Exploring the Origins of the "Backwards American Flag"
The United States military has a long and storied history of traditions, customs, and practices passed down through generations of service members. One of the most enduring traditions is the use of “forward facing” flags. In previous centuries, this meant positioning the American flag at the front of military charges to rally the troops and lead them forward into the fray. Old Glory waved brightly through the smoke and fire, inspiring the men behind to move ever onward. Today, every soldier carries that same inspiring image via what appears to be a backwards flag on their uniform. Positioned on the right sleeve, this mirror image of the flag begins to make sense — it isn't a backwards flag at all; rather, in movement on the soldier's arm, it appears to be a flag moving forward into battle, the stars and stripes streaming ever on. Carrying the flag "forward" is steeped in symbolism and is meant to convey a sense of courage, pride, honor, and unity among military members.
Historically, carrying the flag before the troops was the role of a flag bearer and was a significant position for a soldier to hold. In ancient times, flags were used to signal movements and commands to troops and to rally soldiers during battle. The responsibility of carrying and protecting the flag was vital, and the flag had to be protected at all costs. Soldiers bearing the flag had to be highly skilled and disciplined, as enemy fire often targeted them. They had to withstand great physical and mental stress, being first into the fray, as well as remain focused on their duties despite the chaos of battle. In addition to carrying the flag, the flag bearer was also responsible for inspiring their fellow soldiers. Often seen as a symbol of courage and bravery, their actions significantly impacted morale. The flag bearer had to maintain composure and inspire confidence in his fellow soldiers, even in the face of danger.
Flag Bearers in American Military History
The tradition of the flag bearer in the American military, in particular, can be traced back to the early days of the Revolution. The flag leading soldiers into the attack became known as "flags forward." It reminded the soldiers in the heat of battle of their allegiance to the ideals of justice and liberty for all. The “flags forward” practice continued through the Civil War, conveying a sense of unity and pride and serving as an inspirational reminder of the sacrifices of all those who had come before in defending the Stars and Stripes and the ideals it represents.
As warfare morphed and modernized, the traditional flag bearers became outdated, and the military needed a new way to display the flag and inspire the troops. Thus, the "flags forward" uniform design was born. With this new look, the uniform featured an American flag patch on the right shoulder. The flag – positioned on the soldier’s right arm – appears as a mirror image of the traditional flag, with the stars on the right and stripes on the left. This visual reminds the wearer that they should always be "assaulting forward," stripes streaming out behind the stars.
The American Flag and the Military Uniform
Additionally, even the flag’s location on the uniform bears significance. Given the place of honor is traditionally on the right, the military ensured the right sleeve of the uniform would bear the flag. Thus, the flag’s orientation and location symbolizes both its forward engagement and its place of honor.
There are several reasons why the military places such importance on this "flags forward" tradition. First and foremost, it honors the tradition of the flag bearer in history. Every American soldier today is like the flag bearers of the past, carrying the flag's weight, responsibility, and glory on their shoulders. Just as those soldiers before marched into battle with the Stars and Stripes waving proudly overhead, today's men and women carry that same symbol of freedom and sacrifice into the modern conflicts of our time. Our service members are the guardians of our nation, standing vigilant to protect against any threat to our way of life. They know that their duty is to protect our homeland and defend the principles upon which it was founded – liberty and justice for all. And just as the flag bearers of the past carried the weight of their nation's hopes and dreams in their hands, today's soldiers are reminded by the flag on their shoulders that they bear the weight of protecting our collective future.
Another reason the "flags forward" tradition is so essential to the American military is because it is a way to honor the service of those who have fought and died for the United States. The American flag serves as a powerful symbol of the sacrifices of these soldiers. It reminds us of the values and ideals for which they fought, the individual sacrifices of those who gave their lives, and the ongoing struggle to uphold those values and standards in the face of adversity. By honoring and respecting the flag, we honor and respect the soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. As President Woodrow Wilson once said, "This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence above the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us — speaks to us of the past, or the men and women who went before us, and of the records they wrote upon it." Now that each military member carries the flag on their shoulder, they are constantly reminded of those who came before and are inspired to carry on this tradition of duty, honor, and sacrifice.
Another reason "flags forward" is so important is that it fosters a sense of unity and camaraderie among the military members. By positioning the American flag in front of the formation, the military is also symbolically placing the ideals and values of the country ahead of the individual soldier. The flag before all serves as a reminder that the military's mission is to serve and protect the country, not just the individual soldiers themselves. Standing together behind the American flag, service members are reminded that they are all part of something larger than themselves and are all working towards a common goal. Now that this "flags forward" symbol lives on each soldier's arm as a part of their uniform, it is a constant reminder that they are fighting for a common cause under a single banner together. This sense of unity and purpose is essential for the success of any military operation, and "flags forward" helps to reinforce it.
Finally, "flags forward" is a significant tradition because it serves as a powerful symbol of the values that the United States military holds dear. With each service member becoming a flag bearer, the soldier is reminded of the grit demonstrated by former service members and is inspired to carry the flag with that same perseverance and courage. The flag on each soldier sends a message to the world about what the United States stands for: freedom, democracy, and justice are embodied in the American flag and serve as a beacon of hope to all those who behold her.
Today, "flags forward" remains an important tradition in the United States military, and it is upheld with great care and attention to detail. The American flag is treated with the utmost respect and handled with precision and dignity. That each soldier carries the weight and honor of the flag is an inspiring tradition and an essential part of the United States military's history and culture. It serves as a powerful symbol of the sacrifices and service of those who have come before, fosters a sense of unity and purpose among service members, and reinforces the values that the military holds dear. As such, it is a tradition that will likely endure for generations.
This powerful image of soldiers carrying the flag forward into battle, with the stars and stripes streaming out behind as they advance to close with and destroy the enemy, inspired us to create our signature "Flags Forward" design and company logo. The Flags Forward T-Shirt, available in gray and military green, and the Flags Forward Crewneck Military Sweatshirt bear the original CIVVIESUPPLY “Flags Forward” design, crafted to represent this all-American spirit of courage, honor, duty, and grit. We here at CIVVIESUPPLY believe in constantly moving forward and charging first into the fray, flag streaming out behind us, as we seek to fight for what's right with our band of brothers in arms, creating a better future together for the greatest country in the world.