Last year President Trump said that he’d like to see a grand military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, with troops and tanks and missiles passing by as he stands there like some generalissimo or something. Yesterday it was reported that, yes, Trump has asked the Pentagon to plan such a spectacle. I suspect that, as a result, we’ll have such a parade some time this year.
It’s a terrible idea. Given where we are, historically speaking, it would be unprecedented. It would come off like a propaganda exercise and, worst of all, it would fuel Donald Trump’s already overheated strongman fever. It’s an idea that should be shot down immediately.
There are two basic reasons nations hold military parades. The first one is to celebrate or commemorate great military victories.
There was a tremendous one in Washington following the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Similar parades were held following the end of World War I, World War II and the first Persian Gulf War. While military bands or specific military units or, on occasion, some actual military equipment has appeared in various national parades — Kennedy’s inaugural featured Nike missiles, for example — celebration or commemoration of a military victory is, traditionally, the only reason the United States has held large-scale, dedicated military parades.
The other reason to hold big military parades is for propaganda purposes. The Soviet Union and, later, Russia, held the largest and grandest of all military parades each May to celebrate Victory Day in World War II. That, obviously, was something worth celebrating and commemorating given the Soviet’s massive sacrifice and massive contribution to victory in the war, but there is no question that it was and is a propaganda tool as well. In the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras it was to signal to the United States and Western powers that the Soviet military was formidable. When Vladimir Putin revived the parades a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clearly done with an aim at reestablishing Russia’s status as a power.
This is in keeping with the manner in which other autocrats and despots have used military parades in recent decades. As a means of flexing muscles to show how strong they are and to send such a message to their neighbors or the the rest of the world. It’s not surprising that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi used to hold them. No small number of Latin American despots have done so. North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un recently went so far as to change the date of a historical military anniversary in order to have an excuse to hold such a parade with an aim toward flexing his muscles before the upcoming Winter Olympics. A large scale military parade is the classic tool of a little man who wants to appear big.
Which brings us back to Trump.
At the moment, we have no grand military victory to celebrate. We still have over 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. It’s a war that has dragged on for over 16 years and is increasingly being described as, at best, a stalemate. We have mostly pulled out of Iraq, but calling our more than decade-long involvement in that country, which led to multiple political and humanitarian disasters and continued instability, a “victory” is misleading at best. We still send troops and there. Sometimes they still die. Thousands upon thousands of them suffer from physical and mental injuries and lack adequate medical care. Our country should honor, memorialize and, above all else, take care of the men and women who fought, died or were wounded there, but it would be highly inappropriate to mount the glorious victory parade Trump no doubt envisions.
That leaves the second justification for such a parade. Propaganda. An event staged so that a little man can appear big. This is, without question, what Trump has in mind. It is likewise in keeping with the other autocrat/strongman traits Trump has displayed in his year in office.
He has attacked our free press and endeavored to stifle dissent. He has called for the investigation of his political opponents. He has fought — and possibly obstructed — investigation into his own acts and the acts of his subordinates. He has scapegoated immigrants and minorities. He has engaged in rank cronyism and kleptocracy. He has, at almost every turn, praised dictators and strongmen. There is a palpable sense of envy to such praise.
Is it any shock, then, that Trump wants to hold a military parade? Is there any doubt what is motivating him? The only thing in doubt about the whole affair is whether he’ll show up to it wearing some gaudy quasi-military uniform of his own making, demanding to be addressed as Commander-In-Chief until the last missile rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue.
While there is much to criticize in our history and while we have often failed to live up to our own ideals as a nation, historically speaking, we have preferred to think of ourselves as a nation that speaks softly and carries a big stick. That Trump would rather we wag our stick around like this is not at all surprising, but it’s not in keeping with the American tradition and American ideals.
I doubt there is anyone in a position to offer this man actual constructive advice these days, but on the off chance there is someone he listens to, I hope they tell him how idiotic this all is.