pulp and then paper. It's especially complicated when many of the veterans are anti-war veterans.

Flags were developed for wartime, so someone could see from a distance whether a group of soldiers were friend or foe. Their meaning changed over time to be a symbol of unity for a country and flags are no longer necessarily associated with war in most people's minds.

For instance, we drape our athletes in the flag when they win on the world stage. America watched in awe as Buzz Aldrin planted a flag on the moon.

However, a number of veteran activists view the American Flag as a symbol of oppression to marginalized groups of people in the United States and abroad. The American Flag cannot represent this entire country because, for one, it erases the Indigenous sovereign nations that are here today. So why even bother with Old Glory?

I've found it difficult to find any singular opinion or mission that was supported by the entire group that gathered in Iowa City. That's in part because I don't think there was one.

I eventually realized that every participant or observer came with their own lens of what was taking place.

Some might view the project as respectful for decommissioning an unserviceable flag. Others might view the untraditional way we decommissioned it as disrespectful or an act of rebellion. A third group might find the backyard event—a grill, coolers of beer, a table decorated full of American Flag memorabilia, kids running around—as a harmless, tongue-in-cheek scene.

Selling of the Flag

Once you start looking for the American Flag, you see it everywhere.

Like a word you just learned that everyone seems to be saying or a new menu item—the shishito pepper of 2018, the truffle fries of 2019— except the flag is always in style.

Section 8 of the US Flag Code states, "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." and "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discarded."

But, businesses have commercialized the flag and made a profit from it's symbols for decades. So can it still be considered a patriotic symbol when it has been commodified to this extent?

The symbol of the American Flag is something the whole country is thinking about right now. A recent New York Times article explores how the political left is distancing itself from the symbol and the political right is encouraged to make it synonymous with the Trump flag.

American flags and adjacent Americana items start showing up in supermarkets in Spring around Memorial Day. They stick around through Flag Day and the 4th of July and before tapering off around Labor Day.

Everything from whiskey bottles to baby hats are adorned with the flag. During the 4th of July, beer companies know if they put a flag on their beer, they will see an uptick in beer sales.

Many Americans say they have a love for the sanctity of the American flag but have it printed on literally everything—regardless of this commodification being against Flag Code.

"It's a gesture of love for the country, but it's undisciplined nature is comical to me," Cameron said, "If it's intentionally sloppy I could get behind that."

It might actually be easier to list items that never have the American flag printed on them but I'm not sure I can think of one. There is even an American Flag painted onto a roof in my current town of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Love it or Leave it

During the insurrection on January 6, nationalism and hatred surrounded the American Flag. White supremacists, neo-nazis, and conspiracy theorists hijacked the flag, flying it alongside confederate, QAnon, and countless other hate group flags. One insurrectionist even used a flag pole with the American flag on it to beat a police officer who was protecting the Capitol.

I've been told to "love it or leave it" regarding my criticism of the United States and its policies. The umbrella of nationalism around the flag and country does not allow for criticism of current wars or domestic tension, especially since September 11.

That leaves anti-war veterans or veterans with some serious "questions" outside of the narrative. But the flag has been used in social justice, anti-war, and freedom movements since it was adopted.

The Civil Rights movement — with many veterans in positions of leadership—used the flag in the fight for freedom. Vietnam Veterans Against the War used the flag and national myths to critique the war. Jasper Johns and Benny Andrews are notable veteran artists that used the American flag consistently in their work. Veterans today use the symbol of the flag to raise questions about wars and their military service.

The Event

If you're reading this you probably know that Drew Cameron founded Combat Paper a long time ago. He is a usual suspect in the current veteran art community.

However this event was not part of Combat Paper, it is a part of the Flag r/D formed with Robert Possehl, a longtime papermaker, Combat Paper whisperer, and conscientious objector. Flag r/D is an ongoing conversation about flags that Drew and Robert have been having for some time.

The project began through "flagging" each other—or sharing with each other random flag items and creating an informal archive.

"We've been 'flagging' at each other for years by text messaging each other American Flag images, articles," Drew said. "I'm more into the consumable side of things like flip flops and Robert is more into the articles and ideas around it."

I asked Drew what "Flag r/D" stood for.

"Research and Development" he replied. Or "Robert and Drew. And a few other things"

"I'm interested in where [the American flag] appears when it appears and who it appears on," said Drew, "Incorporating it into papermaking is a reverent, specific, and arduous process. Rag paper making continues to approach the flag as a living symbol."

Those camping in Drew and Zen's backyard were finishing up cups of coffee when Robert brought out a Post Flag —not your typical flag flying on a pole.

A Post Flag is traditionally used to identify a military post. It was large and ever-present but faded and in need of retirement. A group photo was taken before an attendee read a version of the American Legion Unserviceable Flag Ceremony.

We started with removing the blue field of stars and then separating each stripe. Each stripe was then ripped into smaller strips and draped over a string of backyard lights. Participants were then asked to take scissors and cut those strips into one-inch pieces.

Throughout the day people arrived to chat, make paper, and eat food. It was the first event many had been to since the pandemic began. It looked like any normal backyard barbeque, except busy hands were clipping down the stars and stripes.

"Questions that people ask around pulping the flag is 'Are you allowed to do that?'" Cameron said. "And yeah, you are also allowed to burn the flag."

When a service member is deployed an American flag is donned on their uniform, right shoulder, and facing forward. When a service member dies in the line of duty their casket is draped with the flag during the ceremony. It is then folded and given to a family member before that service member gets buried. It literally becomes a replacement for a human body and that comes with its own weight.

"[The flag is a] symbol of power first and foremost, a national symbol and all things wrapped up into that. As a visual artist, I've always been attracted to the flag. One of my duties in school was to take the flag down. Our principal was a WWII vet and taught me how to do that." Robert continued, "When people meet me they don't know if I'm redneck or Antifa. I'm out here to talk and building relationships. I have particular ideas about the flag and how it is used. I'm not giving it up to the right."

The weight of the afternoon and evening of flag shredding and pulping and papering was very light. Children, parents, and grandparents all participated.

It was a day where people could come with their preconceived notions. Leaving it open to interpretation allowed for dialogue and community to take place in a casual and inviting setting.

The event itself provoked a series of questions.

What are we doing here? What is America? Where do we go from here?

Like the pulp itself, maybe it just takes time to dry before we can see the result.

Amber Zora is an interdisciplinary artist based in Rapid City, SD. She enlisted in the US Army for 8 years and deployed to Qayyarah West, Iraq as an ammunition specialist from 2006-2007 with the 592nd Ordnance Company. Zora later received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Photography + Integrated Media from Ohio University.

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