Let’s get this out of the way: America still holds military parades. Regularly. They are held in small towns across the country to honor veterans, to remember those who were killed on the battlefield, and to showcase a community’s ties to the military. But the last time there was a military parade in Washington, George H.W. Bush was president. It was 1991 and the U.S. had just won the war in Iraq. About 200,000 people showed up to watch, and all told it cost about $8 million.
The world was different then (even if that parade had its critics). The nearly five-decade-long Cold War was just about over. The ease with which American and allied forces swept aside Saddam Hussein’s military left little doubt, if any lingered, that the bipolar world of the previous era had given way to one in which the U.S. was the sole global superpower. And the parade allowed the still-raw memories of the wars in Korea and Vietnam to be set aside.
Twenty-five years later, another American president, Donald Trump, reportedly wants to have a military parade in Washington to honor the armed forces and to showcase U.S. military strength. That strength is not in doubt: The U.S. spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. But military successes, like the one in Iraq in 1991, haven’t been as easy to come by. The U.S. is still in Afghanistan 16 years after it ousted the Taliban, has a limited presence in Iraq, and now has troops in Syria, as well. It is being challenged in East Asia not only by China, but by North Korea. A military parade in Washington, which might have seemed appropriate at the end of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, or indeed the first Gulf War—all conflicts with clear winners—doesn’t hold the same appeal today.