The Dangers of American Triumphalism
On Tuesday, February 6, The Washington Post broke the news that President Trump, in a meeting with the country’s top generals, requested a military parade much like the one he saw in France on Bastille Day. That same day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed the Post’s report, indicating that the highest levels of the military were now at work drafting just such a plan. The media went berserk.
While much of the immediate commentary that followed involved useless, self-gratifying jabs at the president’s insecurity and narcissism, more substantive reactions to President Trump’s proposal soon surfaced. The New York Times Editorial Board and Philip Carter, a veteran of the Iraq war, authored separate pieces accusing President Trump of politicizing the military. Retired Major General Charles Dunlap, in an article for The Atlantic, argued that Mr. Trump was not politicizing the military but rather giving servicemen and women the adulation they deserve. Others contended that this adulation, if genuine, could come in forms less ostentatious and wasteful of taxpayer money. The Post’s E.J. Dionne argued that the money for a national military parade would be better used to create scholarships for the children of injured veterans or dead service members. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan suggested honoring our troops by spending the parade money on making the Department of Veterans Affairs work. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former commander of NATO, said that “local parades make a lot more sense…. Or here’s an idea: instead of the big parade, how about a cookout honoring the troops? With rib-eye steaks, BBQ chicken, ribs and cold beer, civilians buying, cooking and cleaning up afterward?” (For more on the domestic politics of Trump's parade, read Tim Philbin's article for ACI.)
Still other commentators took issue with the way in which President Trump’s proposal broke with historical precedent. The U.S. has held national military parades after victories in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Persian Gulf War. But as presidential historian Michael Beschloss told NPR,“to have a military parade without the end of a war or an inaugural or some big reason in Washington, D.C., that is out of our tradition.” The Times Editorial Board, continuing with this line of thinking, questioned what a parade would celebrate at all, noting that the U.S. remains engaged in two wars with no end in sight. The Editorial Board added that America and the world need a President Trump who “understands that national strength relies on much more than military power.”
In his piece for The Atlantic, Dunlap rebutted these points, remarking that the parade could celebrate the notable advances American servicemen and women have made in the war on terror, particularly their role in the recent recapture of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s former de facto capital in Syria. Dunlap added that a parade could provide America’s troops with an excellent morale boost as they continue to fight the country’s wars.
Despite this flurry of analysis and the points made by the Times Editorial Board and Charles Dunlap about American power, progress in the war on terror, and morale, none of our country’s major commentators took the opportunity to reflect on the impact of a national military parade, and American triumphalism more broadly, on the war on terror.
As both Dunlap and the Times acknowledge, America is engaged in two wars: one against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and one in Afghanistan. Both wars constitute fronts in America’s larger war on terror. As ISIS continues to lose territory, like its de facto capital in Syria, this war becomes more ideological than physical. Despite America’s success in destroying the caliphate and sending its fighters into hasty retreat, the U.S. has had comparatively little success in the ongoing war of ideas, in combating the apocalyptic and perversely intoxicating ideology that draws ISIS fighters from around the world to Iraq and Syria, or inspires them to carry out attacks in their countries of origin. As the U.S. military and its coalition allies locate and expediently eradicate the little that remains of the Islamic State’s physical strongholds, this war of ideas becomes even more important. It will determine whether and how long ISIS fighters continue to carry out attacks worldwide after the caliphate’s fall. It will decide whether the organization’s twisted ideology seizes the minds of more individuals, growing the group’s ranks and leading to an increase in “lone wolf” attacks.
American triumphalism—of which boisterous national military parades are a clear facet—damages our country’s ability to defeat the ideas that animated ISIS’s rise and continue to energize its ranks. In the long run, it will only serve to enrage and embolden our adversaries. History shows us it has before.
In an op-ed for The New York Times in August 2016, Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russia and Eastern Europe editor at The Economist, explained how America’s triumphalism and humiliation of the Russian people after the Cold War contributed to the rise of Vladimir Putin. Ostrovsky noted that while most Americans viewed the Cold War as a victory over the Soviet Union, most Russians viewed it as the triumph of “their own common sense over a senile and inept regime that had run out of money and ideas and had lost its appetite for repression.” Ostrovsky observes that when the K.G.B. launched a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, not a single Russian took to the streets to defend communism. Rather, thousands of Russians risked their lives to protest the coup and stand firmly in defense of freedom. But instead of congratulating the Russian people, America patted itself on the back; grand talk of invincibility, the end of history, and American victory emerged from the United States. This triumphalism allowed revisionists like Putin to portray the fall of the Soviet Union not as the will of the Russian people, but as an American conspiracy. If America won the Cold War, the logic goes, then it is responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union and the grinding poverty that millions of Russians face. If America bested Russia, should not Russians stand up against the United States, exact revenge, and reclaim their pride? American triumphalism allowed Putin to present Russia’s actions not as aggressive but as responsive: the equal and opposite reaction to America’s proclaimed success.
Throughout his rise, Putin channeled the frustration and powerful sense of impotence among the Russian people into a powerful anti-Americanism. He used the media and disinformation campaigns in adept ways to reinforce this narrative and expedite his rapid ascendance. Rather than extending aid to Russia, congratulating the Russian people on their triumph, and acting magnanimously in victory, the United States helped enable the rise of a new great rival.
While the comparison between the Islamic State and the Soviet Union is not exact, the cases share several important features and a startlingly similar turning point. The Islamic State faces the imminent collapse of its caliphate, as did the Soviet Union with its breakup. The Islamic State represents a potent ideology, one anathema to American capitalism, pluralism, and liberty. So too did the Soviet Union. And just as America stands ready to win the ground war against the Islamic State, as it did when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, America similarly wavers between magnanimity and triumphalism, between planning well for the future and surrendering to dangerous, if gratifying, myopia.
It is true that the Islamic State will never rise to the prominence of Putin’s Russia. It is also true that the caliphate’s fighters will never pour into the streets in defense of freedom as did the Russians during the coup to topple Gorbachev. It is true that ISIS fighters have not contributed to the organization’s demise, as the Russian people did to the breakup of the Soviet Union; the U.S. does not owe ISIS fighters any congratulations. But take a moment to ponder what triumphalism would do in the precarious moment we now inhabit.
As U.S. soldiers and their Arab and Kurdish allies work to eradicate the few ISIS strongholds that remain in Iraq and Syria, ISIS fighters have begun to flee Syria by the thousands. In late January, The Washington Post reported that ISIS was beginning to reactivate its propaganda machine after a several month lull in production; it noted that social media accounts promoting or sympathizing with the caliphate’s cause have witnessed a sharp increase in traffic. Thus, while the U.S.-led coalition has made remarkable advances in its efforts to annihilate ISIS, the group remains a formidable, if now-dispersed, threat. To add in an American military parade lauding the country’s impending defeat of ISIS would only provide more fodder for the influential social media accounts highlighted by the Post. It would send, as if gift wrapped, perfect clips for the organization’s newest propaganda videos. Triumphalism now would enrage and embolden those fighters who fled Syria, live on, and are working to recruit conflicted sympathizers. It would undoubtedly lead to more attacks to prove that, yes, these fighters and this ideology remain a threat.
It follows, then, that needless bluster, chest-thumping, and triumphalism will only harm in the long run those who they evidently seek to praise, America’s troops, by forcing our country to send its soldiers into battle once more to fight this redoubled threat. Avoiding triumphant national parades and presidential bluster does not mean, however that the government and Americans across our country cannot celebrate the service or the sacrifice rendered by the men and women who fight for us overseas. We must celebrate this service. Never can we afford to forget it. What it does mean is that in this age of terror, when we fight not only a ground war but also a war of ideas, we must be magnanimous in victory and ever vigilant. This means remembering, despite the deafening noise of politics and commentary and self-indulgent insults, the real human cost of a national parade like the one proposed by Mr. Trump. It comes not just in the form of a burden to taxpayers, on which our nation’s commentators continue to focus, but in the loss of American lives and the lives of those who will be targeted mercilessly in attacks overseas.
Contrarians will argue that ISIS and its bedfellows will always find ways to paint America in a negative light, regardless of what we or our military do. But we can make this task infinitely more difficult for them. We do this by rejecting triumphalism and embracing a far more powerful statement: that in its finest moments, America defends liberty, human dignity, and pluralism, and rigidly opposes those who terrorize civilians and violate human rights. We need not parade about arrogantly or inflate our ego hubristically to remind the world of this. We undermine ourselves and imperil the progress we have made if we do.
(Overhead picture: A snapshot from America's last national military parade celebrating victory in the Persian Gulf War. Source: David Valdez/National Archives)