Noah Harrison: A pointless parade

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 5:04pm

News broke last week that the Pentagon is in the early stages of planning a large military parade in Washington, D.C. after being directed to do so by President Donald Trump. The Trump administration has long desired a military parade. It reportedly hoped to organize one for Trump’s inauguration and the interest was rekindled after watching France’s Bastille Day military parade. At some point in late January, Trump’s interest in a grand military spectacle became an order, and the parade is reportedly being planned at the “highest levels of the military.”

News of the parade elicited criticism from both sides of the aisle, and retired military leaders have also expressed opposition. Legislation has been introduced to restrict appropriations for any parade, but Republican congressional leaders will likely block it from even coming to a vote to avoid embarrassing the Trump administration. The parade is likely to proceed regardless of the criticism, and the White House has confirmed planning is underway, with possible dates including the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day.

If executed properly, a military parade could serve as a fitting and deserved tribute to our troops and armed services. However, because such a parade is unfortunately more likely to manifest itself as a politicized show of military force, it is difficult to envision the parade’s advantages exceeding its potential drawbacks.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is cost. It is estimated a military parade will cost millions of dollars at minimum, and one of the scale that Trump desires will likely cost several million more. The steep price tag comes from costs associated with transporting military equipment and vehicles to Washington, D.C. and the massive security costs the parade will surely entail. The last time the U.S. held a military parade was 1991 to celebrate victory in the Gulf War. That parade cost $12 million, would be $21.6 million today when adjusted for inflation.

Furthermore, the parade could cause damage to D.C.’s roads, which are not designed to support vehicles as heavy as the tanks and armored vehicles that will be featured. In the 1991 parade, tank tracks punched holes through the capital city’s boulevards. That 1991 parade also caused extensive damage to a sculpture garden when the air blast of low-flying helicopters showered the exhibits with pebbles. Such a freak accident will not likely be repeated in Trump’s parade but underscores the hazards of holding military spectacles in civilian settings.

Another concern is the disconcerting optics of a military parade through the nation’s capital. Some democratic countries do hold military parades; the Bastille Day celebrations that inspired Trump are an example. However, there is no denying that grand displays of military strength evoke connotations of authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China and Russia, where demonstrations of force serve to dissuade dissent, prop up autocratic rulers and intimidate adversaries. Several retired generals have raised concerns that military parades go against American democratic traditions. Robert O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL who claims to have fired the shots that killed Bin Laden, concurred and likened the idea of a military parade to autocracy in colorful language.

Perhaps the authoritarian optics could be easily overlooked under another president, but the reality is that Trump has earned a reputation for admiring despotism, making the optics of a military parade through Washington, D.C. all the more unsettling. For example, Trump has previously expressed respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership and praised former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal internal security policies. Around the same time news of the parade surfaced, Trump called Democrats in Congress “treasonous” for not clapping during parts of his State of the Union address, an accusation that is both false and grossly inappropriate in a democratic government. These statements create the persona of a man craving power and genuinely hostile toward his opposition. This image is entirely self-inflicted and, fairly or unfairly, is reinforced by Trump ordering the Pentagon to organize a military parade.

The White House is marketing the parade as a celebration of the armed forces and veterans. Veterans are certainly worthy of the honor of a parade, but there are far better ways to thank them for their service. Instead of spending tens of millions on a lavish and ultimately meaningless military parade, spend that money on veterans’ health care, job placement, disability benefits or suicide prevention.

Amid these far more important issues, it becomes clear that Trump’s parade serves merely as a distraction from real policy measures, foreign and domestic. For Trump and his dismal approval ratings, perhaps this distraction will be welcomed; but for the American people, a military parade through Washington, D.C. is nothing more than an unsightly and extravagant waste of time and money. With the fate of Trump's parade in the hands of the White House and the Pentagon, we can only hope that his parade of indulgence does not come to fruition.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.