It was a typical contretemps in the Trump era: an odd and pointless idea, vaguely described and not well formed, trickled out into the media — and the media and Democrats reacted hysterically with cries of fascism.
President Trump wants a military parade in Washington, D.C. “The marching orders were: ‘I want a parade like the one in France,’” a military official said. We don’t know the president’s intentions or motivations for this. We also don’t know his specific plans. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, when asked in a Wednesday press conference, couldn’t give any answers.
Before this issue devolves into another political food fight, we want to weigh in with some warnings, from a conservative perspective, about how this idea could go very wrong.
Trump’s French experience was the Bastille Day parade in Paris last summer. It featured thousands of troops marching in columns, plus platoons of tanks rolling down Champs-Elysees. This would be improper in America today.
First, there’s the cost. Republicans have said they want to attack military waste. A parade like France’s would carry a hefty price tag, and it hardly serves an acute strategic purpose.
But more importantly, there’s the appearance of the thing in its particular context.
While critics of Trump’s idea point to North Korea, China, and Russia for damning parallels to a military parade, defenders point to French President Emmanuel Macron’s Paris, or U.S. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Harry S. Truman for more flattering comparisons.
Yes Truman, Macron, and Bush rolled tanks through the streets of their national capitals, but the context for these displays determines their propriety. Truman’s parade was a victory march for World War II, when we had saved the world. Bush the elder also had a victory parade when we drove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Even that one is questionable, insofar as it was a parade for “winning” a war that is still going on, in a sense, 26 years years later.
When Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower, during the Cold War, had military parades, they were intended as shows of force against a massive militaristic empire set on conquering the world. (Again, whether imitating the Soviet Union’s militarism was the right tack is open to debate.)
It’s telling that we’ve had only one such military parade in the lifetime of most Americans. For France, it’s different. It is annual tradition for that country to march the military past the president on their national holiday. What’s good for France isn’t necessarily good for us. For one thing, the very fact that it is a tradition confers legitimacy on the parade.
Macron doing what every president before him has done is adhering to tradition. Were Trump to start something new, or to dig up something done occasionally in the distant past, it would be more likely to look out of place.
And let’s ask why France might do this. France is famously a vulnerable country for the past century. Germany occupied northeastern France in World War I and most of France in World War II. Such a country, which has since acquired nuclear weapons and an aircraft carrier, may have good reason to gaudily flex its military might. Like a cat showing her fangs, France needs to remind the world that it can fight back.
The United States of America has no such need. Protected by two oceans and the greatest military in the history of the world, the U.S. has generally comported itself with a quiet confidence. Our celebrations of our military are typically celebrations of the service and sacrifice of our troops.
And that’s what Trump could make his parade, if he insists on having one. Leave the tanks where they are. Omit the missiles in launchers. In fact, let the soldiers, sailors, and airmen enjoy their holiday or keep to their assigned training.
D.C. has a Marines barracks, where marching and parading is central to their training and daily routine. America is blessed with veterans organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. If we are to have a parade, let the old veterans march, and let the president and the assembled cheer them on. Let the marines of 8th Street show their stuff. Maybe roll an old M4 Sherman down Pennsylvania Avenue with some surviving WWII vets on the roof.
Pomp and conspicuous displays of military might have their time and place. The United States in 2018 ought to be too strong and too confident for that. Leave the ostentatious flexing to the French.