When I think about the amount of time military organizations waste on pomp and circumstance, I remember the words of a character in Jean Lartéguy’s novel about French paratroopers in Vietnam and Algeria, The Centurions:
I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.
Any active duty combat arms officer who doesn’t agree with all of that should find another line of work and should quite possibly be dishonorably discharged from service.
That’s not to say I agree with every sentiment in Lartéguy’s novels, mind you, which involve sympathetic portrayals of torture and also, in the sequel to The Centurions, a coup against the elected government of France.
That, of course, was something that actual veterans of the French war in Algeria actually attempted, which is why there is today a 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment in the French Army but not a 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment. (Apparently threatening to jump into the nation’s capital and overthrow the government crosses a line somewhere.)
I only mention this because apparently the annual Bastille Day parade of 2017—which the president attended as a guest of his French counterpart—was the inspiration for the president’s desire to have a similar parade in the United States. And if you’re looking for historical models of healthy civil-military relations, well, France might not be the best place to start.
Americans don’t have a problem of appreciating the military too little. Americans have a problem venerating the military too much. I spoke to a retired allied naval officer recently who confessed to me that he could not understand why, after 17 years of inconclusive war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military remains on such a high pedestal in the United States. It’s a good question.
I personally didn’t have any problem with President Trump giving the U.S. military 12 more months in Afghanistan, for example. But I wonder how he will hold his generals accountable when they fail to realize significant gains after pledging to regain momentum in the war there. Will he be as critical of their performance now that he, as their commander in chief, owns their victories and defeats? I hope so, frankly.
Along the same lines, rather than ordering troops to march in vanity parades, they should be ordered back to the rifle range. After all, to quote a pretty handy German general, the best form of welfare for the troops is first-class training.