National Security & Defense

On Parades and Politics

U.S. Army 82nd Airborne troopers march in parade in New York City, 1946. (Library of Congress)
Our nation has a long history of honoring its servicemembers with public pageantry.

Last year President Donald Trump traveled to Paris to attend the Bastille Day parade as a guest of President Macron. He was very impressed with what he saw. In January, reportedly during a visit to the Pentagon to consult with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he expressed an interest in holding a similar event in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the nation’s military. Soon word of the parade leaked out of the Pentagon’s “Tank,” the secure meeting room of Mattis and his generals. The news media, intelligentsia, and the Twitterverse all went wild. The Washington Post headline read, “Trump’s Military Parade Panned by DC Officials.” The Atlantic announced that “Military Parades Are a Waste of Time and Money” and the New York Times made the awkward assertion that “The Military Is Not a Political Prop.” Concerns abound with regard to military displays in public.

The reactions were not all that dissimilar to those we heard around this time last year when President Trump’s choices for cabinet and senior-level positions contained more than a few retired military officers. Vox asked, “Is Trump Hiring Too Many Generals? and the Huffington Post suggested, “Trump Is Opening the Door to Military Rule.” The Nation, never hesitant to weigh in under such stressful circumstances, declared, “Trump’s Cabinet Is a Coup Waiting to Happen.” One lawmaker claimed, “We have a Napoleon in the making.” Militarism, it seems, has suddenly arrived in the United States. Certainly, one might think, the nation has never had so many retired military officers serving in high governmental positions before. Hardly ever, apparently, has the nation paraded its military through the streets of its major cities, and the military (or even retired military officers) has no role to play in the public square, according to many commentators.

Each of these assertions is demonstrably false. Retired military officers have often served in high elective and appointive office. Twelve of the nation’s 44 presidents were former generals. Eleven of the nation’s 56 secretaries of war and two of its 26 secretaries of defense have held the rank of general as well. Retired generals and admirals have served as secretaries of state as well as directors of central intelligence. Even the most progressive president in American history, Barack Obama, appointed several retired military officers to positions in his cabinet and White House staff. Calling upon individuals with deep experience in the national-security field to serve in government is an American tradition that goes back to George Washington.

The truth is, Americans love a military parade. Communities with bases nearby often get to view active forces parading during the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans’ Day holidays. No major sporting event is complete without a flyover of Air Force or Navy jets. For communities farther afield from bases, local National Guard and veterans’ groups often turn out and parade both the national colors and arms in front of hometown crowds on our patriotic holidays. Military parades through the nation’s capital were, from a historical perspective, held quite often, up to the Vietnam era. After the Civil War, it took two days for the “Grand Review of the Armies” to parade through Washington, D.C. Similar, albeit shorter, parades followed World War I and World War II. However, military parades did not just follow wars. Dwight Eisenhower, the last general to be elevated to the presidency, enjoyed two large military parades following his two inaugurations, and even former Navy lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy was treated to full military review, including nuclear warheads. But the anti-military sentiment that grew out of the Vietnam-era leftist movement brought the American tradition of parades to celebrate the nation’s military to an end. Even the hugely popular parade that followed the 1991 Desert Storm campaign did not bring them back into vogue. Many clearly remain reluctant to publicly celebrate the military despite long-held traditions, and that is unfortunate.

Some might say that as the world’s sole superpower, the United States has no reason for such demonstrations, asserting, perhaps, that such parades are more in line with authoritarian regimes such as Communist China or North Korea. But remember that President Trump was inspired by France, a western democracy: The Bastille Day celebration of French history and pride is France’s version of the Fourth of July. Other advanced democratic nations hold military parades as well. The Trooping of the Colours on the Queen’s Birthday in London is a military pageant extraordinaire.

Displays of military power have a significant role to play in international politics, as an active means of signaling our adversaries and allies. Mankind has always sought the means of signaling intent without having to resort to actual violence. No one who has ever witnessed a traditional “Haka” dance performed by Maori people of New Zealand can come away unimpressed with its martial intent. Roman legions would often parade in front of enemy strongholds; the parade alone would in many cases lead to surrender without attack. In the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt sent his “Great White Fleet” on a round-the-world “parade” to signal the nation’s emergence as a major power. Against this historical backdrop, peacetime parades can properly be seen as instruments of coercive diplomacy, signaling martial capabilities without actually having to send our servicemen and women into battle.

Displays of military power have a significant role to play in international politics, as an active means of signaling our adversaries and allies.

The argument that within American culture, military parades are appropriate only following great military victories, such as the World Wars, is also unfounded. But even if that were the case, it is important to recognize that the nation has been at war since September 11, 2001. An entire generation of military members have served, at great personal sacrifice, in major overseas campaigns, including most recently the successful campaign to destroy the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq. It would be shameful if the nation missed the opportunity, as it did with the Vietnam-era vets, to properly thank its War on Terror veterans.

In sum, the United States is not in danger of a military coup, and military parades are an established American tradition, one in keeping with the practices of other Western democratic powers. They serve as excellent tools of diplomatic and military signaling, which is needed more than ever given the multiple national-security crises facing the country. Today, on the heels of a splendid campaign against the ISIS caliphate, is a good time to thank an entire generation of military veterans that have served in the post-9/11 wars while also suggesting that the United States is returning as a strong actor upon the international stage. President Trump and Secretary Mattis, let’s have that parade!

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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