Even in war there are traditions. One of the most time-honored - and pervasive throughout the world - is for surrendering armies to wave white flags.
The tradition is thought to have originated with the reign of the Eastern Han dynasty in China over 2000 years ago. The practice of using a white flag to surrender seems to have developed independently in the Roman Empire at about the same time. The Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus wrote of a white flag of surrender in his Histories, first published in 109. He cites the Second Battle of Cremona, fought between the Vitelliand and Vespasians some forty years earlier, and notes the use of a white surrender flag.
The color white may have been chosen simply because it is highly visible against most natural backgrounds. White also provided an obvious contrast to the colorful banners that armies carried into battle.
Traditions demand respect and through centuries of use white flags have achieved that respect. The white flag is recognized internationally as a symbol of surrender, truce and request for negotiation. A white flag signifies that the soldier or negotiator is unarmed and is not to be fired upon.
The improper use of a white flag also carries its own illicit traditions. Throughout history there have been numerous reported cases of fighters using white flags merely as a ruse to approach and attack enemies.
Sometimes too, soldiers want to surrender without approval from their officers. In the first Gulf War, many Iraqi army officers forced their conscripts to hand over any and all articles of white clothing, including undershirts and socks, so they would not be tempted to surrender to American forces.
Solid color flags, including white ones, are today used for much more civilized and modern practices. New housing developments and auto dealers display them to attract potential buyers. Schools use them at sporting events, showing off their colors. Solid color miniature flags are often displayed as a decoration in offices and during parties.
Early white surrender flags were merely strips of white cloth tied to sticks. Today's solid color flags are made of durable nylon, designed to withstand wind and sun damage. They will gather attention and look good for an extended period of time.