President Trump may finally get his military parade. Trump had mused before his inauguration last year about having the armed forces march through Washington to mark his taking office but was reportedly rebuffed by the Pentagon. But now, according to a report by the Washington Post, plans are underway to make this spectacle a reality. Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day have been mentioned as possible dates.
Beyond simply feeding the president’s known proclivity for pomp and pageantry, an impromptu military spectacle of this type would also underline the Trump administration’s deep sense of insecurity and mistrust of American political institutions.
Parades are as old as military history itself. The term parade is derived from the Latin word parare, to prepare—in a military context—for war. Our modern day ideas of parades—soldiers marching in step in perfect unison wearing dress uniforms—can be traced back to the European military drill, originally devised in the 17th century by Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, to quickly maneuver troops into column and line formations in order to discharge volley fire and to attack the enemy with fixed bayonets.
More importantly for discussing Trump’s plans, however, is the historical distinction between a triumph, a military parade held to mark victory or the end of war, developed and perfected by the ancient Romans, and military processions as part of the ceremonial structures of annual national patriotic holidays. A good modern-day example of the former is the parade of British troops in London after the retaking of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in October 1982, and of the latter the annually held Bastille Day military parade in France. It was the Bastille Day parade, witnessed during a trip to France last summer, that seems to have inspired Trump’s latest whim. Trump had gushed to reporters previously about how the display was “one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen” and vowed that the U.S. would top it. “The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” a military official told the Post about the latest preparations.
Unlike France, however, the United States until now has primarily conducted large-scale military parades to mark military triumphs. The largest in U.S. history was the Grand Review of the Armies on May 23–24, 1865, to mark the end of the Civil War. 145,000 men paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue for two days under the watchful eyes of President Andrew Johnson and the commanding general of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant.
The U.S. military marched down the avenues of D.C., New York, and smaller American cities on multiple other occasions during and following the victorious ends of the Spanish-American War, as well as the First and Second World Wars. The most spectacular modern-day example was the June 1991 National Victory Celebration to commemorate U.S. victory in the Gulf War.
What Trump appears to have in mind is something grander than the smaller military processions that have been part of American national holidays for the past 200 years. The idea seems to be to throw a Roman-style triumph, without actually triumphing. Needless to say, there are a number of obvious problems with a military triumph, and not just the exorbitant cost and the fact that the military has more important things to do.
For one thing, an impromptu military triumphlike parade is a political anomaly as there is no equivalent to the Bastille Day parade in American political and military culture. More importantly, the United States has not won any of the wars it has been engaged in since 9/11.
These objections probably wouldn’t deter this president. A large military triumphal procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, ostensibly to show the president’s devotion to the U.S. armed forces, can easily turn an actual military stalemate into a temporary political victory. Indeed, perhaps the president sees such a parade as just another opportunity to solidify his political standing by emphasizing his support for the armed forces. (The fact that it would pass by the hotel emblazoned with his name probably doesn’t hurt either.)
But a large-scale military parade would also reinforce two negative themes of Trump’s own presidency: insecurity and isolation.
Military parades, if not part of an annual patriotic holiday cycle and absent a military victory, symbolize a deep sense of insecurity of a country’s political and military leadership. That’s the reason why impromptu large-scale military spectacles—think of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—are usually the purview of isolated autocratic leaders and dictatorships that feel threatened by outside forces.
This is not exclusive to autocratic regimes. The French Bastille Day military parade became a fixture only in 1880, following the humiliating French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the loss of the Alsace-Lorraine territory to Germany. The parade was an expression of forced militarism to challenge German military superiority and to overcome a prevailing sense of the decline of French power among French citizens.
Yet insecurity and paranoia generally run deeper in autocratic regimes, and as a consequence, their military spectacles usually eclipse parades of democratic countries, as they serve multiple purposes. For examples, for countries such as China or North Korea, by displaying their latest military hardware, parades serve a deterrence purpose both internally and externally. By combining militarism and nationalism, they are meant to reinforce to a regime’s subjects that only the military stands between them and foreign invasion; to outsiders, large-scale parades are designed to signal resolve and deter them from domestically interfering.
Parades are also used to create conformity in both action and thought, as I have written before. A peculiar bond is forged between the soldier and the onlooker, who, in a frenzied state of excitement accentuated by martial tunes and synchronized step, feel not only empowered but also form a collective identity pitting them against the rest of the world. On a number of occasions when I participated in parades, I not only had a similar sense of empowerment (I strangely also always felt taller when in parade formation) but was also itching for a fight to, for the lack of a better term, defend the collective values of the group. In other words, there is a thinner red line separating a disciplined soldier from a “goose-stepping moron,” as Professor Henry Jones would have put it, as one would expect during military spectacles of this kind.
Impromptu parades in autocratic regimes have usually signified times of political crisis and insecurity. For example, in 1941, Stalin held a large October Revolution parade on Red Square to rally Moscow’s citizens during the Battle of Moscow, with the soldiers participating in the procession moving to the frontlines immediately after the parade. Joseph Goebbels conducted parades of the Volkssturm, a Nazi militia, in November 1944 to solidify the Germans’ belief in final victory. Saddam Hussein held large parades when he felt vulnerable, following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and in the runup to the first Gulf War in 1990.
Kim Jong-un’s decision to hold a parade the day before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics this week is also likely intended to camouflage the insecurity over possible U.S. military action. Consequently, the flipside of staged military rallies is that rather than projecting strength, they tend to have the opposite effect and vicariously reveal the timidity and political isolation of a political leader.
In that sense, while a democratically elected leader, Trump’s military parade could be interpreted as an exposition of just how tenuous he appears to think his hold on power is, how little he believes in existing political institutions in the United States, and, perhaps more importantly in context of military parades, how little he makes of U.S. military power.
As Margaret Thatcher once put it, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” U.S. military leaders have never before felt the need to hold parades to illustrate the strengths of the armed forces. Trump apparently thinks the opposite. Consequently, his desire to hold a large-scale impromptu parade is perhaps more revealing than intended about what he truly thinks of America’s war-fighting capabilities.
Impromptu large-scale military parades, with the exception of genuine victory processions, are ultimately a sign of insecurity, irrespective of the government that orders them. In that sense, the president’s decision to hold a military spectacle is in the tune with the prevailing zeitgeist of his supporters and the idea of an age of “American carnage.” A parade might seem like an easy way to emphasize the president’s forte and political and military leadership. Yet it will likely have the opposite effect for the president and make America and his administration vicariously look weak.