Friday, June 3, 2011

The Red Badge of Courage

Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it, he endowed it with power.
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

Assigning a soldier to enter combat bearing a flag sounds absurd. And yet standard bearers have been a near universal practice since man first took up arms against his fellow. Blame pride, morale or the simple necessity to know where your mates are in the fog of war. Or call it the mark of Cain, embraced across one too many battles over oh so many years.

The Israeli army has no use for standard bearers. Yet like their predecessors, every infantry unit has a soldier tasked with carrying a red flag into battle. Known as the daglan, this soldier’s job is to identify his troops formation so they will not fall victim to friendly fire. While his task may seem nothing like those legionnaires who entered battle bearing nothing but a heavy pole topped with a bronze eagle, there are many unnerving similarities. Both are for all intents and purposes are unarmed, their weapon hanging limply at their side as they run through the line of fire grasping a glorified stick. That stick is designed to signal their forces identity, a great idea to avoid friendly fire, less so when it allows the enemy to zone in on a convenient target. Raging bulls are not the only ones attracted to a waving red flag.

In the Roman Legion, bearing the eagle standard was a signal honor, granted to a soldier known as the aquilifer from the Latin word for eagle, aquila. In the Israeli army, serving as the daglan also comes with a share of honor. In my squad, our two Ethiopians (first or second generation immigrants from Ethiopia) bear our flags into battle. Whether this is designed as a mark of honor, or is simply taking advantage of the fact that they so clearly already stand out, is not my place to judge.

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