RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Old Glory Is Ours, Too

Two months before the Bush War started, a peace activist in Columbia, Mo., designed a red-white-and-blue yard sign carrying the words "No War on Iraq." Within a few weeks, hundreds of the signs stood in front of houses in every neighborhood.

One month before the War started, the chain stores started selling flag-festooned signs that said, "We Support Our Troops." People who didn't like the "No War" signs bought them, thus perpetuating the idea that there were two camps: Peace lovers were soldier haters and soldier lovers were war mongers. Reality is, of course, much more complicated.

Still, with the flag-decorated signs, the "We Support" people had dragged the American flag into the debate, so that when someone turned up at a peace rally with a flag, the message was considered too confusing, and she put it back in the car.

The myth that being anti-war means being anti-troop has befuddled Americans since Vietnam when, it was widely reported, anti-war activists met returning soldiers at the airport with shouts of "Baby Killer!" The soldiers, American kids like those in Iraq today, wanted only to return to normal life, college, perhaps, and families.

As an anti-war protester during Vietnam, I always doubted that any real peace activist went to the airports to harass the soldiers. In fact, it seemed clear that the whole idea of the protest was to bring the troops -- people my age -- back home.

At the same time, peace activists were pretty sure that the peace movement had been infiltrated by government "agent provocateurs" who had a mission to cause trouble and create bad publicity. And, we figured, those government folks must have been profiting by keeping the kids in Vietnam. That War was so senseless that there was no other way to explain people who wanted to win.

The current Bush government has a better infrastructure for war than the government in the 1960s. The Bushies have wrapped it up in all the catchwords of patriotism. We are, they say, liberating an entire nation! We're winners, they say, in a contest that has only winners and losers. We have brought freedom to oppressed people, and we'll soon bring education, health care and free enterprise! By supporting our troops, they say, we're supporting freedom, our way of life, the flag.

How have they achieved this state of mind control over America? How have they so thoroughly captured our flag?

For one thing, they've tapped into a deep source of anger. It's the same kind of anger against dissent that turns playground bullies into murderers.

Listen to the rah-rah radio stars. Sarcastic disdain for the left, women, the ACLU, Clintons, gays, black leaders, environmentalists, the list goes on. These Clear Channel bullies go in for name calling and labeling. They're loud and thoughtless, providing perfect counterpoint for the monotony of highway driving or boring office work. With ridicule for any discussion, the radio stars buzz through a litany of persons and groups that challenge the listeners. Make that "challenge the military-industrial complex."

(Military-industrial complex. That was an Eisenhower phrase. He was a Republican and a military man, and he warned back in 1954 that the military-industrial complex where industry profits from sales to the military was way too powerful.)

Fifty years later, the military-industrial complex has absorbed the government like cream stirred into a cup of tea. A book by Dan Briody about the Carlyle Group [The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group] calls the military-industry-government contract the "iron triangle." With that image in our heads, we can see why hundreds of thousands of protesters didn't budge the president from his plan, or any other plan. He'll have his tax cut for the rich, his drilling for oil in fragile ecosystems, his pro-business Supreme Court decisions, his anti-privacy Cabinet, his re-election. But we can take the power back, and we can begin by taking back the flag.

We're coming into prime American flag season. Memorial Day on May 26, Flag Day on June 14, Independence Day on July 4. And this is when we stop being afraid of sending mixed signals or confusing the issues.

By now, our friends know where we stand. When we put a flag in front of the house or business, or pin a flag pin on our lapels, it doesn't mean we've become pro-war. It means we're taking responsibility for our own patriotism. If we feel the need, we can add another sign or symbol to the decoration -- a peace symbol next to the flag, or a sign.

Whatever you decide, here's the key point: Protesting against policies of the current administration doesn't mean hating the government any more than arguing with your in-laws means you hate your family.

It's time to take back the flag and re-gain our nation.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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