A military parade down one of Washington’s broad avenues would seem to epitomize so much that is great about the United States, from the fine fiber of our troops to the might of their fighting machines. Such a spectacle — reportedly ordered by President Donald Trump in a meeting last month with the top brass — would offer a stark contrast to the nation’s current woes and divisions.
And yet such a parade could do more harm than good to the military itself. At a time when each service member and defense dollar counts, and as Trump is pleading with Congress to lift the military from the depths of sequestration, this parade would put scarce resources toward feeding the president’s ego instead of our national security.
Trump ordered up the parade after being impressed by the pageantry of a French military parade for Bastille Day that he attended last summer in Paris. To be fair, the French have always had a flair for such things, and they’ve been doing them for more than a century. The 2017 parade was a dazzling display, tailored by French President Emmanuel Macron to flatter Trump by also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.
France paraded about 6,500 soldiers before Trump, representing a little more than 3 percent of the 209,000 personnel in their active armed forces. The active U.S. military is more than six times the size of France’s, and its reserves are nearly 40 times as large. So a proportionate show of force would include 40,000 U.S. troops (roughly two entire Army or Marine divisions) — a larger parade than any here since the Civil War.
If my experience as an American soldier is a guide, most troops don’t relish the idea of marching in parades, let alone the endless days of rehearsals that go into making such events shine. Marching serves a purpose in basic training: to indoctrinate and condition personnel to follow orders, hold themselves with military bearing and work as a team.
But after basic training, marching in parades is a distraction from more valuable training that can save lives in combat.
There’s also the awkward question of what, exactly, the parade would be celebrating. Our military remains engaged in two very long-running, uncertain and potentially unwinnable wars. A sharp divide has emerged between the troops serving in these wars — and the 3 million veterans they’ve produced — and the rest of the nation’s citizens, who are now largely oblivious to the battles being waged in their name. Parading troops through Washington will neither bridge that divide nor help achieve success in these wars.
A parade would not be easy or cost-free, either, especially if Trump wants to see tanks and artillery pieces rolling along with marching troops. Heavy armored vehicles can’t just drive from places such as Fort Knox, Ky., to Washington on the interstate. These vehicles are designed for short movements in combat, not long distances. So either the Pentagon could order these vehicles be driven to Washington — in which case many would break and be unfit for their real purpose — or they would need to be moved by rail or heavy truck. Either way, it would cost millions of dollars and tie up this gear for weeks.
The gulf between our self-selecting warrior caste and the rest of society has arguably never been greater, and there are indications that this split is affecting military recruiting and readiness. But neither our military nor our country needs the spectacle of a parade to better appreciate the service of our troops — especially one that will deplete scarce military resources at a time the Pentagon is preparing for potential conflicts with China, Russia and North Korea, in addition to the engagements we’re already in. If Trump wants to see how great our troops are, he should visit them in training — or better yet, visit them in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they are fighting (and sometimes dying) on his orders.
Phillip Carter is a former Army officer and Iraq veteran who directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.