Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American Nationalism, the Flag, and the Invasion of Iraq

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American Nationalism, the Flag, and the Invasion of Iraq

Article excerpt

On 19 March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq with a force of 90,000 troops. The stated basis for the decision made by the administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq was the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which it claimed were to be used in attacks against the United States (Falah 2003). The administration also argued that the invasion was part of the broader "war on terror" initiated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The invasion was short-lived: Baghdad fell on 9 April 2003, and President Bush spoke on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a banner hailing "Mission Accomplished" on 1 May 2003 (Woodward 2004).

In the years since the invasion of Iraq no WMD have been found, negating the claims that such weapons would be used to attack the United States. Moreover, Saddam Hussein had no formal ties to Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, he was not involved in the planning or implementation of the 9/11 attacks, and no Iraqi nationals were among those who hijacked the passenger airplanes used in the attacks (Woodward 2006). Given the lack of evidence for Iraq's role in the 9/11 attacks as well as the limited intelligence supporting the existence of WMD, why were members of the U.S. Congress and the general public so willing to support the invasion of Iraq? In short, why did the administration face so little opposition to its plans to conduct so massive and costly a military undertaking?

The 9/11 attacks on the United States "shook up most Americans' assumptions about their nation's place in the world" and the country's insularity from problems elsewhere (Roshwald 2006,199). Although reactions to the attacks were by no means uniform, a general outpouring of patriotism or nationalism followed. I argue that this spike in patriotism or nationalism inhibited an honest debate over the wisdom of invading Iraq nearly eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks. Emblematic of this spike in nationalism was the increased use of the American flag by both the government and the public at large. National flags are symbolic containers that "'condense' a range of meanings and emotions pertaining to a group's perceived historical experience, real or imagined cultural homogeneity, and efforts to define a similarity of outlook for the future" (Leib and Webster 2007, 31). This statement is arguably true of most states, but in few if any is it more germane than in the United States where the national flag is viewed with religious reverence and at times is all but synonymous with the "nation" and "blood sacrifice" (Marvin and Ingle 1999).


Jean Gottmann's concept of "iconography" is highly germane to an understanding of how states build and maintain loyalty within their populations (1951, 1952). Gottmann believed that the iconography of a geographical region or area creates the circumstances under which political partitioning into states can occur. With relevance to the foregoing characterization of national flags as symbolic containers, Gottmann defined a state's iconography as "the whole system of symbols in which a people believes. These symbols are many and varied. A national 'iconography' ... encompasses the national flag, the proud memories of past history as well as the principles of the prevailing religion, the generally accepted rules of economics, the established social hierarchy, the heroes quoted in the schools, the classic authors, and so forth and so on" (1952, 516).

A state's array of icons may also include notable monuments, important buildings, stories and myths about the country's heros, national anthems, coats of arms, and even national athletic teams (Hobsbawm 1983, 1990, 143; Johnson 1995; Brunn 2001; Raento and others 2004; Webster 2006). Thus it is of little surprise that the founders and other heroes in many countries are portrayed on coins, currency, and postage stamps, items capable of reminding citizens of their national association on a daily basis. …

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