Why we ought to have a military appreciation parade

President Trump has asked the Pentagon “to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation” for America’s military.  Although the idea is still in its “infancy,” it could manifest itself in a military appreciation parade, which would be a first since 1991.  Will it cost millions?  Probably.  Will there be counter-demonstrations?  Sure.  Is there a risk of terrorist attacks?  Of course.  Should we do it?  Yes, and here’s why.

America’s military has been constantly at war since 9/11, yet it’s been more than 26 years since we’ve had a national military parade honoring those serving – even though doing so has long been an American tradition (contrary to what another general seems to think).

Ironically, in a country in which millions routinely turn out for parades for sports teams, several pundits are already grousing about having one to honor those in the armed forces.  In my view, a major event like a national-level parade can play a positive role in helping to address the much-discussed civilian-military “gap.”  It can also give all Americans the chance to come together as one nation.  Couldn’t we use more of those kinds of opportunities these days?

Regarding the civ-mil “gap,” many analysts across the political spectrum have expressed concern that with less than one half of one percent of Americans serving on active duty, the divide between the military and the society it serves is widening.  Indeed, in a report issued last summer by the Center for a New American Security, researcher Amy Schafer found that the burden of defending the nation is not being spread across society, but rather the military is becoming something of a family business, drawing from an ever-narrowing slice of the polity.  She says:

Over the past several decades, familial military service has become one of the strongest predictors of future service, and this trend is likely to become more concentrated as fewer Americans opt or are eligible to join the military.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it this way in a speech here at Duke in 2010:

“The military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families.  With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success – with those who have friends, classmates, and parents who have already served.  In addition, global basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states:  Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, and here in North Carolina.  For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the northeast and on the west coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake.”  

As a result, he warned, “there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”  Accordingly, anything we can do (to include something as seemingly small as a parade in a major northeast metropolitan area) to re-acquaint Americans with their military (and, perhaps even more importantly, vice versa), is a worthy investment for a democracy.

Ms. Shafer’s research revealed another troubling trend: “[w]hile today’s youth show a distinct willingness to support the use of force, they lack a commensurate willingness to serve in the military.”

Along that line, last October it was reported that Army recruiters have found that of the 33.4 million Americans in their target age group, “only 1.7 million of those young people are of the high quality” the military wants.  Of that 1.7 million, “just 136,000 young people would even be interested in joining the Army.”  The Army has identified a surprising (to me anyway) reason for the reluctance to serve: “[m]any of today’s youth are not inclined to want to leave their family and friends.”

But I also believe that young people can be persuaded to serve if they know more about the armed forces, and get the right message about military service.  For example, experts say that Generation Z “seeks deeper social connections” and has a “need to be part of something bigger than themselves.”  For their part, evidence also shows that Millennials “work for a purpose, not a paycheck” and, like Generation Z, they “want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

In a real way, that is what the military provides.  Tom Wolfe, a nationally recognized career transition expert, concluded in 2004:

There is nothing in the civilian workforce that can approximate the bonding that occurs in the wardroom, ready room, or foxhole.  Military personnel in those environments put up with much hardship — long hours, stressful working conditions, danger to personal safety, separation from loved ones, and more.

However, because they are all in it together, they get through it. This mutual self-sacrifice, teamwork, and covering each other’s six contribute to individual bonding, unit cohesion, and, ultimately, the camaraderie in question. (Emphasis added.)

These are experiences and lessons that I believe a lot of our very best young people would want if they knew where to get them.  Unfortunately, the thought of military service never even occurs to many of our most talented young people, even though polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in American society, that the military tops all other groups as the entity Americans believe will “act in the best interests of the public,” and that being a military officer is considered among America’s most prestigious professions.  Most recently, a poll showed military officers to be second only to nurses as the group with the highest  “honesty and ethical standards.”

In my admittedly anecdotal experience since retiring from the military in 2010, I’ve run across quite a few people – young and old, but especially young – who have never personally seen, let alone spoken with, an active duty member of the armed forces (or even any veterans – who now comprise just 7.3% of the population).   At most elite universities. for example, the chances of an undergraduate meeting a classmate who is veteran or serving member of armed forces are very slim.

The fanfare of a national parade in a key media market will at least give some of the citizenry who might not otherwise be exposed to the armed forces something of an opportunity to see part of their military, as well as some of the wonderful men and women who serve in it.  And, yes, there should be some hardware – the public needs to see the reality of weapons of war – but it shouldn’t be overdone.

A major public event like this taking place right here in the U.S. could give Americans a more unfiltered view of their military than the glimpses of overseas combat they see on television. Even for those who will never serve, this very tangible experience might help to remind them that: a) we are still at war; and b) there are real people who are going in harms’ way to defend them.  Ideally, this event could be a catalyst for much-needed dialogue about who should serve, and what the nation should be asking them to do.

Furthermore, I do think that most Americans would appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate in a very big and public way their gratitude to the military for its efforts in the wars since 9/11.  This could help sustain the morale of the force, which has suffered thousands of killed and wounded.  It could be a meaningful counter to the sense of isolation that I believe is widely-felt in the military, that is, the feeling that the military is “at war” while “America is at the mall.”  And remember how tough a job it is: CNBC reports that being an enlisted soldier is the most stressful job in America…and they serve for a median salary of just $27,936. 

Frankly, we owe those who are serving a major event like this, especially in light of recent successes.  After all, the U.S. military was central to the defeat of the ISIS caliphate, but the public hardly seems to have noticed.  Journalist Ross Douthat observed in the New York Times recently that the U.S. “succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.”

In explaining why “nobody seemed to notice” such a militarily-significant achievement, Douthat cites a number of reasons, but most interesting is this:

But this is also a press failure, a case where the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested.

We can’t let the politicized “narratives” the press may want to propound about a particular politician dictate how – or even if – our apolitical military is honored for its warfighting prowess.  That said, President Trump (or, for that matter, anyone else) needs to restrain himself and not try to exploit this event for his own political gain…or the effort will not achieve its intended purpose.

Rather, this is an opportunity for all Americans to set aside, at least for a day, the bitter partisanship that is dividing the country.  Of course, a parade can’t solve all of America’s issues, and we shouldn’t raise any expectations that it possibly could.  Nevertheless, if Americans can show themselves that they can come together for this kind of celebration, perhaps we can start the journey to close the partisan divides which are hampering this country from being what Americans want and need it to be.  Isn’t it worth a try?

Update:  Today (Feb 9)  The Atlantic published a somewhat abbreviated version of this blog post.  Although I had to leave out some of the discussion you see here, at their request I addressed a couple of additional issues such as the cost, and why marching in a parade is good for the troops (and the public) even if some young people in uniform don’t relish the idea of marching (or other drill) at the moment.  Take a look here.

As we like say on Lawfire, get the facts, check the law, and decide for yourself!


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