The Inadequacy of Trump's Military Parade
Last Tuesday, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin preparations for a parade celebrating the American military. According to an anonymous military official who spoke to The Washington Post, the President’s exact orders were, “I want a parade like the one in France.” This is a reference to France’s long-standing tradition of holding a military parade on Bastille Day, which Trump witnessed in person last July.
The rationale driving Trump to this decision seems to be, unsurprisingly, a kind of petty egotism. It is not enough that the United States has the best military in the world; rather, all others must be condescendingly reminded of it (for more on the foreign policy dimensions of Trump’s military parade, read this piece by ACI’s Billy Ford). Not to be one upped by France, Trump wants a military parade that outdoes theirs. He even remarked to French President Emmanuel Macron that, while the Bastille Day parade was was one of the finest parades he had ever seen, “we’re going to have to try to top it.”
The reaction to the announcement of the parade has been largely negative. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been highly critical of the parade. Commentators of disparate ideological bents have condemned it, including conservative author Ben Shapiro and former Obama staffer Tommy Vietor. In popular media, Stephen Colbert weighed in on the idea of a military parade, calling Trump “the Usain Bolt of stupid” because he is able to compete only with himself.
I will not waste words quibbling with these criticisms; Trump’s petty egotism is no more defensible now than it has ever been. However, Retired Major General Charles Dunlap has attempted to offer a defense of the military parade that does not offend reason so blatantly, and he makes a point which is worth addressing at more length.
In a recent piece for The Atlantic entitled “Why We Should Honor the Military with a Parade,” Dunlap suggests that the military parade could serve as an opportunity to honor the military and transcend the political polarization which afflicts our society, irrespective of Trump’s motives for calling the parade in the first place. Dunlap writes,
Whatever “narratives” the press or anyone else may want to propound about a particular politician [Trump] shouldn’t dictate how—or even if—our apolitical military is honored for its warfighting prowess. This is an opportunity for all Americans to set aside, at least for a day, the bitter political “narratives” that are dividing the country.
It is certainly the case that America suffers from competition between various divisive ideological narratives. Also worth noting is the ever widening chasm between civilian and military life. It is now as hard as it has ever been for veterans to reintegrate successfully into everyday life. Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, notes that, “[e]ven after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.” Gates’s observation is supported by the fact that only 0.43 percent of Americans are on active duty with the military. Lest we think that this is not a serious problem, allow me to mention that the greatest killer in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has not been combat, but rather suicide. It seems difficult to imagine that these are totally unrelated; the difficulty of veteran reintegration must be compounded by the fractionation of American social and political life. It has to be the case that the lack of a unifying narrative that brings together all Americans makes it harder for veterans to find their place in an increasingly confused, socially chaotic landscape.
The problems to which Dunlap and Gates are alluding, the civilian-military divide and political polarization, are all too real, and their consequences are nothing to scoff at. The importance of honoring those among us who put their lives in danger in the interest of our national defense is difficult to understate. There might even be a hint of ingratitude in suggesting that it is appropriate to throw a parade for a group of grown men who play a game for a living, but not for our servicemen; after all, the city of Philadelphia half-destroyed itself after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, and nobody batted an eye, but the moment someone suggests that we throw a single parade for our military, all of a sudden we could not possibly spare such an expense. These are points that Dunlap gets right; nonetheless, it seems to me that the military parade would not be useful in ameliorating the problems that he so elegantly puts his finger on. In fact, given our current political climate, there is a good chance that it would only serve to accentuate them.
In the context of a society that takes care to honor our servicemen — beyond an occasional “thank you for your service” or touching montage at a football game — for performing the indispensable task of national defense, the military parade could be a profoundly unifying cultural event. However, I have far less confidence than Dunlap that it could be such a unifying event in the context of our culture as it currently stands. The defining political malaise of our era is polarization. It is an illness of the mind that infects every aspect of our political intercourse. We are increasingly unable to cohere as a country around the political and cultural events that used to unite us. Take the most recent State of the Union address, traditionally an opportunity for Americans to unite, or at least try to, over a shared sense of patriotism. The whole event was tainted by political disunity: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg boycotted the address (though Justices often do not attend the State of the Union, this is the first Ginsburg has missed, and she has certainly clashed with Trump in the past at the cost of judicial impartiality). Eleven Democratic members of congress openly and intentionally boycotted the event, including Representative Joe Kennedy III who delivered a prepared rebuttal to Trump’s address in his home state of Massachusetts; Steve Cohen, who claimed that “The President is unworthy of the podium, the position and the power;” Bobby Rush, who claimed that Trump’s first year in office has been “built on racism, stupidity, and lies;” and John Lewis, who cited Trump’s recent “shithole country” comments. A contingent of celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Moore, and Alyssa Milano held a “People’s State of the Union” in New York in protest of Trump’s State of the Union. The same night, Jimmy Kimmel brought Stormy Daniels on his show, the porn star alleged to have had an affair with the president. Even the speech itself was a highly divisive event. According to Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News, despite Trump’s (perhaps ostentatious) calls for bipartisanship, “Many Democrats showed how little stock they put in Trump's calls for cooperation by staying seated during rhetoric that would have prompted bipartisan applause if it came from almost any other president.”
The primary result of an event that is normally an opportunity for Americans to coalesce and reorient toward the challenges of the new year, despite the disagreements we may have over exactly how we should address these challenges, was intense and bitter disunity. We live in a time of massive political fracturedness and upheaval. The values that used to guide our political life — civility in discourse, public service over self-interest, and the commitment to working for change within legitimate institutional channels, to name a few — are eroding rapidly. In this tremendously chaotic cultural milieu, when we cannot even unify around the traditions that have long served to lend coherence to our political life, what are the chances that Americans will be able to unify around a new, forced attempt at such a tradition in the form of a military parade?
To suggest that the military parade could help us to overcome political polarization is to put the cart before the horse. What we need is a broad cultural discussion on what values we want to embrace: values that allow us to reclaim the notion that national service is not a good thing for other people to do, but an obligation for all of us to uphold; values that allow us to view citizenship not as a set of rights to which we are entitled, but as a responsibility to rise to the heroic duty of contributing to our country; values that allow us to view our fellow countrymen not as obstacles to our own achievement, but as partners in the bold undertaking of self government. The longer we allow ourselves to engage in petty, childish bickering, the longer we prevent ourselves from awakening to a higher state of being that allows us to embrace the project of living together as a single nation. The soul of our country hangs in the balance. We can follow the road that embraces the bitter, divisive narratives that enslave each one of us to some constricting, tribal identity all the way down to hell, or we can follow the road that transcends those narratives and commits us to the bold, ambitious, and noble task of attacking the problems before us as one people, rather than many. The latter is the more demanding, but also the more worthwhile. Let us do what we can to walk the second path.
(Overhead photo: The Bastille Day parade. In President Trump's words: "the one in France." Source: Getty Images)