If President Trump gets his way, a grand military parade will tromp down Pennsylvania Avenue on the Fourth of July. Tanks. Bombers. Rocket launchers.
Maybe such a display is exactly what Americans need — just not for the reasons Trump imagines. Americans should take a look — a close look — at what they’ve bought.
It’s easy to bewail Trump’s desire for such a propaganda spectacle. After all, military parades with rocket launchers usually feature dictators on the rostrums — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, three generations of Kims in North Korea.
But to dismiss Trump’s wish as evidence of his authoritarianism leanings is to miss the point. After all, he got the idea for a military parade after viewing one this summer in that totalitarian stronghold of . . . Paris.
If the French, who spend a paltry $56 billion on their military, can put on a show, then it’s worth considering what a review would look like for a nation that currently spends $611 billion.
We’ve had big marches in the past. In May 1865, the Union Army took two days to march through the capital, before the armies disbanded. A march through New York in 1946 featured tanks and attack gliders, ahead of the post-war demobilization.
After the Gulf War, 200,000 people watched stealth fighters zoom over Washington as Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Patriot missiles rolled by. There was some grousing, sure, that the display reeked of militarism and cost too much and drew a crowd far short of the one million that was expected.
Tanks rolling past the White House this summer would indeed be watched in foreign capitals. But they would also be watched by a domestic audience that’s viewed actual war as a distant abstraction for far too long.
Several million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a lengthy line to march in front of a reviewing stand. Yet the burden they’ve borne has been disproportionate: Only one-half of one percent of adults have served on active duty. Combat-style weapons sell out quickly, but most people don’t sign up for actual combat.
So it is good news that the number of veterans in Congress is on the uptick. Perhaps they’ll help steer a more restrained, less profligate course for the armed forces.
As Trump dreamt of howitzers, the US Senate this week approved an obscene $80 billion increase in annual military spending. That’s more than the $54 billion that the White House — decried as authoritarian by the left and libertarian right — had asked for. The vote was 89-8. That increase alone could cover the annual cost of Bernie Sanders’ plan for free college with money to spare. That’s the choice we’ve made.
In authoritarians regimes, military parades are often meant for domestic consumption. Western analysts delight in pointing out absurdities, like wooden missiles rolling through the streets of Pyongyang. Of course, average North Koreans don’t know that they have a part-Potemkin arsenal. But they do know that money spent on bombs is a theft from those who hunger.
The United States has, over the past few decades, eschewed grandiose military displays at home because there’ve been no victories to celebrate, but also because the US military doesn’t need to remind anyone how professional and lethal it is. Everyone knows.
Besides, renting out bombers, helicopters, and fighter jets to filmmakers — from “Top Gun” to “Black Hawk Down” — gets a far greater return on investment than a parade.
Congress is happy to throw money at the military, regardless of the returns. It is less happy to throw it at projects like Trump’s proposed infrastructure improvement program. But those conflicting priorities could come into sharp relief if the steel tracks from a long line of 62-ton battle tanks tear up the asphalt of the nation’s capital with everyone from Boise to Beijing watching.
Alex Kingsbury can be reached at email@example.com.