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Purpose and Parades

On January 18, President Trump announced his desire to hold a military parade, and many are rightly concerned. While some may fear the cost, others cite valid concerns about the connotations of such a parade. Depending on which side of the aisle you choose to listen to, you’ll hear varying explanations for Trump’s parade. On the right, some are fearful that Trump’s over-glorification of the military is a common precursor to the downfall of countries. On the left, this concern is also shared, however there is a growing sentiment that Trump proposed the parade as a way to stroke his ego.

People can debate back and forth the intended purpose of the parade, but that is near impossible without understanding the multitude of uses of military parades. Whatever the intention is, it can be discerned by looking to the past in a dichotomous manner that separates the history of parades in America from the contemporary use of military parades in countries of different political structures. Given the current ambiguity as to Trump’s intentions, it is almost certainly better to try to understand parades through a historical lens and apply it to the current political climate, in lieu of making assumptions based on the current political climate alone.

Military parades in history have several purposes that we can divide into two categories, demonstration of strength and celebration. The two can work hand in hand, but in modern times democratic countries tend towards celebration. For this reason, this analysis of American military parades will focus on celebration.

The reason for celebration in America always comes after victories. The last major war before the 1990s that received honorific parades was WWII. Criticism for the celebration of this victory was virtually nonexistent, because who in their right mind would protest the heroes who defeated the Nazis? The last WWII parade was held in 1946 in New York. The parade constituted the 82nd Airborne Division marching through the streets of New York City accompanied by tanks, howitzers, and planes.

The most recent parade was in 1991, meant to celebrate the end of the Persian Gulf War. Eight thousand military personnel marched through Washington D.C. Veterans of the failed Korean and Vietnam Wars felt as though the parade signified respect for those who had fought. They had been shamed for their deeds, despite volunteering to fight for their country. Bush seemed to share the veteran’s sentiment, prompting him to have the parade. However, media outlets and politicians said the parade was no more than a glorification of the military.

Through the nearly forty-five-year gap between the two parades, it's understandable and potentially even right to question the use of military parades. Respect for the United States military severely declined from the time of WWII to the Gulf War. The American military went on in 2001 to engage in the longest war in our history, the Afghanistan war. This has proven to be a source of much doubt and distrust in how America shapes its foreign policy in the Middle East. The war in Iraq also crippled the massive support garnered from the horrific events of 9/11. Today, the ghost of the Iraq War and the ongoing Afghanistan War are constant reminders as to the dangers of foreign intervention.

Yet, even with the recent past cautioning citizens, Americans place heavy faith in their military. Pew Research reports that about 75% of Americans have between “a great deal” and “a fair amount” of faith in the military. Bearing this in mind, is the specter of failed military campaigns something Americans have overcome? The treatment of Korean and especially Vietnam veterans was abhorrent, and I believe Americans have overcome the fallacy that led them to believe those fighting for America are more to blame than the politicians who sent them abroad.

This can mean a few things. First, could Trump just want to honor the military, to garner political brownie points in a manner the media accused Bush of? Or does Trump hold the faulty belief that the military isn’t respected enough? Finally, does Trump desire the parade for a separate reason, such as a demonstration of strength? To find the answer, its necessary to turn toward other countries, to discern their purposes and see if the reasons can be rationally applied domestically.

Many frequently use France as a point of reference when describing military parades: President Trump said he wanted a parade, “just like France”. Since 1880, the Bastille Day parade has been held in Paris almost every year. The event is one of the oldest military parades that still occurs today. The difference between the French Bastille Day and the American military parade Trump desires is context. The Bastille Day parade is not celebrating a specific victory or event, such as the Gulf War parade or ones that occur on Memorial Day. Of course, Bastille Day does celebrate the storming of the Bastille, when the French revolutionaries secured the armory from the ruling class. But this day represents (essentially) the start of French democracy. The parade is a celebration of democracy and the ability of the French military to defend it. To us, the equivalent would be the Fourth of July celebration. Thus, Trump’s desire to have a parade like France’s may be a desire to celebrate democracy. Still, let’s analyze a few military parades that occur in modern day China and North Korea.

On September 3, 2015, the Chinese government celebrated the country’s victory over Japan in WWII. For brevity’s sake, the purpose of the parade is simultaneously a spit in Japan’s face and a celebration of the freedom earned from the incredibly oppressive and cruel Japanese empire in the 1940s. The parade was planned not long after General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, was elected in 2012. The celebration was attended by Vladimir Putin to show the strengthening relationship between the two countries. This kind of display seems to be the primary reason for military parades in China. Historically, they occur in years where the leaders of China are trying to cultivate stronger relations with foreign nations. It’s a move that signifies China is on the same page militarily and diplomatically with other countries. For this reason, the Chinese use of military parades are not equivalent to the one Trump desires. The president of America isn’t known for his overt need to build relationships with foreign entities, even if doing so requires a simple display of might.

There is the potential, as many in the media see it, that Donald Trump wants to consolidate and show power akin to that of a dictator. For comparison, we should turn to the most oppressive regime today, North Korea.

Military parades in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea occur primarily in the capital Pyongyang. These parades stand out in uniqueness for their frequency (almost weekly) and seeming lack of purpose. Sometimes, the North Korean regime will release videos of their military parades in an attempt to send a political message (such as the one held February 7th prior to the Olympic games). However, most of the time the parades are not made public. They are held in the capital Pyongyang, where the political and economic elite live, so their purpose cannot be to scare the general population. The parades are typically not recorded, meaning their purpose is not to send a message. It appears that military parades in North Korea serve a single purpose: to please the dictator.

Concluding the exact reasoning for Trump's proposed parade is near impossible. The application of military parades in other countries tends towards celebration, a demonstration strength, or a combination of both. Trump’s reasoning for the parade appears not to match this. He seems to want the parade just for kicks, something similar to a dictatorship. At the same time, the United States is not a dictatorship and will not turn into one under a single presidency. Given some of the things President Trump has said and done, it’s important to remember the words, “Never attribute malice to stupidity.”

Picture: Creative Commons, Jean Bart

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