News your connection to The Boston Globe

Why we fly the flag

TO HONOR those who give the last full measure of devotion in the service of their country, flags at state buildings in Massachusetts now fly at half-staff on the day any Bay State soldier killed in action is buried. The policy was announced by Governor Deval Patrick on July 3; it was implemented for the first time two days later, when Staff Sergeant Daniel Newsome, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad, was laid to rest at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam.

The lowering of the flag to half-staff is a gesture pregnant with sorrow and distress. Its emotional power comes from that of the flag itself, the most intensely cherished symbol of American nationhood, history, and ideals. "For that flag," Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in 1907, "every true American has not simply an appreciation, but a deep affection."

Well, not every American. Not Howard Zinn.

Zinn, an emeritus professor at Boston University, is a radical historian and activist and author of the bestselling "A People's History of the United States," which depicts America's story as a depressing train of greed, oppression, and deceit. Last week, on the day Patrick issued the order to lower the flag for fallen Massachusetts heroes, Zinn offered some thoughts of his own on the flag and the nation it represents.

"Put Away the Flags," his piece for The Progressive is titled. It begins: "On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed." For isn't devotion to the flag "one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?"

Zinn doesn't condemn devotion to all flags. He thinks national spirit is fine for countries that are small and passive, such as "Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica." It is only in "a nation like ours" that reverence for the flag becomes dangerous. He recites a litany of supposed American crimes -- against the Indians, the Mexicans, the Cubans, the Filipinos, the Japanese. US troops in Iraq "are not different," Zinn says, not when they have "killed thousands of Iraq civilians." But they are also victims, conned into thinking that they are fighting for liberty and democracy.

Zinn himself once fought for liberty and democracy. He is an Army Air Corps veteran who flew combat missions over Europe during World War II. He now regards some of those missions as shameful, but I am grateful to him for his service, as I am to the countless young Americans like him who put on the uniform and followed the flag to war against a monstrous enemy -- and to those who follow in their footsteps today. Zinn sees the Fourth of July as a day "to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history." I see it as a day to reaffirm the truth that America has been a powerful force for good in the world, one that remains, in Lincoln's words, the last best hope of earth.

We flew the flag in the home I grew up in, and we fly it in the home my sons are growing up in. But when I was a child in South Euclid, Ohio, the Jacoby home was one of many in the neighborhood that put out the flag on the Fourth of July and other national holidays. In the Boston suburb where we live now, my kids can see that ours is virtually the only house in the neighborhood that flies the flag on special days.

What explains this absence of flags? Disdain? Embarrassment? Indifference? Certainly Zinn isn't alone in scorning American patriotism. His words reminded me of Katha Pollitt's essay "Put Out No Flags," in The Nation a few days after 9/11. "My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window," it began. "Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war."

Why, for some people, do the ugliest things in this world always seem to come in shades of red, white, and blue? Yes: In 231 years of independence, the United States has often fallen short of its values and ideals. But those values and ideals are what the flag embodies, not the failure to live up to them. To salute the flag is not to proclaim that America can do no wrong. It is to believe in its great capacity to do right. That was something Daniel Newsome understood. There was a time, I imagine, when Howard Zinn did too.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is