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Nancy Ahern

is the Executive Editor of the Tocquevillian magazine, and a freelance writer and columnist in Arizona.


    Feeling Useful: Yellow doesn't mean cowardice.

    by Nancy Ahern

    April 29, 2003

    If you look at the top of this page, you'll see a graphic of a yellow ribbon. If you look on the blouses and jackets of many people -- from grocery store cashiers to businessmen, you may see these icons in the form of thin satin ribbons, jeweled pins, or pictures printed on plastic buttons.

    Yellow ribbons, and their cousins the red, pink, white, blue, green, black, and purple ones, are ways people can feel connected to a cause they believe in.

    In this case, the cause is to remember our men and women who are fighting and dying in Iraq. To wish them home again, safe.

    You all may remember the song from the early seventies, written by Irvin Levine and L. Russell Brown, and made vastly popular by the pop singing group Tony Orlando and Dawn. The song was based on a story about a Civil War soldier, returning by stage coach, who'd sent a letter to his sweetheart to let her know he was on his way home, and hoping she'd welcome him home. She was to wave her yellow handkerchief by the old oak tree in the town square if she wanted him to return. Levine and Brown changed it to that of an ex-con who'd served his time, returning after three years of incarceration, and his lady love was to tie a yellow ribbon on the tree.

    But yellow ribbons as remembrances of missing loved ones have a longer tradition than that, according to one woman whose research was published back in 1991, at the start of the first part of the Gulf War.

    Marilyn Leary reminds us that the tradition of wearing scarves and ribbons as remembrances goes back at least to the Middle Ages, when knights wore the "favors" of their ladies. This tradition was reversed in 19th century America with respect the Army's 7th Cavalry, the uniforms of which has yellow piping down the side. According to Ms. Leary, the women folk of these brave soldiers would wear yellow ribbons 'round their necks to proclaim loyalty and pride in their men. The early 20th century captured the spirit of this with the song "Around her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", and the mid-twentieth century's John Wayne movie "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon."

    Yellow ribbons came to symbolize pride in our soldiers. It was resurrected in a big way during the Hostage Crisis in Iran, and has returned time and again, whenever we have sent many of our husbands, brothers, father, sisters, mothers and friends overseas to fight on behalf of freedom.

    Some may consider it an empty, useless gesture. It's easy to pin a yellow ribbon to your shirt, or display it on a web site. It's much, much more difficult to actually go, serve our country, or make some other, more meaningful gesture of support.

    Try telling this to a small town in New Jersey. The townsfolk in Fieldsboro, New Jersey have been rallying to show their support for their sons and daughters -- sons and daughters who were thrilled to see this public show of support. Don't forget that these youngsters are out doing some hard, dirty, dangerous and frightening work. They need to know that their families and friends are behind them. This is where the yellow ribbons become more than a useless gesture. This is where yellow ribbons do their real work.

    Their mayor, Edward "Buddy" Tyler, felt yellow ribbons were a bad idea. He and his council banned them on municipal property. They apparently "violated a local ordinance banning displays on public property." He stated, "Every town is supposed to have a sign so emergency services know where the town begins," he said. "We can't have the sign covered. But we figure there will be no action, as long as it's not covering up the words."

    The photo accompanying this news article shows that this was not the case. But it goes further than that. Someone complained about the yellow ribbons, and wondered about "what if other colors were displayed, or a Confederate Flag?" Thus what was to be a show of support for American men and women who were risking their lives became a slimy, political-correctness battle.

    And that is all it amounts to. Letting people like Pfc. Jessica Lynch know that they are loved and supported is not a political statement the way draping a Confederate Flag is.

    The small-town Jersey mayor and his council are weak-kneed politicians. They are to be pitied and despised. Nevertheless, I am heartened by the outcry and the strong show of civil disobedience enjoyed in that town, as the townspeople go out of their way to festoon every square inch of their town with yellow ribbons.

    © 2003 Tocqevillian Magazine