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.
“We simply don't think a national-level parade is appropriate while we continue to have America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way,” Colonel David Lapan, spokesman for General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 when there were calls for a ticker-tape parade in New York to mark the end of the second Iraq war.
Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University, said some Americans are criticizing Trump’s proposed parade not because they don’t support the military, but because, in contrast to other countries, the U.S. has always wanted to “imagine ourselves celebrating values that go beyond the military.”
Contrasting the U.S. to the Soviets, he said: “We were always defining ourselves by our ideals. It may not have have been true, but that’s how we did it: freedom, liberty, and even the market rather than through power. They had arms to win over countries. And we had ideals. If that is shed, [then] for some people we come closer to military power being the basis of our strength.”
Military parades have long been an annual feature in other countries. Russia still holds an impressive one each year, as do authoritarian countries such as China and North Korea, which is holding its own military parade Thursday. So do states looking to out-flex their rivals: India and Pakistan; Greece and Turkey. Military parades can even be a feature of Western democracies like France, whose military parade on Bastille Day so impressed Trump that he wanted a grander one.
Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at Hudson Institute specializing in European and trans-Atlantic affairs, said the French parade is not only not controversial, it’s quite popular.
“I wouldn't say it's a central moment in the French Republic. It happens every Bastille Day. People like it. Kids like to watch it. I don't think it's overhyped or overplayed,” he said. “I think a lot of French people would be surprised to see that it has gotten so much attention here and it’s being copied.”
The roots of the Bastille Day parade lie in France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The parade began in 1880 as a reaction to that defeat, “as a way to reclaim national pride, and clearly in a context of nationalism,” Haddad said. But it has modernized quite a bit since then—especially over the past decade.
“Now it has become customary to invite foreign leaders, as was the case with Trump this year, or foreign troops to the parade as well,” Haddad said. “You have European flags. It has become quite modern. It’s not a nationalistic or militaristic parade.” Indeed, the French military band even played Daft Punk last year. Still, Haddad said, the French will be amused that Trump wants to emulate their parade.
“The French actually appreciate the fact that even if we do have policy disagreements, the two countries and the two presidents have good relations, and that the French president is respected by the American president,” he said. “The fact that Trump wants to emulate the parade, I think, will amuse … the French.”
Trump is hardly the first American president—or politician—to be enamored of the military and its equipment. Both Dwight Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general, and John F. Kennedy, who served in the Navy in World War II, included weapons in their presidential inauguration parades (Kennedy’s included a nuclear weapon). But Trump’s domestic critics point out the president, like the president before him, never served in the military. They also point to the parade’s potential costs, Trump’s admiration of authoritarian leaders, as well as the parade’s Cold War-era overtones as reasons for their reservations toward the planned event.
“What are they going to do, stand there while Donald Trump waves at them?” Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian, asked The Washington Post. “It smacks of something you see in a totalitarian country—unless there’s a genuine, earnest reason to be doing it.”
As to what those reasons might be, James Mattis, the defense secretary, said Wednesday: “We’re all aware in this country of the president’s affection and respect for the military. We’ve been putting together some options. We’ll send them up to the White House for a decision.”