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Who Loves a Parade?

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.