Patriotism is a strange virtue. It seems people either go all the way with it, with flags and t-shirts and bumper stickers and extravagant Memorial Day parades, or, for one reason or another, they just sort of leave it alone. I suppose we’re all patriots, unless we actively deny such a label. With the sinking of the United States into the Iraq War in 2003, depending on what circles you run in, patriotism received a powerful surge or it became even more gauche and grotesque.
It’s tough to place the four people highlighted in How to Fold a Flag on the patriotism scale. All of them shared a 15-month tour in Iraq as members of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery of the US Army. At first glance, “Of course they’re patriotic! They’re Iraq War veterans.” Veterans belong to the school of patriotism bedecked with American flags, right? But as the film rolls on and we see the subjects’ various disenchantments with their experience in the military and the life they came home to, it might be appropriate to place them closer to the less-concentrated middle of the spectrum—they’re agnostic patriots, so to speak.
Their stories range from the absolutely tragic to the willfully anesthetized to the tearjerklingly hopeful. One is a Colorado Springs hard rocker who refuses to let the memory of Iraq infest the rest of his life—he tells us he left a part of himself in Iraq no more than he leaves a part of himself in bed when he gets up in the morning. Another is a man in Texas who, because of PTSD, has come close to suicide and uses his career as a cage fighter to escape the horror of his dead comrades. The third, in North Carolina, is working for a degree but in the meantime works in a hog processing plant and must deal with the death of a sickly mother who was unable to care for him during his childhood—again, all under the haze of PTSD. The most sanguine veteran runs for US Congress in his hometown of Buffalo, only to be defeated in the primary by smear attacks from fellow Democrats.
How to Fold a Flag is a good film for those who wear their patriotism on their sleeve, who will never surrender their support for the troops and the wars they fight in, but for those of us who are agnostics or for whom patriotism is only an unflagging political buzzword, it carries an equally resonant message. It is a sincere reminder of the fact that the tragedy of war is not contained in the Middle East, or Vietnam or Korea or the Western Front. It is a lingering melodrama that society—much less its soldiers—can never leave behind.