When I showed up at the Naval Academy, the first thing they did after shaving my head was to teach me to march. Over the next four years as a Midshipman, I marched in countless parades, generally a couple every week. Like every other Midshipman to pass through the gates of Annapolis, I hated it. They are a lot of work to rehearse, don’t do anything for morale, and are expensive in terms both of time and preparation.
Every time there was a parade scheduled, the entire Brigade of Midshipmen literally prayed to the rain gods to send a downpour and thus cancel the parade. And those were for relatively simple parades of 4,000 Midshipman who were already living within a five-minute march of the parade field — no missiles, tanks, trucks or jet aircraft being towed around. I thought after I was commissioned I had left serious marching behind, and I was glad to do so.
But now we have a President who evidently wants a military parade “like the one in France” — meaning their Bastille Day celebrations. I am very respectful of French culture and the French military, but the idea of a big, showy, expensive parade reminds me less of our French allies and more of the old Soviet Union “Who has the biggest missile?” extravaganzas, or the truly creepy North Korean jitterbug marching style galas, with the even creepier “young leader,” Kim Jung Un, urging his nation of sycophants on in wildly over-the-top applause, which has a clap-hard-or-die feel to it.
Now let me be honest – the Navy is no doubt the service that is least attuned to the idea of marching. And I am all for doing things that honor our brave troops, especially those who have fought so bravely in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. But I would respectfully submit that ordering a spectacle down Pennsylvania Avenue is not the best option. The last time we did a big parade like this was several decades ago and it cost over $10 million. Some estimates have the cost of a big one today topping $20 million, which would include moving all the tanks, missiles, jets, helicopters and military bands to Washington.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has correctly stopped handing out little “challenge coins” from his office — symbolic tokens that officers in our armed forces give to troops. As he told me, they don’t contribute to readiness or combat capability — why waste the money? That is the Jim Mattis I know, and I’d say he’s got it right on the challenge coins. I’d recommend we apply the same logic to this kind of parade.
For the men and women who have to put in the time planning, rehearsing, creating a security plan (a parade would be an extraordinarily juicy target for the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, by the way), setting up the stands, cleaning up, taking down the stands, and getting all their gear back home would, frankly, not be having a lot of fun. This would no doubt fall on a holiday weekend (Memorial Day, Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, of course) so there goes their hoped-for and much deserved weekend break.
Would they enjoy walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and hearing the applause? I guess. Would they enjoy a nice weekend off at the lake, among their friends and families, even more? That’s my bet. We know that we have the best-funded, most war-experienced, highest morale military in the world. That is not a threat or a boast — it is a fact. We don’t need a puffy parade to show the world we can fight. Believe me, the world knows that already.
I know this isn’t an either/or situation, but I’d prefer to see our Department of Defense, which is so well led by Jim Mattis, focus on planning for war, pushing the VA to improve, funding military families with good medical and childcare benefits, and honoring our fallen with ceremonies as they are laid to rest. Those are the best ways we can honor them.
On a smaller scale, local parades make a lot more sense — they connect to communities and help recruiting. Or here’s an idea: instead of the big parade, how about a cookout honoring the troops? With rib-eye steaks, BBQ chicken, ribs and cold beer, civilians buying, cooking and cleaning up afterward? Or just continue to say, sincerely, “Thank you for your service,” when you meet active duty troops or veterans? Let’s leave the missiles in the silos where they belong, and be quietly confident in the lethality, professionalism, and integrity of our military — no parade necessary.