By Gavin Jones
Samuel Johnson, the celebrated 18th century man of letters, had many talents: essayist, poet, lexicographer, moralist, biographer and literary critic. He is probably best known for penning the iconic maxim: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. This has to be the ultimate in put-downs directed at those who use whatever opportunity that presents itself to sweet-talk those around them with their protestations of possessing more nationalistic fervour than the next man. Rolling out the patriotic card is an old trick which has been employed time and time again by statesmen of just about every political hue and especially in times of war.
A flag can be a unifying symbol, a call to arms, an affirmation of nationhood as well as a destructive and divisive force and can engender zeal or indifference in almost equal measure. Its place in history has been expressed in paintings and sculpture and viewed at the cinema or on news channels.
One of the most iconic images which portrays the flag as a rallying call is Eugene Delacroix’s painting of Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic and the personification of liberty and reason, bare-breasted and clutching the tricolour while leading the people in the revolution of 1830. There are also countless paintings produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of soldiers bearing flags during the heat of battle, especially during the Napoleonic era.
One of the most famous sculptures with a flag taking centre stage is the Marine Corps War Memorial located at Arlington which was based on a photograph taken at the very moment in February 1945 when American soldiers planted the stars and stripes atop Mount Suribachi after overcoming relentless Japanese resistance during the merciless Battle of Iwo Jima.
War films have unsurprisingly enough also been prolific vehicles to show flags and none more so than the opening scene in the film Patton with George C Scott facing the camera in front of a massive backdrop of the stars and stripes while he addresses new recruits, telling them that “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.” Quite so. Scott’s was a memorable performance which deservedly won him an Oscar.
Flags and insignia also mean different things to different people, that of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan and others engendering either adoration or loathing. The symbol of the swastika was hijacked by the Nazis from the Indian sub-continent and has come to represent evil in its purest form while the hammer and sickle, although meant to represent industrial workers and peasants, conjures up an image of communist repression and ironically against those it was supposed to promote and protect. For many in the Deep South of the United States, the flag of the Confederacy evokes memories of a supposed former golden age but for most automatically triggers thoughts of the iniquity of slavery and white supremacy.
When it comes to the number of flags flown per square mile, Cyprus must surely hold the top spot judging by their profusion at street corners, promenades, public buildings, houses and mini versions dangling from car rear-view mirrors. But which flag tends to be the favourite choice? The fact of the matter is that the island is dominated not by its own but by those of two other countries: Greece and Turkey. To the outsider, this is a conundrum difficult to fathom, let alone accept, and is fiercely debated in the public domain and newspaper forums whenever this topic arises.
In the south of the island, there definitely seems to be more Greek flags than Cypriot with even churches tending to fly only the Greek version together with a variation of the Byzantine with its black, double-headed eagle against a yellow background. I happen to live in a village populated by Greek Cypriot refugees from the north which overlooks a coast road where an enormous flag flies of the nation whose coup on July 15, 1974 was the catalyst for the catastrophe that hit the island.
In the north, two huge flags, Turkish and Turkish Cypriot, have been positioned for decades on the southern slopes of the Kyrenia range and gaze provocatively down on southern Nicosia and beyond as a reminder to the Greek Cypriots as to which ‘side’ was the victor in the summer of 1974. Even the neutral observer would describe this as a brazen case of crude triumphalism not dissimilar to German troops hoisting the swastika on top of the Eiffel Tower in June 1940 and on the Acropolis in April 1941.
And why is it that Greek and Turkish Cypriots fly the flags of their so-called ‘mothers’ with such apparent passion and gay abandon while that of Cyprus seems to be in evidence more as a token gesture?
Three principal reasons.
Firstly, it’s my contention that each community retains a niggling inferiority complex and belief that being attached to Greece and Turkey has more street cred than being merely Cypriot.
Secondly, it’s felt that Greece and Turkey can be called upon to assist in times of need, something which both have provided diplomatically but in practical, military terms only the latter has actually succeeded in making a reality.
Finally, the links of heritage and language, incorporating the glory that was Greece and Ottoman history, are what bind each community to their respective ‘mothers’. In order to inspire a feeling of nationhood, perhaps Greek and Turkish flags should be phased out but with Greek and Turkish Cypriots having lived separately for more than fifty years, the likelihood of that coming to pass will remain a chimera.