The Truth About Military Parades

It is a safe bet that by the time the Pentagon does actually get around to giving Donald Trump the parade he has demanded, two things will have happened: First, the scale will be considerably less than the hundreds of M-1 tanks roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue deplored by many of the President’s critics; second, the current fuss will be long forgotten in the avalanche of scandals, crises, and constitutional battles that lie ahead.

Yet it is still worth considering what exactly these military parades mean, and why people get so exercised about them. And it is possible to do so without talking over much about draft-dodging presidents and why the troops hate rehearsals.

Victory parades are easy enough to figure out. The Grand Review of the Armies in May 1865 included 145,000 troops from three Union armies—of the Potomac, Tennessee, and Georgia—marching past cheering throngs of onlookers. There were some uncomfortable moments. General William Tecumseh Sherman, still bristling over what he regarded as unwarranted and brusque orders from Secretary of War Stanton, refused to shake the latter’s hand. But overall, the mood was joyous, albeit still shadowed by the assassination of President Lincoln little more than a month before. The armies marched down Washington streets for two days, and then quietly, almost instantly, melted away to their homes. The song “Goodbye Old Glory” was written in September 1865, but it caught the mood:

Four weary years of toil and blood,

With loyal hearts and true,

By field and fortress plain and flood,

We’ve fought the rebel crew,

But Victory is ours at last,

The mighty work is through,

Sound drums and bugles loud and fast,

This is our last tattoo.

“The mighty work is through.” That too was the mood of the victory parades for World War I held in New York and Washington in September 1919, some nine months after the armistice. 25,000 troops led by General John Pershing were cheered mightily, as they too received a nation’s thanks before returning to factory, farm and store. In January 1946 a similar parade through New York celebrated the end of World War II. It featured the 82nd Airborne Division, less, perhaps, because of the glamor of parachuting than because of its nickname: “All-American.” And, of course, there have always been local parades for units returning home from the wars.


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The Case for a Big, Beautiful Military Parade

The last real victory parade in the United States was after the first Gulf War in 1991. It involved 9,000 troops and plenty of kit, which spectators were free to gawk at and climb over at the Mall. This was a different kind of celebration: for a professional force, not for draftees and for-the-duration volunteers about to return to civilian life. It made more of a victory over a third-rate opponent than was seemly. In keeping with the over-the-top mood of the time, in fact, military leaders had given serious consideration to having the Iraqis sign the armistice on the quarterdeck of the battleship Missouri, where MacArthur had imposed peace terms on the defeated Japanese in Tokyo Bay in 1945. That ludicrous proposal, like the parade, reflected less the experience of the war than a deeper, if still uneasy, sense of having wiped away a disgrace. Like so much else from the First Gulf War, it was an attempt to banish the ghosts of the unsatisfactory outcome of Korea and the failure of Vietnam. A parade served, in this case, as exorcism.

Victory parades make one kind of sense. But there are other kinds of parades, such as those at the inaugurations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. These included tanks and, in the cases of Eisenhower and Kennedy, atomic artillery and missiles. The United States stopped doing that. So too has another country which once celebrated its independence with a big military parade including hardware: Israel. The Israeli military parades ended in the 1970s. France, of course, has its elaborate and always spectacularly staged Bastille Day parade, which is the inspiration for our current debate. Its origins go back to 1880. France had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1870 at the ends of Germany; its politics were deeply factional, riven between secularists and Catholics, democrats and royalists. A military parade was a way of binding the country together. It became as well a symbol of French glory and power despite the unexpected defeat of 1870, the carnage of World War I, the catastrophe of 1940, and the humiliations of Indochina and Algeria.

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