Symbols are powerful. From religious symbols such as the Cross, the Crescent Moon or the Star of David, to sports symbols such as burnt orange Longhorn silhouettes, football helmet logos of the Dallas Cowboys or my beloved Dallas Stars, all that is necessary to reference the larger entity behind the symbol is the symbol itself. Lengthy definitions aren't necessary. Just display the symbol, and with one single image you can convey support for the entire idea or organization represented by the symbol.
As a result, symbols can be highly emotional too. If I wear a shirt sporting the Dallas Stars logo, without saying a word people can tell that not only do I support them in their regular season efforts, but it's a good bet that I want them to win tonight's game against the Anaheim Ducks as well. All of that is communicated with a single image, a lone symbol. Symbols are a powerful means of communication and meaning in any society. They convey pride, shame, love, hate, war, peace, acceptance or rejection. A wide range of human emotions and experiences are represented by the use of symbols.
For this reason, symbols can be very personal. Conversely, the misuse of some symbols can be exceedingly offensive to those whose passions and allegiances are represented by the symbol being misused. Nevertheless, consider how irrationally some cling to and care for the symbol that represents their loves and allegiances. We hear of soldiers "fighting for the flag" and wonder if it is not more accurate to clarify that they fight for what the flag represents. However, such a thought fails to account for how symbols work. Yes, soldiers fight for the country and idea represented by the American flag, but because of the nature of symbols and their use in communication, it is also accurate to say that they fought "for the flag." The flag does not merely represent something else larger; it is an integral part of that larger thing. An attack to the flag is legitimately viewed as an attack on the reality behind it. Likewise, defense of the flag can be legitimately seen as a defense of the reality behind it too.
This is what those at the University of Maine seemed ignorant of, who chided the war veteran for his passionate objection to American flags laid on the floor for potential trampling by students. The war veteran was told that his defense of the flag was irrational because the flag is merely a symbol. How amazingly ignorant an observation! As that veteran stood protesting the misuse of the rightly beloved symbol, he likely felt transported in his psyche back to moments of wartime when he was called upon to defend his fellow soldier, or defend a forward position, or defend the high ground overlooking an advantageous field of fire. To ask him to separate in his mind the defense of the flag from the defense of America is strikingly lacking in understanding regarding human communication and meaning.
Just a symbol? How vacuous a thought! Merely a representative cloth? A mindless view! Do not be surprised to find a veteran or patriot risk health and standing for the defense of the flag. Wipe that shameful look of shock off your face. When we raise the colors, that's not merely a symbolic cloth we fly in the wind; what waves and shakes in the gusts is a very extension of the American soul.