Flag Fails – Your Tattered Flag Does Not Make You a Patriot

By Douglas Katz – 10/18/2023

As a veteran, I hold the United States Flag in the highest regard.  It is the symbol of our Nation and it is representative of our unparalleled freedom and the rights that I swore to protect on the parade field at West Point so many years ago.  This is why I am consistently amazed at the way the flag is disrespected and improperly displayed on a regular basis.  It pains me to see a tattered or unlit flag adorning a home.  It disappoints me when I see a discarded flags adorning the ground like litter after parades.  While often innocently left by unaware children, the adults fail to pick them up and to teach the children the right way to respect the flag.  It angers me the way that “patriots” literally wrap themselves in Old Glory or proudly display flags that look as if they had survived an artillery barrage.

Forget the obvious and intuitively inappropriate ways that the actual flag is turned into disrespectful clothing items like capes at political rallies, there are specific rules for displaying and maintaining the flag.  Displaying the flag with respect and properly disposing of it when it’s worn, tattered, or damaged is not just a patriotic duty, but also a way to show reverence for the nation’s values and ideals. While I cringe at the overt and open disrespect that I regularly see with things like the dirty, tattered full size flags waiving behind the obnoxious pick-up truck that cut me off earlier this week, I realized that ignorance and not malice could be why this disrespect occurs.  I see this as a chance to inform.  Below I have shared the proper display of the United States flag and when and how to dispose of it in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code.  Yes, there is an owners manual that accompanies every flag with specific duties and responsibilities associated with caring for the symbol of our Nation.

Proper Display of the United States Flag

  1. Positioning: When displaying the American flag, there are several rules to observe:
    • The flag should always be positioned to its own right, which means it should be on the observer’s left.
    • When the flag is displayed with other flags, it should be raised above and centered in front of them.
    • When displayed horizontally, the stars should be on the left side (as you look at it) and the stripes on the right.
  2. Flying at Half-Staff: The American flag is flown at half-staff to signify mourning. To do so properly, it should first be hoisted to the peak for an instant, then lowered to half-staff. Before lowering the flag at the end of the day, it should again be raised to the peak.
  3. Illumination: The flag should be properly illuminated if displayed outdoors during the night. A light source should be positioned to keep it visible after dark.
  4. Respect for the Flag: Never use the flag for any advertising purpose or in a way that might be disrespectful. It should not be used as clothing, bedding, or drapery. Additionally, avoid letting it touch the ground.
  5. Display on Vehicles: When displaying the flag on a vehicle, it should be affixed to the antenna or mounted on a staff fixed to the right front fender. Do not attach it in a way that might hinder the driver’s view.

When and How to Dispose of the United States Flag

The U.S. Flag Code provides guidance on the proper disposal of the flag when it becomes worn, tattered, or damaged. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Inspect the Flag: Regularly inspect your flag to check for signs of wear and tear. Common issues include fraying, fading, or holes.
  2. Ceremonial Burning: The most common and respectful way to dispose of a worn-out flag is through ceremonial burning. This should be done in a dignified and solemn manner. Many American Legion posts, VFWs, and scouting organizations conduct flag retirement ceremonies. If you choose to do this yourself, exercise extreme caution and follow safety protocols. The fire should be small but large enough to ensure a complete burning.
  3. Folding the Flag: Before the flag is burned, it should be folded in the traditional triangular manner, similar to how it is folded for presentation. This should be done with great care and respect.
  4. Attend a Flag Disposal Ceremony: Many communities organize flag disposal ceremonies around patriotic holidays like Flag Day, Independence Day, or Memorial Day. Attending one of these ceremonies is an excellent way to ensure a proper disposal of your flag.
  5. Contact Local Authorities: Some local government facilities, like public works departments or veterans’ organizations, may also accept old flags for proper disposal. Contact them to inquire about their flag disposal programs.

Please remember these when you decide to display the flag.  The flag that you display and how you display it sends a message and communicates a lot.  You may think that you are illuminating the world with a symbol of freedom when you are actually radiating a different message of ignorance, disrespect or both.  Worse still you are disrespecting the women and men who have laid down their lives for the freedom that it represents.  The same flag that drapes the coffins of these patriots should not fly in tatters behind your truck or adorn your back like some superhero.   By adhering to the guidelines in the U.S. Flag Code and ensuring the proper disposal of old, worn-out flags, we can continue to honor the principles for which it stands and keep Old Glory flying proudly.  Please learn the right way before you display.