It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that Donald Trump enjoys military parades. They are a performative distillation of the theatrics, hyper-masculinity and nationalism that have been the hallmark of his politics and indeed much of his public persona for decades before. Glitz, pomp, circumstance and muscular Americana: Speak loudly and carry a big dick. That he would want to stage one in DC would flow naturally from this affinity. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that it took Bastille Day to give him the idea.
The US has held grand troop review parades before, of course, notably a two-day affair in DC in 1865 to mark victory in the Civil War, and again after the two world wars, in New York, and even a smaller affair after Desert Storm. But these were held to mark a specific action and occasion. It has not historically been the American tradition to stage military review parades as a matter of course, as many crowned countries, autocracies and even some republics (notably France) do. To be sure, contingents of US soldiers regularly appear in official parades of varying kinds, marching in presidential inaugurations and other local affairs around the country. But they are generally present as a kind of patriotic appendix to a civilian parade, not as the cause of the event itself. Insofar as the proposed parade would be a purely military affair unconnected to any specific military event, it would mark a significant break from past US practice.
But insofar as it represents a more prominent placement of military personnel, hardware and symbology in the public square for valorization and adoration, it is simply the latest manifestation of a trend that’s been underway for decades. And that is the more troubling issue.
It is widely known that the Pentagon was deeply scarred by its inability to manage public perception of the war in Vietnam and the immense anti-military feelings that were engendered by media coverage that showed the violence and blood of the conflict up close in American households. In the years afterward, the Pentagon embarked on a wide-ranging effort to improve its public image and ensure that the public viewed the military positively. This involved the controlled-access “embedding” of journalists in the first and second Iraq wars, and the creation of much tighter PR training for soldiers speaking to journalists (this was no doubt assisted by the switch from conscripts to professional soldiers, who have more buy-in to the hierarchy that issues such demands).
It also involved the more prominent placement of military imagery, personnel and terminology in formerly completely civilian settings. Professional sports games in the US now regularly feature appearances by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, either pre-game or mid-game, accompanied by patriotic music and oversized flags. The military has collaborated with the video game industry to develop entertainment that portrays a version and experience of war that elevates and propagandizes rather than questions or examines. And, of course, “Support our Troops” has become such a ubiquitous backdrop to American life and the political vernacular that it has attained a the status of a kind of political catechism — and has lost its meaning for most actual Troops. The military is now consistently ranked as the single most trustworthy public institution of any significance, cutting across the Red/Blue political divide that colors nearly everything else in public (and even private) life in the early 21st century.
Over a decade ago, before he was a bona fide media celebrity, and in the early years of what was then regularly called the War on Terror, Chris Hayes documented the broadening and deepening of military veneration through the popular culture of the 90s, especially noting Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. In the years since, we have been awash in many many more such examples. And given that the US has been slipping across a number of statistical measures of social well-being as compared to other OECD countries, and China is rapidly closing the gap by which the US remains the largest economy, a good deal of national pride has now been tied up in the one remaining category in which the US is unquestionably in the lead: military spending and prowess.** Politicians of all stripes now regularly look to the armed forces for solutions to any global, and sometimes even domestic, problem, which Rosa Brooks documented in “How everything became war and the military became everything.”
This pride of place for the institution of the military in a civilian republic is fraught, especially as it comes alongside the enormous deterioration of trust in the other institutions of public life. It has already rendered criticism of the military from anyone outside of it a soft taboo in political life. And while those who work inside it certainly have a distinct and important perspective on it, a public institution without external critique of its role and function is not one that will remain healthy or able to adapt to social expectations. Further, to the extent to which the military is seen as the one trustworthy apparatus of government, it will deepen the public’s desire for muscular, military solutions to global problems and a rejection or dismissal of diplomatic options that may be cheaper or less risky, but are also often socially coded as less tough and serious. It is not often that we seek a greater role for an organization we simultaneously restrict ourselves from criticizing, but such is the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Finally, if these trends of increasing admiration, transfer of social trust and demand for a greater institutional role metastasize into outright unquestioning adoration, we will eventually put the civil-military divide itself under strain. This is not an urgent problem, as the existing generation of generals and civilian politicians have all risen to their current positions with the civ-mil culture firmly intact and committed to its maintenance. Jim Mattis, for instance, scrupulously insists on carrying himself and operating as the civilian official he now is, rather than the military official he used to be. But as Trump populates more and more of the upper echelons of his administration with former generals (whether any hypothetical replacement for Mattis is also a flag officer will be a crucial signal in this regard), the practice of military officials in civilian roles will seem increasingly normal. And, as such choices signal seriousness and reliability to the public, they are likely to become increasingly politically desirable to politicians from both parties.
One parade, even if it happens, will not substantially alter any of these trends. Their origins long antedate Trump, and both he and his political tendencies are more a product of those underlying dynamics than they are a driver of them. Failing trust in civilian institutions of public and political life create the space to be filled by something – anything – that seems trustworthy and can make us feel safe, and the military is the institution that has been on hand to serve this end: the repository of trust of last resort.
But lessons of history demonstrate regularly that the militarization of society and social norms, while possible to undertake by law and in peace, is usually not possible to undo by law and in peace. To be sure, the US is in no immediate danger of any such transformation, and institutional and cultural safeguards remain. But every time we elevate the status of the military to a venerated class, defer to generals over civilians even on non-military matters and continue to place them front and center in public life as a pristine apotheosis of some kind of prelapsarian American virtues, we chip away ever so slightly at those safeguards.
The military of a civilian republic exists to preserve civil liberties overseen by civilian administrators and judges. It is the greatest achievement of its work to ensure that it is never needed to rule. As we think on and engage with the military’s role in public life, we would do well to remember that fact.
**Of course, the latter does not automatically follow from the former, but we like to believe it does.