The old veteran was describing, grimly and determinedly, the horrors of the Bataan March. (This was happening on TV, in a WW II documentary the name of which I don’t want to remember.) Not a shred of sentiment did he waste on his memories until the end of his tale. Then he spoke about the moment when USA forces, waving the American flag, rescued the Bataan POWs. At that moment he broke down, and wept like a young boy to finish his account:
“I tell you, I love that flag!”
I understand that. This was the very same flag which my father honored with his service in Vietnam.
But understand this: after the Castro Revolution, Cuba became militarized overnight. The early days were a constant parade of rebel uniforms, guns and flags—Cuban flags and 26th of July Movement flags, as if the Revolution had not yet triumphed, and the waving of flags was necessary for its eventual success. Patriotism in those days consisted of calling for the death of Batistianos (¡Paredón!), idolizing the new regime, and vilifying—to the utmost extreme—the United States and its form of government. My father rejected patriotism on these terms, and left the country on January 1, 1961.
After the Bay of Pigs (April, 1961), the fury of the Castro regime was unleashed upon those who were deemed unpatriotic in an angry wave of rhetoric, chants, and waving flags. Gusanos (worms) was the term used for those of us who wanted to reunite with our loved ones in the U.S., and the Cuban flag—which we thought belonged to all—was waved against us as a symbol of our ignominy and treachery. I was seven years old at the time.
One year later, as a new fourth grade student in a Miami elementary school, I stood up with my classmates to recite the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag. My teacher admonished me that as a political refugee I was not an “American,” and therefore had no right to speak the pledge. I was to stand silently—homeless and flagless at the age of 9—while the ceremony was completed. In a federal courtroom at the age of 19, I finally swore formal allegiance to the U.S. flag. I keep my word, but I cannot bring myself to love it as I love the people, the landscape and the republic for which it stands.
Over the years I have reached a compromise with flags. I respect all flags, whether they belong to a country, a sports team, or a civic organization. Largely because caring—caring deeply for someone or for something—is such a scarce commodity in our time. I do not mind when Rally Sally waves her flags to cheer on the Arizona Diamondbacks. I stand in awe when veterans honor the flag which carried them through war and for which they sacrificed in battle. And there is no more sacred symbol than the folded flag presented to a widow or an orphan at the funeral of a fallen soldier.
But I do not wave flags, and distrust certain versions of that particular activity: I dislike the flag that is waved to humiliate women and children who leave their country to find a world elsewhere; and above all, I despise the flag-waving that appeals to the patriotism of poor men and women so that they fight in wars to preserve the wealth of the rich.