Every year on July 14th, the French celebrate Bastille Day - a remembrance of the start of the French Revolution - with a full military parade. This week, it was reported that President Trump, after observing this event while visiting Paris last year, has ordered preparations for a similar display to be made in downtown Washington, DC.
It is no surprise that the president is taken with such an idea. He has loved the elaborate displays put on for him during state visits to authoritarian countries like China and Saudi Arabia, and seems to greatly enjoy every ‘photo op’ duty of his office, from executive order signings to posing in big trucks. For a man constantly flexing his symbolic muscles, a parade of tanks and troop transports is a no-brainer. His inaugural committee even requested (but was denied) the use of military hardware by the Pentagon.
But does America really need a military parade like France’s - or like Russia’s or North Korea’s, for that matter?
President Trump is among those who tell us most frequently and loudly that we face no shortage of threats at home and abroad. So why exactly is it a good use of our military’s time, resources, and logistical expertise to be planning a parade? To put it bluntly, the most powerful fighting force in the world has more important places to patrol than Pennsylvania Avenue. But it will take a non-negligible amount of planning and management to execute on this request, and that seems like an unnecessary distraction in a time when there is so much real work to be done.
There is also the issue of cost. The timeless straw-man of “liberals don’t want to fund the military” aside, the fact is that this parade will cost money; the last time we had a military celebration, after the end of the first Gulf War, the price tag was around $12 million. How does spending the military’s money on a parade square with the Trump Administration’s deconstruction of the administrative state, or the Republican Party’s doctrine of smaller government? More critically, is there nowhere else within the Pentagon’s own budget where this money could be put to better use?
And finally, there’s the question of just why we need to be flaunting our military might. The American military operates around the world; we train alongside our partners, provide critical support for operations and deterrence against enemies, and conduct complex humanitarian relief missions in the face of crisis and disaster. These are the ways we build goodwill and show our strength - not by the pomposity and bluster of events most frequently reserved for shaky states run by insecure strongmen.
Taking all that into consideration, the answer to the above question - does America really need this parade - is clear: we do not. President Trump, on the other hand, does.
President Trump needs a divisive issue to distract from plummeting markets, abusive White House staff, and an impending government shutdown of his own design. He needs another reason to attack Democrats as ‘anti-military,’ furthering his efforts to politicize our intentionally apolitical armed forces. But most importantly, he needs a big performance put on for him and his fragile ego - and he’s willing to use men and women in uniform as props to achieve that selfish goal.
Like everything else about President Trump, this parade cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It cannot be separated from his authoritarian tendencies and rhetoric, or his efforts to use the military as a political cudgel against his political opponents, or his own mix of self-professed reverence for veterans but a record (draft deferments, POW bashing, Gold Star family feuds, and more) that suggests anything but. It is at once alarming and ridiculous, and both beyond credulity yet entirely predictable.
So for all these reasons, at the end of the day, President Trump’s military parade will be just that: President Trump’s. The military will not need it, yet will execute on the order regardless of the cost - opportunity or financial. But the parade will serve to placate the president’s desire for a show of strength he can project onto himself, and in doing so fulfill its original, and only real, purpose.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org