Why do surrendering soldiers wave white flags?

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March 21 2003 6:32 PM

Why Do Surrendering Soldiers Wave White Flags?

Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are surrendering by waving white flags, the international symbol of capitulation. 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 (A.D 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 A.D. 109. His reference concerns the Second Battle of Cremona, fought between the Vitellians and the Vespasians in A.D. 69; at the time, the more common Roman token of surrender was for soldiers to hold their shields above their heads. It is believed that the tradition developed independently in the East and West.

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

The peacemaking symbolism of the white flag is now enshrined in the Geneva Convention, though it's 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!"

Bonus Explainer: 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 modeled 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.

Explainer thanks Whitney Smith of the FlagResearchCenter.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.