February 7, 2018
Oh no, there he goes again.
That’s the reaction, generally speaking, to the news that Donald Trump wants the Pentagon to arrange a glitzy military parade. Trump is breaking yet another piece of china in the shop of American democracy, glamorizing the armed forces in the type of martial spectacle that, until now, was the authoritarian privilege of countries like North Korea and Russia. Once more, Trump in his singular way is disrupting and demeaning our politics.
That’s all true, but only to a point. While the Washington Post says the parade “might be the most thoroughly Trump idea of his presidency … upending decades of American political tradition,” the military has been used as a prop for a long time by Democrats, as well as Republicans. Just think of the countless times you’ve seen politicians give speeches in front of perfectly positioned Humvees and fighter jets. The difference between the two parties might just be that Republicans are better at it. Witness the adulation that greeted George W. Bush landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and compare it to the immediate laughs provoked by Michael Dukakis riding on a tank during the presidential campaign of 1988.
But it’s not just political parties that for decades have used the military as a red-white-and-blue backdrop. The military has also been its own willing impresario. Think of the Super Bowl flyovers and the halftime ceremonies for soldiers — and the fact that rather than the military being dragged into these spectacles, it has paid its way into many of them. In 2015, a congressional report revealed that the Pentagon spent $53 million on sports marketing and advertising contracts in just a three-year period. About $10 million of that was paid directly to professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. “These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops,” noted the report, which was titled, “Tackling Paid Patriotism.”
The spectacle of military spectacle was even the focal point of a scathing 2016 film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” in which an exalted platoon is brought home from Iraq for a halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. (It’s an intended echo of a famous tour in 1945 for three survivors of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.) The soldiers are amused and disgusted by the whole spectacle, and generally relieved when it’s all over and they can get out of their insane homeland and return to Iraq.
These critiques have not slowed down the marketing of the military. The traditional flyover at last Sunday’s Super Bowl (the first was in 1968) was preceded by a Pentagon publicity blitz that included one of the F-16 pilots giving a ride to actress Elizabeth Banks (of “Wet Hot American Summer” fame) a day ahead of the game. A video of that flight was posted onto the Facebook page of the F-16 Viper Demo Team and on YouTube.
It’s unknown whether the Pentagon brass is unhappy with Trump’s idea for a parade, but lots of veterans have spoken out against it, especially on Twitter. They’re up against a lot — we’re up against a lot — because it’s not just the military that has been turned into a product placement for our political culture. To push his hardline policy against North Korea, Trump used several human props in his State of the Union address — the North Korean refugee Ji Seong-ho, and the parents of the late Otto Warmbier. This wasn’t a new method of making a statement, of course. Long before Trump launched his improbable campaign for the White House, presidents have been singling out their State of the Union guests to underscore political points. Every policy needs a prop, whether it’s a Humvee or a defector.
It’s too easy to make this about Trump, whose insincerity and phoniness are legendary. The president who wants a military parade is the same guy who evaded the draft five times with bone spurs for which there is no medical evidence, just the Donald’s word. The president who wants a military parade is also the same guy who pledged to give $1 million to veterans in 2016, but failed to do so until the media pointed out that he was not honoring his promise.
Trump deserves the criticism he’s getting, and let’s hope his parade never happens. But he’s not the originator of this madness. We have spent decades preparing the slippery slope he is gleefully pushing us down.