Flags and marching bands are a quintessentially American tradition, dating back to the Revolutionary War and honoring the country’s proud martial traditions of independence and self-defense. From the earliest days of the Republic, fifes and drums have symbolized the rag-tag American spirit: a civilian nation, slow to anger, victorious in battle, swift to forgive, forget and return to peacetime. In other words, Americans honor our military without celebrating militarism; it’s one of the things that makes us uniquely American.
Because abroad, things are different: the Soviets used to put on a display of military hardware every May Day as its geriatric leadership beamed from the Kremlin – a communist tradition that continues today in places like North Korea, where chubby “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un applauds his legions of goose-stepping robots while his pet generals wonder which one of them will be next to get strapped to a cannon. It’s a lust for world conquest dressed up as domestic entertainment, and meant to urge the peasantry on to greater personal sacrifice for the regime’s glory.
So, in these hyper-politicized times, in which the very definition of patriotism is subject to intense dispute, President Trump’s notion of throwing an Independence Day parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, along the lines of France’s annual Bastille Day march on the Champs-Élysées, has proven instantly controversial. Decried on the Left as an example of Trump’s fascination with fascism, supported on the Right as visible symbol of American pride and renewal, the proposal – which the Pentagon is working on – deserves to be taken seriously.
But maybe not for the reasons you think.
I was born on the Marine Corps base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and less than a year later my father was sent off to Korea, where he landed at Pusan, stormed the harbor at Incheon, fought in the battles for Seoul, and returned from the bitter cold and even bitterer fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. But Marine officers back then generally didn’t vote. Their sworn oath was to the Constitution and their loyalty belonged to the commander in chief, regardless of party. No Seven Days in May-style coups for us. It’s an attitude that’s served our nation well for nearly 250 years.
Generally, we hold big parades to honor past events: at the victorious conclusion of major wars. The inaugurations of both Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy saw military displays, and presidential reviews of servicemen on the Fourth were once a fixture of early 19th-century administrations. The end of the Civil War in 1865 occasioned a two-day spectacle in May featuring thousands of U.S. troops and cavalry that at one point stretched seven miles.
The most recent pageant came during the George H. W. Bush administration in 1991, to celebrate the end of the Gulf War, when 8,000 troops, tanks, Patriot missiles and other armaments rolled along Constitution Avenue as Stealth fighter planes zoomed overhead. Even then, however, some complained that it was little more than a campaign event for the Republicans – and the following year, Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton for re-election.
What we don’t do is show off our hardware as a veiled threat to the rest of the world. Since 9/11, the world has witnessed plenty of displays of American might, and it’s doubtful that anyone needs a further reminder of America’s military capabilities. A shock-and-awe parade is not only unnecessary, it’s literally (to use a favorite phrase of the Left) not who we are.
Still, the president’s heart is in the right place. The Left may sneer at what it sees as jingoism – in some “progressive” quarters, it sometimes seems that treason, not dissent, is the highest form of patriotism – but a love of country comes with respect for the men and women who defend its borders and its people. After all, France hasn’t attacked anybody since Waterloo, and at this point doesn’t even seem to have the will to defend its own political integrity; its Bastille Day parade honors French culture and tradition, not a secret ambition to retake the Saarland.
It’s clear that Trump loves pomp and circumstance. Accusations that he’s a closet dictator who likes to play with big toys are nonsense. And given Trump’s penchant for trolling, he’s probably enjoying the reaction on the Left, which has allowed the public another look at the America-last ethos that prevails in its fever swamps, while putting the issue of patriotism foursquare before the nation and kicking off a much-needed debate.
But, given the fact that we’ve had no decisive military victories since World War II – and that we still have troops in the field – maybe a parade’s not a great idea right now. It simply affords the Trump-hater a cheap opportunity for snark. Far better would be a series of simultaneous events across the country in honor of our armed forces; after all, most liberals have never even met a service member. They’d be amazed to see how much our military – to use another of their favorite phrases – “looks like America.”
As General Mattis and other officials move forward on the planning, they need just keep one simple principle in mind: America’s military is not its weapons or its advanced technology; it’s the people who serve in it. By honoring them, we honor not just our heroic past, but our confident, protective future.
We don’t want to be the Soviet Union, true. But neither do we want to be France.