"The sight of a drill will give me a thrill, I thrill at the skill of everything military, For I love a parade." —Harry Richman
Donald Trump might have been humming Richman's familiar tune last summer after watching a military parade in Paris commemorating Bastille Day and the French Revolution. Trump enjoyed the two-hour spectacle. In fact, he had such a swell time, he wants to stage something comparable in Washington this year—just bigger and better, of course.
Like so many other surprises the Trump presidency has produced, we find ourselves on unfamiliar ground. It has been years since military units have marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. The last parade, which marked the end of the Persian Gulf War, was in 1991.
Such displays of military might are more common in other countries. Who can forget the images of dour Soviet leaders watching tanks rolling through Red Square in the annual May Day parade? Not the Supreme Leader of North Korea! Kim Jong-un has taken a page from the Soviet playbook, parading ranks of goose-stepping soldiers and missiles on wheeled launchers through Pyongyang.
Showcasing U.S. military might is not part of our tradition. We tend more toward Athens than Sparta. Our leaders don't own ceremonial uniforms. In 1970, Richard Nixon ordered military-style uniforms for the White House guards. Impressed by the look of European palace guards, Nixon put the Secret Service in white, double-breasted uniforms, with gold braid, brass buttons, and German police-style hats. The uniforms were denounced. They were boxed up and sold to a high school band in Iowa.
To break with tradition requires a compelling reason. The point of a big military parade in Washington, according to the president, is to honor the soldiers, airmen and sailors who bear the burden of the national defense. Trump says he loves the military, but his past behavior casts doubt on his sincerity. His treatment of the Gold Star families of Sgt. La David Johnson and Capt. Hamayun Khan was appalling. Trump's medical exemption from the Vietnam-era draft has earned him such sobriquets as "draft dodger" and "Cadet Bone Spurs." Referring to the bone spurs on his heels in 1968, Trump told The New York Times, "It was not a big problem, but it was enough of a problem."
Trump's desire for a parade in Washington has drawn mixed reviews. The New York Times called it "Mr. Trump's Lousy Parade Idea." Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, wrote, "A military parade once in a while is a healthy thing." In the Wall Street Journal, Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan called it a "ridiculous and embarrassing idea."
I think it is a bad idea, too. Not so much because it could cost as much as $30 million, but because a parade would come at the expense of those it purports to honor. Thousands of service members would be jerked around for two or three days so Trump and his cronies could demonstrate their love of the military by sitting on a weatherproof, bulletproof reviewing stand, waving and smiling. Here is another way of thinking of it: You decide on a party to celebrate your grandparents' wedding anniversary. It will be in their backyard. Nana and Gramps set up chairs and tables, buy the food, make potato salad, ice the PBR and chardonnay, barbecue the burgers and supervise the kids in the rented bounce house. At the end, you and the rest of the grandkids pose for a Christmas card photo.
Soldiers contend with two kinds of parades: a street parade like the annual Pride Parade and a regimental parade in which units are arrayed on a sweep of lawn the size of a soccer pitch. The latter has been an annual event for the Utah National Guard for 60 years. Its Governor's Day ceremony puts upwards of 4,700 soldiers on display willy-nilly.
I was a soldier once. I marched in many parades. I didn't love any of them. The only good to be said of a parade is that it isn't as bad as a guard post on a windy, winter night. Unless you have a seat on the reviewing stand, a parade is drudgery. Trump's parade would necessitate preparation, rehearsals, inspections and hurry-up-and-wait interludes for as many as 10,000 service members. If weapons are involved, the hassle factor rises. A rising wet-bulb temperature is also problematic.
Just because a parade is counterproductive doesn't mean that the commander-in-chief's impulse to honor the military isn't worth embracing. For too long, Americans have had a "reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them," observed journalist James Fallows. So let's think of that 1 percent of the population enduring successive combat tours while the rest of us loll on the couch. Here are five ways Trump could improve their circumstances:
• Extricate the military from the interminable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. End the expensive conflicts with the "soft power" of diplomacy. Beef up the State Department instead of allowing Rex Tillerson to gut it.
• Ensure the Veterans Administration is a world-class, service organization.
• Make climate change an urgent, homeland security concern so as to foreclose wars fought over water and food.
• Get Melania to continue the "Joining Forces" program begun by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden so that military families continue to receive wellness, education and employment assistance.
• Tell the Pentagon: "On second thought, I don't love a parade."
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