• Tue Mar 25 2003
  • How the tradition of surrendering with a white flag developed

With the Iraqi-Coalition war in full flight, some soldiers will get killed, others will get injured and some will surrender. But there is an art to surrendering.
Vision Reporter
Journalist @ New vision
With the Iraqi-Coalition war in full flight, some soldiers will get killed, others will get injured and some will surrender. But there is an art to surrendering.
By Brendan I. Koerner

With the Iraqi-Coalition war in full flight, some soldiers will get killed, others will get injured and some will surrender.

But there is an art to surrendering. It is not just about putting up your hands and saying “I surrender.” You have to wave a white flag too, the international symbol of capitulation. But how did this tradition originate?

Ancient historians from both China and Rome noted the use of white flags to signal surrender. In the former empire, the tradition is believed to have originated with the reign of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220), though it may be somewhat older.

The Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus mentions a white flag of surrender in his Histories, first published in AD 109. His reference concerns the Second Battle of Cremona, fought between the Vitellians and the Vespasians in AD 69. At the time, the more common Roman token of surrender was for soldiers to hold their shields above their heads. It is believed the tradition developed independently in the East and West.

As for the bland colour, it was likely just a matter of convenience in the ancient world. Artificial colours were still centuries away. White clothes were always handy, not to mention highly visible against most natural backgrounds. Vexillologists (those who study flags) think plain white provided an obvious contrast to the colourful banners that armies often carried into battle.

The peacemaking symbolism of the white flag is now enshrined in the Geneva Convention, though it is rarely mentioned in national flag codes. Italy is perhaps the only country whose flag guidelines specifically mention the white flag as an indication that a fighting force wants to call for a parley, or surrender negotiations.

Iraqi soldiers are well aware that simply waving a white handkerchief can save their necks. So, too, are their commanders. In the last Gulf War, many Iraqi army officers forced their conscripts to hand over any and all articles of white clothing, including undershirts and socks, lest they be tempted to surrender to American forces. Fortunately for the troops, putting one’s hands above one’s head is often an equally effective way to cry “Uncle!”

In the latter part of the Civil War, the Confederacy adopted a new national flag known as the ‘Stainless Banner.’ The flag was predominantly white, with the stars and bars tucked into the upper-left-hand corner. The designers claimed to have modelled the pennant on that of France’s Bourbon dynasty.

Confederate naval commanders, however, detested the flag, as it was often mistaken as a sign of surrender when flying from their masts. About a month before Appomattox, the Confederate Congress added a red bar to the banner’s right-hand side, to reduce the confusion.

The author is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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