Of Course Donald Trump Wants A Military Parade
Not long after returning from his visit to France for Bastille Day last summer, President Trump commented approvingly about the military parade that the French hold every year to mark the day, which he reviewed alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, and suggested that we should have something similar here in the United States, and suggested July 4th as the day for such a parade. At the time, most people dismissed the comment as just another random comment from a President apt to make such comments without ever actually following up on them, and the idea largely disappeared from the news rather quickly. Behind the scenes, though, the idea apparently stuck with Trump, and The Washington Post is now reporting that Trump apparently asked his top military advisers to put together a plan for just such a parade, and planning is going forward:
President Trump’s vision of soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards of Washington is moving closer to reality in the Pentagon and White House, where officials say they have begun to plan a grand military parade later this year showcasing the might of America’s armed forces.
Trump has long mused publicly and privately about wanting such a parade, but a Jan. 18 meeting between Trump and top generals in the Pentagon’s tank — a room reserved for top-secret discussions — marked a tipping point, according to two officials briefed on the planning.
Surrounded by the military’s highest-ranking officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Trump’s seemingly abstract desire for a parade was suddenly heard as a presidential directive, the officials said.
“The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” said a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the planning discussions are supposed to remain confidential. “This is being worked at the highest levels of the military.”
Shows of military strength are not typical in the United States — and they don’t come cheap. The cost of shipping Abrams tanks and high-tech hardware to Washington could run in the millions, and military officials said it was unclear how they would pay for it.
A White House official familiar with the planning described the discussions as “brainstorming” and said nothing was settled. “Right now, there’s really no meat on the bones,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
After The Washington Post first published this story, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement confirming that plans are underway.
“President Trump is incredibly supportive of America’s great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe,” Sanders said. “He has asked the Department of Defense to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation.”
The Pentagon also confirmed the plans following The Post’s initial report. “We are aware of the request and are in the process of determining specific details. We will share more information throughout the planning process,” Defense Department spokesman Thomas Crosson said in a statement.
The inspiration for Trump’s push is last year’s Bastille Day celebration in Paris, which the president attended as a guest of French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump was awestruck by the tableau of uniformed French troops marching down Avenue des Champs-Elysees with military tanks, armored vehicles, gun trucks and carriers — complete with fighter jets flying over the Arc de Triomphe and painting the sky with streaks of blue, white and red smoke for the colors of the French flag.
Aboard Air Force One en route home from Paris in July, aides said Trump told them that he was dazzled by the French display and that he wanted one at home.
It was still on his mind two months later when he met with Macron on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France.”
Seated next to Macron, Trump added: “We’re going to have to try to top it.”
Several administration officials said the parade planning began in recent weeks and involves White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, but they cautioned that it is in the preliminary stages. D.C. officials said they had not been notified of parade plans.
A date has not been selected, although officials said Trump would like to tie the parade to a patriotic holiday. Officials are weighing weather patterns as well as competing events, such as the massive annual Independence Day celebration on the Mall.
Trump officials had discussed Memorial Day on May 28, and July 4, but the Pentagon prefers Veterans Day on Nov. 11 — in part because it would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the victorious end of World War I and therefore be less associated with the president and politics. “That’s what everyone is hoping,” said the military official.
It is unclear what role Trump would play, whether he may perhaps serve as a grand marshal or observe the spectacle from a reviewing stand.
As The Washingon Post’s Dan Lamothe notes, the kind of parade Trump wants to see is something that belongs in another era, and it is likely to receive a mixed reception at best in the modern era:
Trump’s interest in having a large-scale military parade now is likely to receive a mixed reception, especially among those who are concerned about nationalism, militarism or the president’s past praise for authoritarian leaders. The tradition stretches back centuries but typically has followed the conclusion of wars.
After the Civil War, a two-day celebration that included a military procession known as the Grand Review of the Armies occurred on May 23 and 24, 1865, with President Andrew Johnson presiding just weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. More than 145,000 Union soldiers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, according to the nonpartisan Civil War Trust.
After World War I, parades in New York, Washington and other cities greeted “doughboy” soldiers as they returned home from the battlefields of Europe. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, often cited by Trump as a hero, led thousands of soldiers through the streets of New York on Sept. 10, 1919, as they returned home. Pershing then did the same about a week later in Washington.
After World War II, a similar parade was held Jan. 12, 1946, to celebrate the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and the other Axis Powers. About 13,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division marched through the streets of New York, representing U.S. troops everywhere in a celebration that included tanks and planes.
National military parades after that were scant — in large part because the United States could not declare victory in Korea or Vietnam — although some past commanders in chief, including President Harry S. Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, have had military equipment, including tanks, involved in their inaugural parades.
More recently, the United States has grappled with whether to recognize veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a national parade — and when.
After the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, a U.S. military spokesman told reporters that although there was a groundswell of support to honor Iraq War veterans with a ticker-tape parade in New York, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had reservations because the war in Afghanistan was still underway.
“We simply don’t think a national-level parade is appropriate while we continue to have America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way,” Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for Dempsey, said in 2012.
As Lamothe notes, a military parade in Washington, D.C. would not be unprecedented. The most recent such event, though, occurred nearly twenty-seven year ago after the end of the Persian Gulf War when General Norman Schwarzkopf led American troops and a display of some military equipment down Constitution Avenue on in Washington, D.C. as part of a celebration of the troops in that war that included events on the National Mall that day that included a display Patriot missile batteries that had become famous for their role as part of a rudimentary missile defense during the war and a fireworks display that night. I attended that parade as did a crowd that likely amounted to tens of thousands of people. The parade consisted mostly of troops marching in formation, military bands, and some smaller vehicles such as the Humvee, which had become famous during much of the media coverage both during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Additionally, there were flyovers by some of the types of aircraft that had taken part in the war, including a Harrier Jump Jet that landed on the National Mall, an event that I didn’t personally witness. There were even Abrams Tanks, which proved to be a problem when it turned out that the massive vehicles and their treads had left indentations in the streets that cost a not insignificant amount of money to repair in the months afterward. There was a similar parade, of the ticker tape variety down New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes” around the same time. It was, a fun event, but it was also the last time that we’ve seen any such parade in the Washington, D.C. area or any other American city. Instead, Americans have traditionally opted for parades featuring floats, marching bands, and local groups such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Finally, as noted above, there was some discussion about having a parade for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, but those plans were pushed aside when it was pointed out that such an event might not be appropriate while American men and women were still fighting and dying in both countries.
Some observers, such as The Fix’s Aaron Blake, calls the idea Trump’s “biggest troll yet” while his colleague Callum Borchers says that it would provide Trump with exactly the kind of media spectacle that he revels in:
Days before he emceed Washington’s last military parade in 1991, ”Today” show star Willard Scott sat for an interview on CNN and delivered a message to critics of the event and its $12 million price tag.
“Everybody has a right to their own opinion,” Scott said. But, he added, “the majority of people,” himself included, “desperately want to show some kind of appreciation and respect. And patriotism is really nothing more than pride, and pride is respect, and I don’t see anything at all wrong with it.”
As President Trump directs the Pentagon to plan a similar showcase of military might, he is surely hoping for the same kind of flag-waving media coverage that went along with President George H.W. Bush’s tribute to Operation Desert Storm 27 years ago.
“In the heady atmosphere of triumph, the media’s much-vaunted detachment has gone out the window,” Jeff Greenfield, then a correspondent for ABC’s “Nightline,” observed in a telecast on the night before the parade.
“From the corporate sponsors, from the press, from the president of the United States comes the same message,” Greenfield added: “These huge celebrations are to welcome home the men and women who helped produce the most sweeping, decisive U.S. military victory in nearly half a century.”
If Trump’s vision becomes reality, expect him to borrow from this old script. Trump recently said it was “un-American” and maybe even “treasonous” (the latter comment being a joke, supposedly) for Democrats not to stand and applaud certain lines in his State of the Union address. Imagine what he will say about anyone who does not cheer a heavily armed celebration of U.S. troops.
For Trump, media consultant to himself, the beauty of a military parade is that even reporting that attempts to be purely descriptive will project the strong image he desires.
Consider the scenes depicted in major newspapers in 1991.
“Stealth fighter planes zoomed overhead, tanks and Patriot missiles rolled by and more than 8,000 battle-clad troops marched past a beaming President Bush in a display of the American military might that crushed Iraq in 43 days of combat,” read a Los Angeles Times article.
The Washington Post reported that “a Harrier jet and a formation of helicopters blew gravel, and a few minds, as they landed on the grass between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.”
Not surprisingly, Trump’s critics are not impressed with the idea.
Jennifer Rubin, for example, cites it as an example of how those around Trump are unable to deter him from making the kind of ostentatious statements for which he’s become known:
We are the world’s only superpower and do not need theatrical presentations to demonstrate our power. Trump’s elevation of generals and newly retired generals to high civilian posts has already given his administration the aura of a Praetorian Guard, inverting the normal relationship between civilians and the military. We’ve already seen the downsides of the militarization of White House personnel and the president’s disturbing tendency to consider the military his personal (“my generals”) fighting force obligated to follow any order, no matter how contrary to the laws of war it may be. A Trumpian hardware display would complete the disturbing portrait of an administration out of touch with our traditions and norms.
The incident is illustrative in two respects. First, apparently no one has the ability to deter Trump from making wasteful, embarrassing and self-defeating requests of the military. The favored tactic seems to be simply to wait for it to leak or slow-walk a bad idea (e.g., banning transgender troops) until the courts or something else intervenes. Ironically, learning to ignore the commander in chief may be the military’s highest obligation. And second, is Trump unaware of the existing holidays — full days of tribute — which the country uses (Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Armed Services Day) to pay tribute to the finest fighting force the world has ever known? Surely he must recall events held on these days during his first year in office. Perhaps Trump needs to play less golf and spend these days attending existing tributes to our armed forces in ways that highlight them and their sacrifices. His attendance at a series of these celebrations in each year of his presidency would surely call the public’s attention to these fine men and women.
Paul Waldman, meanwhile, calls it a “surpassingly dumb idea”:
This parade is surpassingly dumb for any number of reasons both practical and symbolic. It will not only cost millions of dollars, it will divert the participants and planners from their actual jobs defending the country. How many hours of practicing, how many personnel pulled from their duties to handle the logistics, how much in transport costs and cleanup costs and repairs to streets ripped up by tank treads will the whole thing involve?
We don’t know yet. But The Post quotes a source saying: “This is being worked at the highest levels of the military.” After all, it’s not like they have anything better to do.
And just who are we trying to impress? Is there any adversary, current or potential, who believes America’s military is weak but would be convinced otherwise by a bunch of troops and materiel traveling up Pennsylvania Avenue?
We all know what the real purpose of a parade is: not to show that the American military is big and strong, but to make Donald Trump feel big and strong. Don’t be surprised to read afterward that Trump had to be talked out of appearing in a military dress uniform complete with decorative medals and a golden sash.
The parade will of course be presented as “honoring the troops,” as though we have a real problem these days with people not making a public show of praising the troops often enough. Along with that assertion will be the insistence — not even implied, but directly stated — that if you say it’s a stupid idea, then it means you hate the troops, and America to boot.
In reality, like everything Trump orders, this will be about him, not about the troops or America or anything else. He is the most self-focused president we’ve ever had. This is a man who regularly refers to ”my generals and my military” and says things such as ”I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m president,” who slaps his name on everything in sight, who is so childishly self-centered that his national security briefers make sure to mention him every few paragraphs in any document they give him, knowing that’s the only way he’ll read it.
Rubin and Waldman come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they’re right in their reactions to this idea. From Trump’s comments and the way in which he acts, it’s become quite clear that he is utterly fascinated by displays of military might, and that he enjoys the kind of adulation that is typically given to the kind of authoritarian ruler that he seems to gravitate toward, such as the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and The Philippines and, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The prospect of being able to put himself at the center of a similar nationalistic display is no doubt something that appeals greatly to those instincts, and the fact that his Administration will pass it off as a celebration of “the troops” will provide him with the kind of cover he needs to justify the absurdity of a spectacle like this and make it appears that those who are either opposed to or skeptical of it are against the troops and, of course, “un-American. He may even dust off the claim that such critics are “treasonous,” just as it is in his mind treasonous to fail to stand and applaud for the President even when you disagree with his policies. While this rhetoric may not play well beyond Trump’s base, it will resonate with many Americans in some respect, especially if it is sold as a tribute to the truth, and that will achieve Trump’s purposes as much as anything else.
Given that Trump is the man at the top of the government, it seems likely that a parade like this will happen at some point in the future and that it will coincide with a national holiday of some kind. Given the apparently still rudimentary planning stage that all of this is in, a parade as early as Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, or July 4th, seems unlikely, especially since there are already military-themed events that occur on and around those holidays already. That leaves Veterans Day as the most likely option, and perhaps this year would be an appropriate year since it would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. Whenever it is, though, if Trump wants his parade he’ll get it one way or the other. I doubt I’ll be watching, though.