Military Parades and the Wider Scope of Things

The above video is Marine Gunnery Sergeant Walgren speaking before the invasion of Marjah in 2010. It’s since become a staple of Marine Corps moto (motivational) culture and it always resurfaces around Veteran’s Day and the Marine Corps Ball. It used to be the video that would make an annual appearance but it now shares a lot of that former limelight with all things related to the Patron Saint of Chaos, General James Mattis. Still, there’s an important similarity between the two that goes deeper than the hype factor. Give Mattis a spin through Google Images. Then do the same for Eisenhower, Puller, Nimitz, Macarthur…do the same for any famed American flag officer. A pattern presents itself. In none of any of their most iconic photos are these men depicted as overseeing anything like a parade or an inspection. Particularly for the most recent of them, where PR is a fact of life, they’ll always be pictured standing amongst a small group of ground troops. And that’s not a coincidence.  

Former SEAL Robert O’Neil’s take on the proposed military parade as ‘third world BS’ hits it pretty square on the head. The problem with military parades is that they tend to come off as one of two ways, despotic or goofy. Sometimes both. You can already guess what the despotic elements are, the Mao, Stalin, or Hitler imagery of the mega armies, whole nations mobilized for endless war and the ensuing catastrophes. What’s a bit more of a novelty is the element of absurdity when these displays miss their mark and those overseeing them seem completely oblivious to such. It comes off as a joke. We feel this when we see North Korean generals unable to accommodate all of their medals onto their chests or when Idi Amin wants us to believe he is a champion swimmer. National military parades are joining this tier.

Within the military itself, parades and formations still have some place. Internal studies have shown being honored by one’s own peers and immediate superiors is a powerful motivation, sometimes desired more than bonus pay or time off. But a lot of that respect comes down to the specifics. Servicemembers are willing to stand in formation when it’s earned, for an individual or group that truly stand out. But there’s contention when it’s over something dubious. I’ve personally watched Marines storm away from formations when highly regarded decorations were handed out for tasks like running a mail room or supply shop. It’s accompanied by a feeling that the upper echelon of leaders is increasingly being peeled away from the lower enlisted and that the rewards system is bogged down in careerism and favoritism. It becomes unclear who the ceremonies are meant to honor.   

Martin Van Creveld touches on this in his book, The Culture of War. By his account, leaders aloof of the direct realities of running a military often let the armed forces either degrade into obsolescence or transform them into ceremonial play-things (not too different from Peter III of Russia and his obsession with literal toy soldiers). The military becomes a dog and pony show more focused on parades and dress uniforms than on efficiency. Further, the idea of martial competence as a skill requiring serious study lapses into a cosmetic veneer. It becomes something like ‘glamping’ or the sense evoked when someone insists they’re a good chef because they can make scrambled eggs.

Now, the current situation isn’t quite that bad, but there are hairline cracks to keep an eye on. In the long run of the Western world, the political leader as a warrior has been phased for the image of the leader as a diplomat, and more recently, as a business executive—all of which may be absolutely necessary for the changing complexities of global politics—however, there’s been a retention of viewing institutions like the military as belonging to the elite. ‘The boys in uniform’ still act as an object to project a fantasy. Ben Fountain nails this in a scene from his novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk.

I’m not going to force Fountain’s words into my own, but his depiction of the situation is among the best I’ve encountered. The book centers around the experience of Specialist Billy Lynn as he and his platoon mates are honored at an NFL half-time show. Included with the event is a meeting with a fictional team owner, an older and immensely wealthy gentleman who unironically takes a kind of paternal stance over the soldiers despite being oblivious to even the most surface details of the war. Honoring the troops using his excess wealth becomes a way of legitimizing himself. But even here the book is being gentle. It was published in 2012, before it was revealed how much money the DOD was dumping into the NFL to use it as a recruiting tool.

Beyond patronizing, the other shortcoming of military parades is that they don’t simulate what military practice actually looks like anymore. The days of a big troop blocks following maneuvers that resemble drill movements have been left long in the past. Nor are tactics as reliant on officer direction as they once were. Decisions once reserved for lieutenants are now being made by NCO’s. Even the skill gap between the officer and enlisted side is shrinking as more servicemembers enter the military in with some college experience (Personally, my bet is that at some point a college degree will cease to be a requirement for becoming a commissioned officer, particularly as colleges come to function like gumball machines, money goes in, degree comes out).

Our present doctrine of the three-block war knocks the traditional structures even further down. In short, the current strategy prescribes that ground troops play a multitask role on the front. The idea is that in a given city, servicemembers may be functioning as infantry on one block, police officers on another, and as humanitarian aide on a third. Combined with the fact that each of those nineteen-year-old lane corporals are carrying the means for activating more firepower than whole platoons had in past eras, the responsibility entrusted to the average grunt is irreconcilable with the ‘cog in the machine’ mentality. And so, there is an end to image of the general sauntering down the line with the swagger stick. And the United States will do just fine without it.  

No one benefits from having a kid driving a tank through DC. It may be fun for the day, but it’s not what counts. What counts is when the nation takes care of its vets on its own. When servicemembers reintegrate into their local communities and partake in enterprise. There, honor comes in the form of expectation. It was once that most servicemembers came from family farms or small towns. They went off, came back, and returned to work. Those kinds of communities may be disappearing but the impulse remains. In our globalized era, just as it’s that the people have a sense of accomplishment in what they do on a day-to-day basis, so too must servicemembers return home and feel the same. It’s what keeps the bulk of the military nested in the citizenry. They come back to this side of the line. The ultimate loyalty lies here, and not to an endless series of interlocking conflicts throughout the world.

Two issues linger in connection with this. The first is the economy. The jobs have to actually exist. This is something that will need to be monitored as more and more sectors of employment run the risk of automation or replacement by AI. The second part is the culture. Returning to the invocation of John Glenn’s speech in the opening video, the forcefulness of his statement was in response to his opponent in his 1974 senatorial run, Howard Metzenbaum. Public support for the war in Viet-Nam had collapsed and Metzenbaum had, amongst other similar tactics, taken to referring to Glenn as ‘Colonel’ to keep him pinned to the unpopularity of the military at the time. It was a reelection strategy. That Metzenbaum himself was a staunch opponent of the war, I do not doubt. But there is something murky about trying to impart the idea that an astronaut was more responsible for a war than the congress overseeing it.

Still, I write this not as a chance to heap onto the dumpster fire of politics as a whole (the politicians themselves seem to be quite good at doing that on their own) but as a warning to the veteran community and our supporters. Whether it’s the Right or the Left, we ought to be guarded against being dragged into unwinnable and neurotically driven culture wars within our nation’s upper tier. Secretary Mattis recommended the troops, “hold the line until our country gets back to respecting each other,” in the wider military community, that line must be held just as ardently within the nation as beyond it.  


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