It’s not as if tanks have never driven through the streets of Washington before. In fact, armoured vehicles used to roll past the Capital every April 6, which used to be called Army Day, and I have vivid recall of a celebratory military parade after the Coalition’s victory in the 1991 Gulf War:
They rolled a lot of hardware down Washington’s streets that day, including not just Abrams tanks, as pictured above, but Bradleys, Patriot missile batteries, and lots and lots of soldiers:
Now, later model Abrams tanks, and a couple of Bradleys (which are armoured vehicles, but not “tanks”, actually) will be trundled out. So what?
Well, the vibe is a little different this time, isn’t it? Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put it this way:
It isn’t just that Fat Donny is going to be using military hardware as props in what amounts to a giant MAGA rally (which is said to have riled the Joint Chiefs); you could argue that the 1991 parade was part GOP stunt too, intended to some degree to help Bush the Elder’s re-election chances 1992. It’s that nobody ever pictured George H.W. Bush as a fascist dictator in waiting. Nobody ever worried that he might not leave office if he lost to Clinton. Nobody ever worried that the loyalty of all those soldiers might be transferred away from the Constitution to reside with Dear Leader.
I used to fret, in the sour aftermath of the Viet Nam war, that Americans had too little appreciation for their military, and wondered whether the experience in South East Asia would so change public opinion that America’s role as guarantor of the post-war world order would be abandoned. Nowadays I worry that Americans have too much – far too much – regard for their armed forces as the chief exemplar of their national greatness. They seem far too eager to celebrate their national capacity to destroy things, particularly at civilian events that shouldn’t have anything to do with jingoistic chest thumping. Why should bombers and fighter jets scream over stadiums at football games and stock car rallies? Why is someone who protests during the national anthem “disrespecting the military”?
More generally, why does no one question military policy, and the political decisions that have made the armed forces so central to American life? Why does nobody really worry about how the Pentagon is spending, and in too many cases outright squandering, the 700+ billion that taxpayers hand it every year? Why does it bother nobody that American forces are right this minute locked in one form or another of interminable conflict across almost every theatre of operations in the world? Why does it worry nobody that time and again, the application of force fails to achieve political objectives? Why is the military far and away the most respected institution in modern American society?
It’s worrying to see so many citizens, egged on by their ludicrous President, celebrating raw military power as a key facet of what it means to be American, and what America means to the world. Perhaps it’s a sort of crutch; perhaps they realize, if only dimly, that it’s really the only category in which they still occupy the undisputed global number one spot. If so, it’s a sign of a culture and a mighty nation in serious decline. The raw power is supposed to flow from greatness, not the other way around. They’re supposed to walk softly while they carry that big stick. They’re supposed to inspire envy, not fear. Free people, moreover, are supposed to understand the limitations of force as an instrument of national policy, and know in their bones that if they ignore justice at home and let society rot around them, all those big nasty weapons will avail them nought, cease in due course to be affordable, and have no purpose anyway, there being nothing left to protect, and no conceivable justification for imposing their will on geopolitical rivals.
More than anything, the population of a Western liberal democracy is supposed to view its armed forces as a necessary evil, and recoil in horror at even the merest whiff of the possibility that the military has political favourites, or is the tool of the Chief Executive, to be used as he pleases, including to advance his own electoral prospects. Donald is turning the 4th of July into a partisan event, and using F-35s and M1 tanks as props meant show how he, the Great Trump, has made America mighty. Donald is always bragging about how he’s strengthened the military, a preposterous claim, like all his claims, but one that he clearly expects to resonate with his base. A lot of that base seems to inhabit the rank and file of the armed services (witness them crowding around Donald on his military PR visits, wearing MAGA caps and Trump-branded shoulder patches), and that has me worried, especially when those in the voting public start to think that’s just fine.
The 4th of July really ought to be about hotdogs, marching bands, and free concerts on the Mall at which no politician speaks and everyone puts away their partisanship for just a little while to celebrate the founding principle of e pluribus unum. Not this year. Not with Fat Donny in charge. But not all the signs are bad. Trump wanted a great big parade of armour to trundle past, but instead he’s getting a few vehicles put on static display. That’s the best indication that all the chatter about the Joint Chiefs being appalled has something to it.
I’m going to believe that the Chiefs will hold true, should the once inconceivable time come, to their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. My sanity demands it. Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be great if Trump’s Yay Me! Yay things that go boom! extravaganza was as big a bust as his inauguration?