Serving as a senior civilian in the Pentagon, I went to my fair share of military ceremonies. They were all impressive, inspirational, at times somber, and often fun to watch. One cannot attend them without feeling a rush of pride and patriotism, both for the skill and dedication of those in uniform, as well as the history and tradition they represent.
We all love a parade. But Donald Trump’s desire to have the military stage one for him is not only a bad idea, it is dangerous.
It’s obvious why Trump wants to see troops marching down Pennsylvania Avenue – the spectacle is irresistible. The last one Washington hosted in June 1991, to celebrate victory in the Gulf War, featured 8,000 troops and a trail of tanks, jeeps, artillery pieces, and what seemed then to be whiz-bang new equipment like Humvees, stealth aircraft, and even a surveillance drone. President George H.W. Bush basked in the martial glory of it all, which boosted him politically, and helped drive his approval rating past 90%.
What Trump has in mind is something entirely different. It isn’t tied to any victory or event; this wouldn’t be about welcoming the troops home from battle or honoring them for a job well done. In fact, it comes at a moment when the fight in Afghanistan is only getting harder, and when the campaign against ISIS is hardly over. A big parade at this moment would make the last time a president conducted such an audacious military spectacle – in 2003, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to herald “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq – seem quaint.
So there are a lot of reasons this is a bad idea: it is unnecessary, expensive (the 1991 parade cost $22 million in today’s dollars), and would distract the military from more pressing matters. Moreover, staging such an extravaganza isn’t necessarily the political win one might think – after all, the year after his parade Bush 41 failed to win reelection, and “mission accomplished” became an albatross for Bush 43.
What’s worse, in the current context what Trump wants is dangerous. The parallels with authoritarian regimes are obvious. The story says Trump said he wanted a parade like the one he saw in France for their President Emmanuel Macron, but he long ago envied the pageantry displayed in authoritarian China and North Korea. The sight of a president presiding over such a pageant through Washington, DC, could create just that, an inescapable image similar to Pyongyang today or Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
The symbolism is bad enough. Yet if this idea goes forward — Defense Secretary Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have confirmed that the Pentagon is drawing up options for the White House, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the idea was just in early discussions about looking for ways to honor the military — think about how it will play out. Ever the impresario, Trump will build up the hype by touting this as the biggest military spectacular ever. He’ll spend weeks tweeting and bragging and cajoling people to come and watch, and for television networks to cover it. I bet what he wants is something that would put the inauguration crowd issue to rest — and probably some business of his will make a handsome profit on the merchandise. Just imagine what the room rates in the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. will sell for that day.
But expect something more nefarious: Trump will taunt skeptics not to support the idea, accusing critics or those who would refuse to attend to be at best unpatriotic, and at worst, as un-American enemies. Remember, Trump has spent months railing against NFL players for expressing their right to protest by kneeling during the national anthem, and this week he called Democrats treasonous for failing to clap for his speech during the State of the Union. So if this parade goes forward, expect Trump to use it as a kind of loyalty test — to him.
Military pageantry is an important part of American culture, whether it is the “President’s Own” U.S. Marine band playing “Hail to the Chief” or an honor guard presenting colors before a ballgame. The danger is that this parade becomes yet another way for Trump and his supporters to use the military to divide the country. So let’s see this for what it is: a classic Trump move to celebrate himself and create a moment to exploit, with the express purpose of sowing division. His goal isn’t to celebrate the troops; it is to use them as a cudgel for his advantage.