The Case for a Big, Beautiful Military Parade

Few of the troops serving today have experienced the adulation and respect that can come from a major, national-level parade.

People carry the U.S. flag during the Veteran's Day parade in New York, U.S., November 11, 2017. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

President Trump asked the Pentagon “to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation” for America’s military, so we might be seeing the first national military parade since 1991. Will it cost millions? Probably. Will there be counter-demonstrations? Sure. Is there a risk of terrorist attacks? Of course. Should it happen? Absolutely, and here’s why.

America’s military has been constantly at war since 9/11, yet it’s been more than 26 years since we’ve had a national military parade honoring those serving—even though doing so has long been an American tradition. Ironically, in a country in which millions routinely turn out for huge parades for sports teams, several pundits are already grousing about having just one to honor those who go in harm’s way on behalf of all of us.

Having served almost 35 years in uniform, I’m convinced that a national-level parade can help address the much-discussed civilian-military “gap,” aid recruiting, and—most importantly—give all Americans the chance to come together as one nation. Couldn’t America use more of those kinds of opportunities these days?

Analysts across the political spectrum are concerned that with only 0.43% of Americans serving on active duty, the divide between the military and the society it serves is widening.

Indeed, in 2010 former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that with military bases being concentrated in just a few states, and with the shuttering of many military facilities in the northeast and on the west coast, a “void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces [has been left] in their wake.” Consequently, Gates warned that “there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”

Accordingly, isn’t anything we can do to re-acquaint Americans with their military (and, perhaps even more importantly, vice versa), a worthy investment for American democracy?

What about the cost? Americans love parades—and advertisers do too. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade attracts 3.5 million attendees, and almost 50 million television viewers. The TV advertising revenue alone was worth more than $41 million in 2016. The Rose Bowl parade has a much smaller crowd, but nearly the same number of television viewers. CNBC says that participation in that parade “comes with a hefty price tag, but corporate sponsors say the chance to get their company's message out to millions is worth the expense.”

Let’s get specific: even if the military parade was on the scale of the 1991 effort (estimated to cost around $20 million today), that’s a miniscule part of what the Department of Defense already spends on advertising. In 2016 the Government Accountability Office said that the Obama Administration was requesting almost $575 million for the Pentagon “to conduct advertising intended to increase awareness of military service and ultimately generate leads for potential recruits.” Obviously, the existing DoD advertising budget can easily cover the event.

And “increasing [the] awareness of military service” is important these days. Last October it was reported that Army recruiters found that of the 33.4 million Americans in their target age group, “only 1.7 million of those young people are of the high quality” the military wants, and “just 136,000” of them “would even be interested in joining the Army.”

Maybe they need more “awareness” about military service. Young people often seek “deeper social connections” and have a “need to be part of something bigger than themselves.” The military can uniquely provide that. As one expert put it, there “is nothing in the civilian workforce that can approximate the bonding that occurs in the wardroom, ready room, or foxhole.” Those in uniform get through hardships, he says, because “they are all in it together.” The “mutual self-sacrifice, teamwork, and covering each other’s six” he explains, “contribute to individual bonding, unit cohesion, and, ultimately … camaraderie.” For lots of young people that could be exactly what they want.

Unfortunately, military service never even occurs to many of America’s best and brightest. Since retiring from the military in 2010, I’ve run across quite a few people—young and old, but especially young—who have never personally seen, let alone spoken with, an active duty member of the armed forces (or even any veterans—who now comprise just 7.3% of the population).

At most elite universities, for example, the chances of an undergraduate meeting a veteran or serving member of armed forces are very slim. The fanfare of a national parade in a key media market will give at least some of the citizenry who might not otherwise be exposed to the armed forces an opportunity to actually see the wonderful men and women who serve today.

Some critics are claiming—without citing any real data—that the troops don’t want a parade. Actually, the troops have never experienced the adulation and respect that can come from a major, national-level parade. Their average age is about 30 so at most they were toddlers when the last military parade of this scale took place in 1991. In truth, there are plenty of indications that troops do want recognition for their service, and it grates on them when they don’t get it.

Parades benefit the military in other ways. Former First Sergeant Rod Powers notes that today military parades still operate to “instill pride and discipline” and says military manuals insist that “drill is the foundation of discipline in battle, and that its importance has been proven again and again.” He adds that “regular parades in public display the military as a highly trained, disciplined, and professional force.” Given the coverage of allegations of military misconduct, the public ought to have the chance their military’s disciplined side.

A parade the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1991 could help sustain the morale of the force, which has suffered thousands of killed and wounded in the conflicts since 9/11. It can be a meaningful counter to the sense of isolation that I believe is widely-felt in the military, that is, the feeling that the military is “at war” while “America is at the mall.”  Frankly, Americans owe those who are serving—and their families—a major event like this to recognize successes, even if the war on against terrorists will surely go on.

New York Times columnist  Ross Douthat observed recently  that even though the U.S. succeeded in dethroning the ISIS caliphate without the misadventures many feared, “nobody seemed to notice.” Why? Douthat explains “the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested.”

Whatever “narratives” the press or anyone else may want to propound about a particular politician 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.

Of course, no parade could possibly solve America’s endemic polarization. Still, if Americans can show themselves that they can come together for this kind of celebration, perhaps we can start the journey to close the partisan divides which are hampering this country from being what Americans want and need it to be.

Isn’t it worth a try?