Last week, news broke that Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon to plan a massive military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
A lot has already been written about the political implications of the parade, with many writers, including Playboy’s own Brian Karem, raising concerns about authoritarian overtones. Many commentators have asked probing questions about what this means about the direction of the country, whether it’s divisive or if the people who are against it just hate America and the troops.
Missing from many of these takes is one particularly burning question: Are the troops actually excited about spending hours marching around in formation for no particular reason?
Trump has touted it as an event to honor the military. Proposed dates include Veterans’ Day and Fourth of July . But the response among military members and veterans has been at best lukewarm. Many high-profile veterans all along the political spectrum mocked the idea of the parade. Robert O’Neill, the Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden, tweeted out “a military parade is third world bullshit. We prepare. We deter. We fight. Stop this conversation.”
Military-centric reddit boards immediately filled with comments from troops and veterans complaining about the amount of work it will inevitably be to put on an event that’s ostensibly to honor them. An informal survey conducted by the Military Times found that 89 percent of its readership opposed the parade on the grounds that it’s a waste of time and money. The White House budget director even recently stated the parade could cost up to a whooping $30 million.
“All those millions of dollars that are being spent on pomp and circumstance? Put that money into training, or improving soldiers’ lives.”
Military units already regularly participate in parades of all sizes around the country, often close to their home bases. But Trump’s proposed parade is shaping up to be the largest the country has seen since the 1991 parade celebrating the return of troops after the swift victory of Operation Desert Storm.
“I don’t think that it’s a good use of military resources to spend time parading soldiers around when they can actually be conducting tactical training and operations,” former cavalry officer Geoff Oakley tells Playboy. “All those millions of dollars that are being spent on pomp and circumstance? Put that money into training, or improving soldiers’ lives.”
But Army veteran and author Eric Fair tells Playboy he doesn’t think it’s likely to take away time from training—as he sees it, their commanders will likely make time—whether soldiers like it or not. “Soldiers won’t prepare for the parade with time that could be spent on other things. They’ll still have to do those other things while finding time to prepare for the parade,” Fair explains. “They’ll find this time at night when the day is usually over. Also Saturdays. And Sundays. Holidays, too.”
Pete Lucier, Marine infantry veteran, tells Playboy that it will take a lot of effort to get ready for big ceremonial functions, especially for any units that will be wearing dress uniforms. “Preparing costs money. Some units, better organized units, may allot some extra uniform dollars. But that was rarely my experience,” he says. “Getting your uniforms tailored (you gain and lose lots of weight when you deploy, then return), getting ribbons and medals mounted, and often buying new uniform items like shoes is expensive. For a typical Marine Corps ball, prepping my uniforms cost over $100 dollars.”
Troops will be expected to look their very best—that means meticulously trimming loose threads on their uniform and shining shoes until you can see a reflection. “When a whole unit or base has to participate, the dry cleaners in town back up and the lead time to get your shit back takes weeks. If you don’t plan months ahead, you’ll be shit out of luck,” Lucier says.
Daniel Kim, a former Army infantryman, recalls a particular occasion in 1995 when he was picked to participate in a ceremony while he was stationed in Hawaii. At the time, Kim’s unit had just returned from a long, exhausting training rotation in Australia.
“One day, my first sergeant called about four or five of us into his office. He told us that President Clinton would be giving a speech at the Punchbowl National Cemetery on the 50th anniversary of V-J Day, and we were voluntold to be in the color guard,” Kim recalls. “This would be 52 soldiers, each holding the flag of a state, plus one each for Puerto Rico and D.C.”
They spent weeks preparing for the event to get things absolutely perfect. Then the day came. “Some genius decided that, rather than being at the Punchbowl two hours prior, we’d have to arrive no later than four hours prior,” Kim says. “Staff gnomes from division inspected us, found nothing wrong, then told us to just stand by. So, we did, for another five hours, since Clinton was never on time for anything. I hated that, still do, and I even voted for the guy twice.”
“We all were tired, thirsty, hungry and angry by the time it was over,” Kim adds. “Twenty-odd hours of practice over two weeks, five hours of standing at the Punchbowl bored out of our minds, then another hour waiting for the crowd to thin so we could break down our flags—just for one half-hour speech. We never got so much as a handshake from Clinton, or even some minuscule acknowledgment from his staff.
Trump wants the parade to showcase tanks, missiles and all manner of other warfighting hardware. Much of this equipment is spread out in bases across the country, which means that various units would have to travel from their duty stations to Washington and bring all their hardware with them. It would be a massive logistical effort to get all that equipment into the D.C. metro area, through the city streets for the spectacle, and then back again. It will cost millions of dollars and require hours of work by troops.
“I never mind doing my job. I mind when a ceremony or ritual that is purportedly to honor my fellow service members is a colossal dog-and-pony exercise in self-fellatio.”
It’s also worth noting that the military hardware present during the 1991 Gulf War parade did significant damage to Washington’s public infrastructure.
“Why subject soldiers to the kind of accordion effect that such events cause for its participants?” Kim asks. “Make them form up hours in advance for an event that shouldn’t even be happening? Why subject valuable vehicles to the wear and tear of driving five kilometers per hour on asphalt?”
Even smaller ceremonial events can prove to be long and drawn out for the troops participating in them. “You stand around all morning ahead of the ceremony trying not to fuck up your uniform, then spend a few hours at attention trying not to pass the fuck out in formation, all to listen to senior officers drone on and suck their own dicks,” Lucier explains.
Fair can already picture the event in his head. He says that in his experience the parade will either be on a balmy summer day with troops sweating profusely or in winter with them enduring frigid rain. “This will make it easier for the TV commentators to comment about how strong we are and how none of this bothers us. It’s a little harder to make this point when it’s hot because you can’t actually see heat on TV. Also, there will be myriad comments about how ‘I could never do that’ or ‘I don’t know how they do that’ or ‘It takes a special kind of person.’ That sort of shit.”
Despite the gripes troops usually have about pomp and pageantry, it’s in many ways an important part of military culture. “The military thrives on ritual, of which parades are one form,” Lucier explains. “From boot camp, to life in the ‘fleet,’ to the various initiation rites, the shared experience of ritual is what binds the military together—just like any religion, or street gang.”
In particular, the Marines take pride in their iconic blue dress uniforms. “Attention to detail in uniform prep in some ways is a training exercise for attention to detail on patrol. Plenty of great infantry Marines enjoyed the uniform prep process,” Lucier says. “Personally? I fucking hated it.”
The icing on the cake is that the potential dates for the parade are holidays that troops would usually have off to have a BBQ with their families or go drinking with their buddies. “I’m sure your average soldier would take one more day to spend with their significant other than spend five more hours on a parade field. Because you never get those hours back,” says Oakley. “Why make people march on a holiday? I don’t think anyone should have to march on a day they should get to relax.”
“I think it’s disingenuous, especially for a five-time draft dodger, to call for a military parade.”
“I just don’t want to bitch too much about ‘oh I could have been with my family’—the Marine Corps is a time suck, it’s what I signed up for. So, I try to take it in stride,” Lucier says. “I never mind doing my job. I mind when a ceremony or ritual that is purportedly to honor my fellow service members is a colossal dog-and-pony exercise in self-fellatio.”
Kim vividly remembers his last experience with military pomp and circumstance before leaving the Army. “My last such ceremony was for a battalion change of command, which I thankfully didn’t march in because by then I was on battalion staff,” Kim recalls. “I finally did what I had longed to do during those things: I snuck out as soon as I reckoned no one would notice.”
With palpable sarcasm, Fair tells Playboy that making troops march on a holiday is a “wonderful idea” particularly if it’s Fourth of July. “That way when the parade is over we can have fireworks and remind all the troops what it was like to be shelled at Abu Ghraib. Or Baghdad. Or Fallujah. Or Kabul. Or Mosul. Or Mazar-i-Sharif,” he says. “I think that covers all the places we got shot at the last decade and a half. I might have left a few thousand out.”
Part of the backlash seems tied to the fact that thousands of American troops are deployed worldwide, conducting open-ended wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—alongside less discussed engagements in Africa that recently captured the public’s attention after four troops died in Niger. Thousands of American troops have died since 9/11, but victory seems elusive.
All the while, this burden has been taken on at a time when fewer and fewer Americans express interest in military service. Oakley is blunt about why that bothers him. “I think it’s disingenuous, especially for a five-time draft dodger, to call for a military parade,” he says, adding that he would have felt the same way about the Clintons throwing a military extravaganza.
“What anthropologists would say is that failed ritual tells you more about culture than ritual performed correctly that achieves the desired result,” says Lucier. “When rituals fail is where you can see which steps are most important, what a culture expects from the rites they perform, and what they truly believe. Veteran backlash against the parade is an example of an attempt at ritual that is failing.”
But regardless of how troops feel, military life is as much about obedience as it is about ritual. The military is following the Commander-in-Chief’s orders to draw up plans to put on a show.
“Vonnegut said he would no sooner write an anti-war book than write an anti-glacier book. Both were futile and impossible to stop,” Fair says. “I’m pretty sure he would update that comparison if he’d heard about this parade. There’s no stopping it. Embrace the suck.”