Beware the paper patriots. Beware those wearing flag pins on their lapels and calling for war while risking nothing. Their voices are shrill and strident. They drape themselves in the flag, pound the podium and sneer at the cowards in the crowd. But take away the flag, strip them to the flesh, and beneath their creased suits you will find no battle scars, no indication that their mortal form has ever known the hazards of war. Beneath the flag you will find only the jelly flesh of the bean counter, the war profiteer. It is the soft flesh of the grub. Some of these grubs ascend to high levels of government, even that of the presidency.
G.W. Bush was a paper patriot. He could dress up as a fighter pilot, but he was no fighter. Peel away the flag he hid behind and his was the soft jelly flesh of the grub, fattened by the profits of the war racket. His cretinous form striding the deck of an aircraft carrier was nothing more than a publicity stunt, an affront against the courage of men who had submitted to the cauldron of Vietnam rather than hide out in Texas. George Bush could drum up a war and send the cavalry into battle with a flourish of his pen—but not if it meant riding into the Valley of Death along with them.
Rumsfeld is another paper patriot. I remember witnessing, in person, his haughty sneer. He was taking a tour of the gym at Fort Myer in anticipation of joining the Bush administration in the winter of 2000. I did not know who he was at the time, but I noted the cruelty in his bearing: the effete cruelty of a man who had never known the strife or terror of war. Later, when I learned his identity and was able to follow the tragic consequences of his influence, I was disgusted that in that brief moment at the Fort Myer gym, he had brushed by me, an American combat soldier, and I had moved out of his way.
Rumsfeld sneered at his top general, Gen. Eric Shinseki, when the general called for a massive invasion in order to secure a swift victory in Iraq with minimal casualties. Rumsfeld sneered at the man, and then fired him—fired the war professional—since he, as a paper patriot, was more qualified to manage the campaign from the confines of the Pentagon.
Cheney. Another soulless grub. A heart too frail to rate service in the Korean War but sufficiently malignant to seek war profits for his defense companies in Iraq as a sick old man. Who can forget the image of him being steered in his wheelchair, counting his profits with each revolution of the wheel, indifferent to the human cost of war, indifferent to anything but the filthy lucre accruing beneath his bent fingers?
Those that lack humanity and courage make the best paper patriots, for they have never known loss or terror or shame. And they, with their stunted souls, cannot imagine a world in which money is not the sole good to which a man and a nation can strive. Slaves to greed, these paper patriots fail the very soldiers they outwardly admire.
Soldiers do not need to wrap themselves in flags. They do not need pins on their lapels. They do not need bumper stickers. Those that survive wear their dedication in the form of angry scars against their bodies and against their humanity. And for this sacrifice they deserve better.
Soldiers deserve leaders capable of grave and sober reflection. Leaders who will hesitate before consigning their bodies and souls to hell for a fistful of sheckels.
The backwaters of Iraq and stone-age Afghanistan a grave threat to national security? From those dusty streets? Those stone houses? Paper patriots will continue to prey on the ignorant with rhetoric, like Reagan, riling up the Bible believers with the fear of “a thousand years of darkness.” With hoarse voices from the pulpits they will invoke the extremist threats raining down upon us from those far-off dusty lands.
There is, as evidenced by the pending troop increases to Afghanistan, no shortage of young men willing to assist in this dark comedy, no shortage of mothers and fathers willing to offer up their young to hunt down Terror in the dark caves of Afghanistan.
I did not ride in the inaugural procession in January 2001 for Bush, as was my assigned duty as the executive officer for Company H, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). My mount, a black mustang gelding named Geronimo, remained as riderless as those led behind the caisson during funeral ceremonies in Arlington National Cemetery. A decade later and the cemetery in Arlington knows no rest these long years. A riderless horse gets no attention; a passing caisson goes unnoticed. The paper patriots, risking nothing, go there twice a year to put up flowers and mouth a few words on the nobility of sacrifice—and for them the cameras come.
Alex Escué Limkin served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.