The Final Triumph

The last time Washington hosted a military parade, it was a huge mess.

A flag-waving crowd of 200,000 people cheered veterans of Operation Desert Storm as the nation’s capital staged its biggest victory celebration since the end of World War II on June 8, 1991.
A flag-waving crowd of 200,000 people cheered veterans of Operation Desert Storm as the nation’s capital staged its biggest victory celebration since the end of World War II on June 8, 1991. Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s stated desire to host a military parade in Washington has drawn comparisons to dictators from North Korea or the late Soviet Union. But military parades aren’t actually unprecedented in the nation’s capital. There was one as recently as 1991. That festively branded “National Victory Celebration” offers something of a blueprint for what we can expect if the Trump triumph actually materializes—and while, though not unprecedented, it’s still not a good idea.

It was a beautiful day on June 8, 1991, when President George H. W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, and Cabinet officials peered out through bulletproof glass as legions of camouflaged veterans marched down Constitution Avenue, past the White House, and trekked over Memorial Bridge toward the Pentagon. Some 8,800 enlisted soldiers were deployed for the spectacle, which celebrated the liberation of Kuwait and defeat of Saddam Hussein’s military in Operation Desert Storm, concluded several months earlier. Close to 1 million Americans showed up to take in the event. M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Patriot missile launchers rumbled through the streets, and formations of fighter jets also buzzed the city in close formation. The fireworks displayed afterward dwarfed anything Washington had seen before.

Still, hitches were inevitable with such a logistically taxing event. The city government had enough foresight to remove lampposts along the parade route to make way for the convoys of armored vehicles. Less anticipated was the damage wrought as 67-ton tanks rolled over (and through) the hot asphalt on Constitution Avenue. The treaded vehicles pounded a deeply rutted tattoo into the roadway, which had been designed to carry a gross vehicle weight of just over 30 tons, and was further softened that day by the 85-degree heat.

One of the more poetic vignettes took shape as a flock of combat helicopters roared over the Capitol and approached their ceremonial landing zone. Spinning rotor blades kicked up a dust storm along the pathways lining the National Mall. Bits of gravel and dirt sprayed like machine-gun fire, accidentally hosing the adjacent Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. The most serious casualty of artistic friendly fire was Aristide Maillol’s Nymph (Central Figure for “The Three Graces”). The nude bronze had her back riddled with pockmarks and scratches from the fusillade.

After months of bickering between the Hirshhorn and the Department of Defense about who would pay for a restoration, museum staff thought the prospect of future military parades was far-fetched. “This is not something that will happen again. It was a freak accident; a helicopter was coming down on the Mall,” Sidney Lawrence, a museum spokesman told the Washington Post later that October.

Washington’s last military parade left in its wake 1.2 million pounds of garbage, $12 million in bills, and literal scars on the city’s public art and infrastructure. If history is any guide, a march in 2018 will bring its own unanticipated headaches for the District. It also goes without saying that Donald Trump is no George H. W. Bush. A large-scale deployment of government assets under the current administration is sure to be accompanied with a clown car of unforced errors and distasteful performances. Will nuclear weapons be showcased at the event? Will Trump wear epaulets and a sword?

More certain is the negative reaction that such a parade will elicit from the capital city. Bush Sr. enjoyed an approval rating of 73 percent at the time of the National Victory Celebration. Donald Trump currently has an approval rating of 40 percent according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. A Gallup survey from last week puts his approval within the District of Columbia at a near-riotous 6 percent approval and 88 percent disapproval.

Bush’s extravaganza also came in the afterglow of a stunning military victory that was televised before national audiences. The 1991 parade was a deliberately presented as a celebration for “Our country and for all who wear its uniform. … Not just one individual, or one unit, or one command, or even one service.” By contrast, Trump’s dream event likely has the contours of a jingoistic MAGA rally. Guest of honor: just one.

The Nymph statue was long ago repaired (at Pentagon expense) and is no longer on display beside the National Mall. But there are still plenty of potential targets for collateral damage from this unneeded and unwelcome spectacle.