Why Trump’s military parade won’t be ‘like the one in France’

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The Pentagon and White House are planning a military parade requested by President Trump, breaking with U.S. tradition. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin has them. So do North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Now, President Trump wants his own military parade in Washington, with soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards. Officials told The Post on Tuesday that say they had begun to plan a grand military parade later this year showcasing the might of America’s armed forces.

“The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told my colleagues, who also noted that shows of military strength are not typical in the United States — the last of its kind took place in June 1991 as 8,800 U.S. troops and the weapons that helped the United States win the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein were celebrated in Washington.

But in Europe, defense scholars immediately raised questions whether Trump’s desired military parade would really fall into the same category as France’s Bastille Day parade, which is held annually and is deeply rooted in the country’s history and values. Both parades would feature the respective nation’s military might, but they might still send very different messages, some European defense analysts and columnists cautioned.

“For the record: France’s Bastille Day military parade is an old tradition, going back to 1880. Its longevity and popularity have many historical reasons. Probably different from Trump’s motivations,” wrote Sylvie Kauffmann, an editorial director and columnist with French newspaper Le Monde and a contributing writer to the New York Times, summarizing a widely shared sentiment in Europe on Wednesday.

Whereas France’s Bastille Day — founded to celebrate the turning point of the French revolution — has been associated with an annual military parade for over a century now, efforts to combine a similarly patriotic holiday with a military parade in Washington might strike many foreign observers as an odd timing. Why now?

To White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the answer to that question appeared clear on Tuesday evening: “President Trump is incredibly supportive of America’s great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe,” Sanders said. “He has asked the Department of Defense to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation.”

But what has long been understood to be a national, historic tradition in France would likely be perceived by many as a more timely political message from a single U.S. individual to the nation, and indeed to the world, along the lines of: Look at how strong we (and I) are.

Not only did France’s Bastille Day parade evolve in a different context, persisting through two world wars and Nazi occupation, but it has also often been used to emphasize a very different message that could be summarized as: We are only strong together. What Trump may have missed while watching the Paris parade last July was that its organizers have frequently invited foreign troops — from Morocco, Britain, Germany to India — to march alongside French soldiers or to even lead it. Instead of the French flag, French soldiers sometimes wave the European Union flag, even though the political bloc does not have its own army.

On a continent where Trump has never had many supporters, defense analysts worried on Wednesday whether the President’s alleged misunderstanding of military traditions was sign of a broader problem. “At what point does healthy appreciation for the military turn into unhealthy obsession?” asked German defense expert Marcel Dirsus.

Wednesday’s remarks echoed similar European responses that have repeatedly emerged throughout the first year of Trump in office. When Trump warned North Korea of “fire and fury” last summer, his remarks made analysts wonder whether Trump is aware of the catastrophic effect an activation of nuclear weapons would have.

After Trump emphasized the size of his “nuclear button,” in January, observers from the United States and elsewhere criticized the remarks as “infantile” and ill-advised.

“Trump plays with the subject so carelessly and recklessly as if it were some kind of video game,” Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has advised several secretaries of state, said on Twitter. “My head’s exploding.”

The way Trump discusses nuclear weapons may fall into a pattern at times observed among military officials in the past, as researchers pointed out at the time. They were referring to a 1985 study by Carol Cohn, who analyzed military remarks that compared nuclear war with “an act of boyish mischief.”

Cohn said that such remarks were an expression of a “competition for manhood” and “a way of minimizing the seriousness of militarist endeavors, of denying their deadly consequences.” She concluded that they posed a “tremendous danger” in real life.

But size appears to have mattered in Trump’s desire to organize a military parade in Washington, too.

“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters last year, referring to the Bastille Day in Paris. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France.”

“We’re going to have to try to top it,” Trump added.

James McAuley contributed from Paris.

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