Burns: Is Trump parading the wrong values?

Monitor columnist
Saturday, February 10, 2018

What is with Donald Trump’s infatuation with the military?

I ask this after seeing the latest symptom of his swoon for all things martial: His “suggestion” that the Pentagon brass start planning for a massive military parade, complete with tanks, howitzers, rocket launchers and other weapons of war, while ranks and ranks of uniformed troops march with military precision and scores of jets scream through the sky above.

It would be, of course, in our nation’s capital, Washington D. C., on Pennsylvania Avenue past the Capitol and the White House. And he, President Trump, would preside over it all from a lofty viewing station overlooking his troops, his weaponry. In the company, no doubt, of his generals, as he is wont to call them.

Uh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Sort of like the giant displays of military power that we see in other countries. Countries like China. North Korea. Countries that aren’t, well, democratic.

Massive military displays and celebrations were a theme in Hitler’s Germany and later in Stalin’s Soviet Union. More recently, Vladimir Putin has revived the practice, staging annual displays of raw military power in Moscow.

It’s interesting. Until he threw his hat into the presidential ring, Donald Trump never seemed to be a man consumed with patriotic fervor or devotion to the military.

As a young (rich) man, he’d neatly avoided our disastrous misadventure in Vietnam, which killed close to 60,000 American service people, by avoiding the draft with a series of four student deferments. And after that, he conveniently came up with a diagnosis of bone spurs on his feet – an affliction that, amazingly, doesn’t seem to keep him from traipsing endlessly across his golf courses.

He was not unaware of the southeast Asia conflagration he managed to skip, of course. He once boasted to radio shock jock Howard Stern that, while others were risking their lives overseas, he had successfully avoided sexually transmitted diseases while sleeping around in New York City. “It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

Even after he decided to run for president, Trump couldn’t resist a despicable dismissal of John McCain, who spent five years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, often subject to excruciating torture. “I like people who weren’t captured,” he sneered.

And during his campaign he attacked Gold Star parents who criticized him at the Democratic convention, describing his “very, very hard work” constructing some buildings (and bankrupting others) as “sacrifices” comparable to those made by the family’s late son and the hundreds of thousands of others who lost their lives or were wounded in wars.

But when he moved into that White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (which, he told golf buddies, was a “real dump” compared to his customary gilded residences) he became infatuated with military men, particularly generals.

And since he’d apparently run out of billionaires and Goldman Sachs alums for his cabinet, he turned his eyes to the military, and – amazingly – he discovered he really liked those generals.

So manly! He gave a bunch of them top jobs in his administration.

It was not exactly a home run move. Two seem to be doing well – or at least keeping their heads down. Another, chief of staff John Kelly, may be ill-adapted to the civilian, political world.

His latest gaffe was his reluctance to agree that a credibly accused wife abuser really doesn’t belong in the White House.

And a fourth general – Michael Flynn – has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with a special prosecutor.

Despite these mixed results, though, Trump’s passion for the military knows no bounds. Even

before his inauguration he told the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty that “we’re going to display our military…. That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.”

During a trip to France last summer he was bowled over by the spectacular display of military might used to celebrate Bastille Day and the beginning of the French Republic, promising that he would top it. And I should note that the Gallic nation has been celebrating it thus for nearly140 years.

But they are alone among their fellow European democracies.

After the horrors visited on them in two world wars, most European countries decided – wisely, I think – that celebrating military power wasn’t such a good idea. And, yes, France is the exception. But since when do real red-blooded, freedom fry-loving Americans try to imitate the French?

So far, many Americans seem be repelled by the idea of a celebratory parade while we still have troops fighting and dying in foreign lands. And they are underwhelmed by the notion of a bristling display of military hardware.

It would be awesomely expensive at a time when our secretary of defense is testifying before Congress about the urgent need of increased funding just for our military to do its basic job. It would divert thousands of troops from other, pressing jobs. (Just imagine the time spent drilling!) And that massive equipment would do serious damage to the infrastructure of our nation’s capital.

In the 1960s, my husband was one of those on the front lines of freedom, poised to protect West Germany in case of a Soviet invasion. Practically, that meant spending a lot of time roaming the countryside in tanks. Which regularly destroyed German roads and fields – and, he says, “the occasional Volkswagen” that got in the way.

Those were 52-ton tanks. Today, we have 70-ton tanks. Think of Pennsylvania Avenue in a parade’s aftermath.

The generals Trump tasked with planning this extravaganza are thus far mum, although it sounds as if different “options” are on the table. Just a few days ago a spokesperson said that alternate venues are being talked about.

But I’d guess that not one of those generals – or anyone else – can come up with an explanation of why we would want to flaunt our military power before the world.

Those countries so eager to show their alleged military prowess are trying to convince the rest of the world that they are not to be trifled with.

But we – and the rest of the world – know that we are the most powerful nation on earth and unlikely to lose that distinction, China notwithstanding. Unlike other countries – or, clearly, our frighteningly insecure president – we don’t have anything to prove.

If we must have a parade, let it be a classic American one.

Let’s have colorful floats, with high school bands and baton twirlers doing their synchronized routines, maybe Uncle Sam on stilts, unicycles and grinning politicians perched on convertibles.

Perhaps a beautifully restored vintage fire truck, and definitely a bunch of grizzled service vets squeezed into their old uniforms and marching with their heads held high.

That’s a parade celebrating the America that people around the globe admire and want toemulate.