Grand Old Flag

An Interview with Tim Marshall

Octavian Report: Where do flags come from? Why do humans need them?

Tim Marshall: Because we remain tribalistic. Even if you work for the Ford Motor Company, you will see outside the showroom the Ford flag.

I'm not a professional vexillologist. I'm more of a journalist who's interested in identity and history and politics and the nexus between them. And my book, essentially, was not really about flags: it was about why they mean what they mean.

I think that you could even call a skull stuck on top of a stick and carried into battle, going back to prehistoric times, a proto-flag. The flag is a totem, after all. It embodies the character and spirit and power of what you see yourself to be.

The Chinese invented silk — before silk, you can't really paint cloth. It won't blow in the wind, it gets wet in the rain and extraordinarily heavy. Once the Chinese invented silk, these symbols that you might have hung on your wall or carried briefly on a stick you now have the ability to fly. You can take them long distances.

So it is thought the Chinese were the first ones to have flag. They are taken along the Silk Road. The Arabs traded with them and are thought to be the second peoples to pick them up. Europe then meets the Arab world during the Crusades where the Arabs were flying these flags in battle. And the Europeans — essentially tribes or proto-nations; the Germanic peoples, the Italian peoples, the British peoples — thought, “Well, this is a good idea because if the Franks on my left are flying X flag and the Germanic tribes on my right are flying Y flag, I will know who is who and where they are.” And then from that grew the European tradition of heraldry. Eventually that, down the line, turns into nationhood and the flags of nations, which then turned into the flags of nation-states.

We asked Marshall which world flag he thought was the best. His answer might surprise you. 

OR: What makes flags great? And what is the tension between the flag that's aesthetically powerful versus the flag that's politically powerful (if it is possible to separate the two)?

Marshall: They're not separable, nor can you separate what you bring to it. This is a really crucial point. In art, most people will accept that when you're looking at a painting, you bring to it your own interpretation. It's a two-way process. And that is the same with the flag.

The British flag to most outsiders is just the British flag. If you understood the history of the nations in the U.K. and how they are now woven together, they are also woven together in that flag so that it's more powerful. You actually are looking at the unity of the Scottish flag, the English flag, and to a lesser extent Northern Ireland (not to complicate the story). So it's what you bring to it. And you cannot divorce that from how you feel about it.

The power of the flag lies partly within you and partly within it. Another great example is the ISIS flag. Black, which is thought to have been the color of Mohammed's flag.  Square, as Mohammed's flag is thought to have been square. They then write on it the shehada, the profession of faith. And then they bring more to it. They bring utter brutality. When they carry out their atrocities, which they video, they make sure the flag is visible.

When you see this advancing towards you and you know the power of it because you've seen the videos, you bring your fear with you.

I personally like the Macedonian flag and its sunburst. I like it, I'm interested in its story. But it doesn't have much power over me. The ISIS flag would have some power over me if I saw it coming towards me.

OR: What makes for bad flags?

Marshall: Not being instantly recognizable. Think about Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the world's most populous countries. It's a huge country. It's an important country with oil. Yet I don't think very many people would know its flag. And that's partly because its flag is instantly forgettable. It's a green stripe, a white stripe, and a green stripe. I've got nothing against Nigeria or Nigerians, but that is not a flag which I think is destined to occupy many people's attention.

OR: How do you assess the Stars and Stripes?

Marshall: As an aesthetic, I like it. It's bold, it's colorful, you can see it at a distance. And it's also interesting. Having the 13 stripes representing the 13 colonies immediately tells you about flag’s history. And having a star for each state also tells you that it's a federation. I think it's a brilliant flag.

When you see that flag planted at Iwo Jima, for example, it's very easy to get hold of the idea that this flag stands for freedom. The 13 colonies were fighting for freedom; the concept of freedom is woven into the flag. At Iwo Jima, you could make that case.

It becomes more troublesome and problematic when America might be deemed to be behaving in a manner which a lot more people would disagree with. Iraq, for example. At that point, the flag is not seen by everybody as standing for freedom. Or Mr. Trump's inauguration. I'm not making a case for or against him. But the flags blowing to either side of him as he gave his “America First” speech in a cold January wind might be seen as heralding a colder and more isolationist America.

OR: In addition to writing about flags, you’ve written — in the second book in your trilogy — about maps. Why are they so important?

Marshall: Consider the Sea of Azov, just above the Black Sea separating Ukraine and Russia. Russia is now re-interpreting the boundaries of that sea. Their maps now will shade Crimea, which legally remains Ukraine, as Russian. And so they are seeking to put onto the maps what they regard as their legal right.