WASHINGTON — For the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who would be tasked with making it happen, a military parade like the one President Donald Trump envisions would be a colossal pain in the rear guard.
Trump has long fantasized about being in the center of a celebration involving thousands of soldiers marching in formation alongside tanks and missile launchers. And in January, after watching 6,000 soldiers march through Paris last summer to commemorate a turning point in the French Revolution, he told military brass to start planning a parade “like the one in France,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Unlike France, the U.S. is ill-prepared to host a massive display of military might — in large part because it doesn’t do so very often. With the exception of small local celebrations, the last military parade in this country was at the end of the Persian Gulf War nearly 30 years ago. The one before that was to celebrate the end of World War II.
HuffPost asked some current and former members of the military what they thought of a potential parade. Their views aren’t necessarily representative of everyone in the military, but the people who were willing to talk thought the parade was a pretty dumb idea — and that it would be much harder to pull off than the commander in chief might imagine.
U.S. troops are out of practice marching in formation
For Trump to have a huge parade in Washington, D.C., the military would likely have to shuttle in units from other parts of the country, find places for them to stay, provide them with meals, and secure their weapons. The U.S. military employs lots of people — about 2 million active duty and reserve service members — so it’s possible to cobble together a few thousand troops to match France’s parade. But those people all have jobs that don’t involve marching around in a straight line for the president’s amusement.
There are some regiments in the D.C. area with service members who are well-trained in marching and ceremonies. The 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as the Old Guard, conducts ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, maintains a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and provides military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery. But a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue consisting only of troops from the Old Guard would look “laughably small,” said Jonathan Hollis, who served in special operations forces and completed four deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It’s not what Trump has in mind.”
And these days, most members of the military don’t spend a lot of time marching.
“Drill and ceremony was not a priority compared to training for combat deployment when I was in the Army, and as a company commander, I’d rather have been in the field,” said Benjamin Lee, who served as an Army Civil Affairs officer.
“If I had to choose between getting my soldiers more time on the range and shooting straight, and using their equipment, such as drilling on radios, versus drill and ceremony, I would always choose that training that made them better prepared for the mission and better able to survive,” added Lee, who is now a Democratic member of the board of representatives in Stamford, Connecticut.
“Personally, I think we’d look terrible,” said Jonathan B., a former member of the Navy who requested HuffPost not include his last name because he is still involved with organizations that work with the military. He said he hadn’t marched in formation since boot camp.
“We have all these ceremonial units that do this on the regular,” he said. “I don’t know why we need to get everyone else in a room together and just suck.”
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Preparation for a parade of the scale Trump seems to want would require participants to practice for about a week in advance, several current and former members of the military estimated.
“Just marching, just practicing, because it’s not something that you do every day,” Hollis said. “For something like this, that’s going to be on national television, it’s going to be live-fed worldwide, if people are out of step … all it takes is one person screwing up and somebody takes a picture of it and it becomes a meme, and that’s all anyone remembers.”
If Trump wanted the military’s biggest, most badass-looking military equipment on display during the parade, it would likely require the participation of active duty service members who are either preparing for deployment or have recently returned from a combat zone. National Guardsmen have some heavy equipment, but their weaponry tends to be older — and unless Trump federalized the National Guard for the purposes of his parade, he would need a governor to volunteer the state’s troops.
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Active duty soldiers often operate on training schedules that are planned out years in advance in order to ensure a rotation of troops who are prepared to go in and out of combat.
“Stopping everything and extensively practice marching is going to disrupt those missions,” Lee said. “You would likely be taking combat units off of combat training. Or you’ll likely have to take soldiers who just got back from Afghanistan or Iraq who are on a ‘rest’ cycle for training. Do you really wanna say, ‘Hey guys, your vacation is canceled, come back and practice marching’?”
Jonathan said he wouldn’t have disobeyed a direct order if he’d been asked to participate in a military parade while in the Navy — but he also said he would have tried to find a way out of it.
“I am not wasting a day standing and marching around in my freaking uniform so that somebody can get their rocks off,” he said.
Transporting military equipment is expensive
Trump would probably want his military parade to outdo the one he attended in France. That means he would ask for equipment like tanks, mobile missile launchers and anti-aircraft rocket launchers ― much of which is located on bases in states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
It costs a lot of money to move heavy weaponry. When the U.S. prepared to send vehicles and equipment home from Afghanistan, the estimated cost of transportation was about $6 billion, the Guardian reported in 2013.
And you can’t exactly drive tanks down the interstate. They would tear up the roads and get terrible mileage: less than one mile per gallon. That means the heavy equipment would have to be flown in on a military transport aircraft, shipped in on a cargo ship, or loaded onto a train or transporter truck.
Once the equipment made it to D.C., the people transporting it to the site of the parade would have to figure out how to do that without ruining the city’s roads.
“None of these weapons systems were designed to be moved through civilian streets unless you are invading them,” Lee said. “They are not meant to be moved through friendly civilian streets for giggles.”
What’s the point?
The point of a military parade would be to “honor our service members,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday. But when HuffPost asked veterans if they felt honored by the idea of a military parade, the response was mostly a collective eye roll.
“The only people that like this stuff are the VIPs,” said one 20-year veteran of the Army who requested anonymity because he still works for the military.
“Everybody hates life preparing and executing these dog-and-pony shows,” he added, using a term that two other veterans used to describe the parade.
Several veterans bristled at the idea that the U.S. needed to show off its military prowess in a big parade. “We demonstrate our military strength in joint military exercises that we do pretty much all the time all over the world,” Jonathan said.
“The U.S. may not be first in a lot, but it’s certainly the most powerful military in the world,” said Taylor Mickal, a former Navy corpsman, adding that a big military parade would just exude insecurity.
A better way to show respect for the troops would be to devote more resources to job programs and suicide prevention for veterans, said an Army reservist who requested anonymity because he is still in the military.
“Trump still doesn’t have the faintest idea of what meaningful patriotism looks like. It’s why we’re having this inane debate over athletes kneeling before a football game,” Luke Thomas, who served in the Marine Corps and is now a journalist covering mixed martial arts, wrote in an email. “Turning service members into props is reprehensible on its own, and even more enraging when it comes from a man who paraded his own disdain for military service.”
HuffPost asked the Pentagon to respond to current and former members of the military who think the parade would be a big waste of time.
“We are aware of the request and are in the process of determining specific details,” Pentagon spokesman Jamie Davis said “As you can expect, this is a complex event and there are many variables that go into the planning and execution of a parade.”