"I want a parade,” Donald Trump told a battery of puzzled generals, “like the one in France,” he added, the way a child describes the electric scooter he saw on TV and now demands for Christmas.
The American military has not paraded in US cities since celebrating Kuwait’s liberation in 1991, when 200,000 spectators oohed as Stealth fighters roared above the Washington Monument while Abrams tanks rolled by the Lincoln Memorial and 8,000 troops marched down Constitution Avenue.
Followed by a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan that attracted a million people, the march in Washington was not the American rule, which is to keep the military away from America’s cities, but its exception, which is to let the army in only to celebrate a successful war’s end.
That is what the US did on May 23, 1865, when 80,000 troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by another 65,000 the next day, as president Andrew Johnson and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, seated atop a stage in front of the White House, celebrated with jubilant multitudes the end of the Civil War.
By the time the troops returned to Pennsylvania Avenue in September 1919, a week after having marched down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, their number was much smaller – 25,000 – but their victory was bigger, as they had just decided World War I and thus defined the US as a world power.
By the next world war’s parade, when the 82nd Airborne Division marched by Manhattan’s Washington Square along with howitzer batteries, Sherman platoons and a flyover of C-47s, the marchers’ number had shrunk even further, to 13,000, but the principle was unchanged: march after victory.
Yes, in 1942 half-a-million people marched in Manhattan well before victory, but that was a civilian rally which the army joined, but neither led nor defined. Fighting on two fronts, the American military could dedicate only that much matériel and personnel for parades.
And yes, during Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration armored columns emerged on Pennsylvania Avenue, making DC look for a moment like a banana republic in the middle of a coup, and during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration 15-meter missiles were trucked at the Capitol’s foothills between cohorts of naval, air force and West Point cadets, making DC momentarily resemble Red Square on May Day.
Still, those weren’t real military parades, like the ones that followed America’s great wars, deploying entire brigades, hundreds of weapons and millions of dollars.
For such parades, one had to turn to despotic realms where displaying shining bayonets, phallic rockets, and goose-stepping troops was seen as an engine of national security, international respect, and homeland morale.
Only two Western countries joined the many totalitarian regimes that held annual military parades: Israel and France.
ISRAEL HELD military parades annually in its first 20 years, and then another – the largest, and the last – in its 25th.
Middle-aged Israelis still recall these spectacles, some of which also included destroyers sailing past Tel Aviv’s coastline and paratroopers descending on its beaches from the sky.
The Jewish state had a special situation. It had to instill confidence in a social patchwork of Holocaust survivors, war refugees and impoverished immigrants. Showing them the army Israel had built at a great effort served a national purpose.
This is besides the several Israeli parades that, like America’s, celebrated victories, most memorably in 1968, when 4,500 troops – accompanied by hundreds of tanks, cannons and missiles – marched by the walls of a newly reunited Jerusalem under a flyover of 400 air force planes.
Even so, the IDF’s biggest parade, 1973’s, was also its last. The following autumn’s Yom Kippur War changed the IDF’s priorities.
This was besides the public’s anger at its leaders’ prewar arrogance – which the parade symbolized – and the war’s sad proof that parades, no matter how elaborate and well-choreographed, will not deter an enemy’s attack.
Israelis since then have looked at military parades the way boxers, judokas and karate fighters look at bodybuilders when they tell them that pumping, oiling, and displaying their muscles comes at the expense of training to actually use them.
That is why France – Trump’s inspiration – remains the lone Western country to hold a big, annual military parade, in which fighter jets spray the skies with the tricolor, while hundreds of jeeps, tanks and artillery barrels cross the Champs-Élysées along with 250 cavaliers atop their handsome horses ahead of 8,000 troops, some wearing tin soldiers’ blue-striped red pants, yellow epaulets, and feathered hats.
FRANCE’S PARADES also serve a special national need, albeit entirely different from Israel’s in its first decades.
Israel’s parades were part of an effort to build the future; France’s celebrate the past.
Held almost each of the past 138 years, the Bastille Day parade first marched in 1880, a decade after the military catastrophe which culminated when Napoleon III surrendered and fell captive, along with more than 400,000 French troops, shortly before the Prussian Army marched through the Arc de Triomphe.
France would nominally win World War I, but in retrospect it is clear that its decline as a superpower began in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. Equally clearly, the subsequent military parades were part of a Sisyphean effort to defy political gravity and restore a global dominance whose time had passed.
A similar thing happened in Moscow in November 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev and his Politburo climbed Lenin’s mausoleum to survey the endless continuum of slowly rolling tanks, armored personal carriers, artillery batteries and scud missiles that checkered countless cohorts of hurrahing foot soldiers, commandos and naval cadets, as the Soviet Union celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution’s 70th birthday, in the presence of allies such as East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.
Less than half-a-decade later Ceausescu was dead and East Germany had vanished, as did the careers of Gorbachev and his Politburo, along with the empire they led and the revolution that they and their marching troops had assembled to salute.
The parade, then, was a dying power’s farewell party, the last hurrah of its leaders’ quixotic resolve to make their empire great again.
The US is not a declining power. Trump’s parades, however, might help it become one.