Date: June 23, 2007
Byline: Ian Urbina
Lowering Flag for War’s Dead Brings a New Rift
IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich., June 19 — The Stars and Stripes in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge here flies at half-staff because Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm issued a statewide order to lower the flag for 24 hours to honor a Michigan soldier killed in Iraq.
Just blocks away, however, at the veterans' hospital run by federal officials who say they do not answer to the governor the flag flutters at full staff.
A revered and emotionally fraught symbol, the flag is no stranger to differing opinions about its proper handling. Soldiers have laid down their lives for it, protesters have burned it and lawmakers have considered altering the Constitution to protect it.
But in Michigan, the differing response to Ms. Granholm's order is part of a broader and, perhaps, more universal wrangle over how to commemorate tragedy when there is so much of it and whether lowering the flag each time a soldier is killed cheapens the tribute by doing it too often.
Since the start of the Iraq war, more than half the states have decided to lower their flags for 24 hours or more when a local soldier dies in combat.
Opponents of lowering the flag see it as a subtle antiwar gesture that may run counter to federal guidelines, which reserve the action for "officials," not soldiers.
Others say that governors have the authority to order such tributes and that fallen soldiers are at least as deserving as politicians.
"In the past, soldiers have not been treated well, even though they are giving their lives, so any sign like this of respect is appreciated," said Patricia Walker, legislative chairwoman of the 6,000-member Society of Military Widows. "For military wives, the American flag is part of our family, and showing respect for it and us is deeply important."
Last week, federal lawmakers passed a measure that would give governors the authority to order all officials in their states, including federal authorities, to lower the flag. President Bush has until next week to sign or veto the measure.
Although Congressional staff members involved with the measure say Mr. Bush may want to sign it for patriotic reasons, he may also be reluctant to appear to be ceding power over federal officials to the states.
Under the bill, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of Washington, a Democrat, would have the same authority as governors, meaning that he could instruct the White House and other federal buildings in the capital to lower the flag.
In states where flags are lowered, the extent of the governors' orders varies.
Each time a soldier from California is killed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, orders American and state flags lowered at the Capitol. In Wisconsin, Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, lowers the flag at all state buildings in such cases. Virginia and New Mexico, both with Democratic governors, lower just state flags.
In Michigan, Ms. Granholm has ordered the lowering of all flags at all state buildings, and urged the same for rest of the state, each time a soldier from the state was killed, or 127 times since December 2003, when she began the practice.
"It is not a statement about the war, but it is a statement about service and about soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice," she said.
Signed into law in 1942, the United States Flag Code offers nonmandatory flag etiquette guidelines.
Joyce Doody, executive director of the National Flag Foundation in Pittsburgh, said governors had the authority to order flags flown at half-staff, though her organization suggests lowering state, not American flags, for fallen soldiers.
In times of conflict, the flag should remain at full staff except when a significant numbers of lives are lost, Ms. Doody said. "Of course, one is a significant number lost for the family of the fallen soldier," she added.
In 2004, Paul Vogel of Barrington, Ill., a member of Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar group, helped persuade Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, a Democrat, to lower flags at state buildings for soldiers from the state killed in combat. Last week, state lawmakers passed a law requiring the governor to lower the American and state flags at all state and local buildings.
"The half-staff tribute is a way to honor the warrior, not the war," said Mr. Vogel, whose son served in Iraq for a year in 2004.
Other critics of the war take a different view.
"I think there is a lot of cheap patriotism, and that includes coming from the president," said Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, a Democrat who opposes the war but does not lower flags for killed Ohio soldiers. "I think putting the flag at half-staff is a strong symbolic thing to do. But quite frankly, it's a fairly easy thing to do. It doesn't require anything of us either as political leaders or as citizens."
Asked whether lowering the flag might be interpreted as antiwar, a spokesman for Mr. Schwarzenegger, Aaron Mclear, said, "There is no politics involved when it comes to honoring the bravery of California's fallen soldiers."
Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who sponsored the measure passed last week, said, "No matter what you think of the war, it really hurts military families when there is a lack of consistency in the show of respect."
He said that when the funeral procession for Specialist Joseph P. Micks, after whom the bill was named, passed through the three neighboring towns where he had lived, grown up and worked, some flags at post offices and other federal buildings were up and that others were at half-staff.
"The family said it really hurt and confused them why that was the case," Mr. Stupak said.
Behind the counter at the post office in Crystal Falls, Gary Burk said the flag in front was not lowered despite the governor's order because the decision lay with the postal director of each district.
"When we lower it now, people notice it and ask why," Mr. Burk said. "If you lower every time a soldier dies, it will be down so often that people will only notice and ask when it's up."
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.
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