The first military parade I ever attended was on April 16, 1951, when General Douglas MacArthur stopped off in Hawaii on his way back to the United States from Korea. There was a parade for him and he gave a speech at the Punch Bowl, the military cemetery on Oahu. I was four years old. My dad was over in Korea fighting the war, but my mother took me to the parade and speech. It was a solemn occasion. MacArthur was a hero for his command of the Pacific Theater during World War II, but now this military giant was on what we would today call a kind of “pity tour,” having been stripped of his command for his failures in Korea by President Truman. He would go on to a ticker tape parade in his honor four days later in New York City, and more parades and more speeches, including his famous last address to Congress, when he famously said, “The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on The Plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
I am here today to tell you a little about military parades, because I marched in a hell of a lot of them back when I was in high school ROTC and in my four years at West Point. The Plain at West Point, remembered so fondly by MacArthur, was where I marched in most them. When I was there between 1965 and 1969, we marched in as many as three parades a week, attired in Full Dress Gray uniforms, under cross belts and ammunition packs, wearing cadet full dress hats, carrying M-14 rifles, or if you were a First Classman, a saber.
Growing up as an Army brat, I was given to understand that military parades had two purposes. Most often, they were a form of training and inspection. On weekdays at West Point, we used to form up in the area of barracks and then march out onto the Plain where we would come on-line in front of the reviewing stand. The cadet First Captain would take a report from the Cadet Adjutant that the Corps was all present and accounted for, and then he would receive the order from the commanding general to “pass in review.”
The West Point Band would strike up the march we called “The Thumper,” the Official West Point March written in 1927 by the West Point Bandmaster, First Lieutenant Phillip Enger, and off we would march, one battalion after another “passing in review” before the commanding general, who was there along with other officers of the Tactical Department inspecting our marching prowess to make sure it was up to the high standards of West Point.
On Saturdays, we would go through the whole thing again, but on the weekends the parade would be in honor of a distinguished visitor to West Point — say, the chancellor of the college we were playing in football that weekend, or a foreign head of state, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff up from the Pentagon on an inspection tour, or maybe a congressman or senator on the armed services committee with jurisdiction over the Military Academy budget. In those cases, the “pass in review” was overseen by the distinguished guest, and the salute we registered as we passed in front of the colors was also to acknowledge his (or far less frequently) her honored presence. We all understood that parades were spectacles intended to kiss important asses. But we knew you didn’t have a parade to kiss your own ass.
This amounted to the official purpose of all those parades, literally hundreds of them over four years. To the cadets, however, the ass kissing of superiors by the generals was a gigantic pain in the ass for us. Avoiding parades was like a badge of honor for cadets. I had classmates who injured themselves on purpose to get out of the grim duty. I stood in a classmate’s room one night as he took a huge encyclopedia he had checked out of the library and crashed it down on his forearm, breaking the bone. Other guys took minor sports injuries and blew them way out of proportion so they could get a slip of paper from a doctor excusing them from parades.
To the generals in charge of West Point — the Superintendent, the Commandant, and the Dean — parades were a way to make West Point look good to their superiors, thus burnishing their own reputations and careers, and a way to advertise the West Point “brand.” Why look, dear! Look how perfectly groomed and fit all those cadets are in their little uniforms, how beautifully they march in unison, how respectful they are of authority! Aren’t they simply wonderful!
Meanwhile, to those of us doing the marching in our superb physiques and well-groomed countenances and perfect uniforms, the parades weren’t about training or honoring some dignitary — who gave a half a shit about the foreign minister of the Dominican Republic anyway? — they were just one more way for the fucking majors and colonels and generals to make our lives even more of a living hell than they already were. Out there on The Plain in the middle of those battalion formations, guys were farting and yukking it up, and plebes were being ordered to tell jokes to amuse the upperclassmen. One of my classmates could do an absolutely perfect impression of the sportscaster Howard Cosell, and he used to hilariously call the parade like Cosell would call a football game as we marched. During a parade one Saturday, the general noticed cadets in one of the battalions appeared to be shaking, so he ordered an investigation, which uncovered the fact that the Cosell impressionist was causing the whole battalion to laugh so hard, the formation vibrated with laughter. That ended that.
Perfectly executing parades was considered so essential at West Point, that occasionally cadets would pass out from the heat during summer parades, and our instructions were to march off without them. The whole Corps of Cadets would pass in review before medics would be allowed out on The Plain to police up the bodies.
Which brings us to the news yesterday that our president, Donald Trump, has decided he wants to give himself a gigantic military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue sometime later this year, maybe in November on Veterans Day. There are a number of things wrong with this picture, beginning with the idea that the United States of America as never engaged in the kind of silly military puffery and strutting done by fascistic regimes such as North Korea, or Noriega’s Panama, or Yeltsin’s Soviet Union, or Pinochet’s Chile. Such displays of burnished military power have seemed beneath us, at least until right now, when apparently there is nothing beneath us, nothing we can do to further debase ourselves as a people and a nation in the almighty name of Trump.
So the question arises, don’t the generals at the Pentagon get it? Isn’t there something they can do to warn him off this impending display that will make us look like a tin-pot dictatorship, in love with spit and polish and tanks and bullets?
The short answer is no.
The general officers of today’s military didn’t get where they are by warning their superiors against doing stupid shit, like say, invading Iraq, or keeping the so-called “war” in Afghanistan going for 17 years and spending thousands of young American bodies in the process. They got their stars and their offices on the E-Ring of the Pentagon by saluting and saying “Yes Sir!” every time some political dimwit told them to do something that would end up making the United States of America look like bullies, or fools, or both.
Sure, they know that military tradition says you don’t throw a parade in your own honor. None of the generals currently in command have thrown a big parade celebrating anything for the simple reason that they haven’t done anything worth parading for in several decades. So at least they can cling to that teeny little nugget of respect for tradition.
But do you think there is even one of them who’s going to stand up to Trump and tell him how his silly parade violates military tradition and honor? Hell, none of them has done the right thing and told him there’s no chance we’ll ever “win” in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan, so we may as well stop killing young American men and women and get the hell out. Why would they tell him his parade amounts to the same kind of folly? They won’t.
So what’s going to happen? Well, there will be a savage scrambling at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel to see whose Infantry battalion, or tank battalion, or F-18 squadron, or battery of air defense missiles will be chosen to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. They’ll pound on doors and pull strings and suck up trying to get one of the coveted slots in the parade because it will make them look good. And if they look good, the generals will look good. And if the generals look good, then the Pentagon will get more money in the next budget, and they’ll get to deploy more troops to more hell holes where they don’t belong, and they’ll get to engage in more spurious “missions” nobody knows the purpose of, and everybody’s careers will flourish, and everybody’s shoulders will sport even more stars, so when they retire from their do-nothing jobs accomplishing exactly jack-shit in hell holes like Afghanistan and Niger and Djibouti, they can pull down hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries in jobs at defense contractors, and pocket beaucoup bucks distributing their spurious wisdom to the masses as commentators on platforms like Fox and CNN, and everything will be Right With The World.
Meanwhile, down at Fort Jackson, or Fort Bliss, or Fort Benning, or Pensacola, or Parris Island, soldiers and sailors and marines will be down on their hands and knees polishing lug nuts and shining warheads and painting turrets and Windexing canopies and waxing Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and they’ll be starching their battle dress uniforms, and polishing their M-4’s, and practicing “forward MARCH!” and “column right MARCH!” and “present ARMS!” until their fingers bleed and their soles wear out. And tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars will be flying out the door that could have given them a pay raise, or funded child care on military bases, or provided needed funds to VA hospitals, or help prevent suicides of victims of PTSD. Now that would make some sense. But are they going to make sense next Veterans Day? No, they’re going to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in a great big useless fucking parade.
Donald Trump will be sitting up there in the reviewing stand in front of the White House, and he’ll never hear them down there in the ranks laughing their asses off.