IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light:
The Saudi Arabian flag? The British flag? The French flag?
The Egyptian flag? The Senegalese flag?
But don't bother looking for Old Glory here as 230,000 Americans prepare for war.
The American flag virtually disappeared from military encampments in this desert nation, according to a report by a U.S. television station, because it offended Saudi citizens.
But Tuesday, U.S. military spokesmen said that Americans, not Saudis, made the decision to furl the flag.
"The policy is that out of courtesy to the host nation, we don't fly flags," said a Marine spokesman. "It's us respecting them. Therefore, we don't put them in a position where they might take offense. It's us being overly cautious, not them."
It's all a part of U.S. commanders' bending over backward to make their troops inconspicuous.
Even some Saudi officials say the Americans are going to ludicrous lengths to avoid offending Saudi sovereignty and cultural sensitivities.
=1 Just how far the Americans have gone came to
light Monday when two Florida TV crews stumbled upon a 2-month-old policy that restricts flying the U.S. flag here. For some soldiers based behind the front lines, the policy had been LTC extended to prohibit flag patches on their uniforms.
The TV crews, accompanying a Florida National Guard unit arriving here, filmed the troops ripping the flag patches from their sleeves. They also filmed the Guard unit running the American flag up a makeshift flagpole -- and then being asked to take the flag down.
The patches were removed in accordance with a policy outlined in a memorandum that received limited circulation after it was issued Oct. 3 by the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh.
The policy permits most soldiers based near the front lines -- where they encounter soldiers from other nations wearing similar camouflage uniforms -- to wear flags on their uniforms.
An Army spokesman said the policy bans flag patches mostly for troops based in support positions at the rear, where they deal almost exclusively with other Americans.
The Florida Guard unit, posted to the 325th Maintenance Company, is covered by the ban.
The Army policy explicitly prohibits flying the American flag at any "encampments" in Saudi Arabia. To fly the U.S. flag, in military jargon, would imply that it was a "base" rather than an "encampment." And the designation "base" would indicate that the territory formally was under U.S. control, much like an embassy, the spokesmen said.
"They are encampments, rather than bases, on the sovereign territory of Saudi Arabia," Lt. Cmdr. David B. Knox, a spokesman for Central Command, said in a statement. "However, there is no reason a service member shouldn't be able to display the flag in a non-public manner if he desires."
Commander Knox said an office or a barracks would be non-public.
U.S. military spokesmen said they could not estimate the percentage of the troops who were prohibited from wearing the flag on their sleeve.
The spokesmen insisted that Saudi sensitivities were not a factor in the policy.
But while they could explain why soldiers at the front were permitted to wear the flag patches, the spokesmen could not explain the general prohibition on wearing the flag elsewhere.
Indeed, the policy frequently is openly breached.
Among the troops seen wearing flag patches this week were some Army spokesmen. Several of them said they had been unaware of the policy.
Similarly, an Air Force spokesman said he had seen American flags flying at a Saudi air base where U.S. troops are stationed.
The Marines have banned American flags at their desert bases. Spokesmen for the Navy and the Air Force said they did not know what their flag policy was.
The U.S. policy is unique among the multinational forces. The flags of other Arab nations fly at their desert bases and even from atop their tanks.
The same is true of the Western forces here.
The British have made a point of keeping their Union Jack aloft. Late last month, a Saudi official at a Saudi air base asked foreign troops there to lower their flags. The British commander took the matter up with the base commander and won permission to raise the flag again. It still was flying this week.