Members of Congress from both parties joined retired military leaders and veterans in heaping scorn Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s push to parade soldiers and weaponry down the streets of the nation’s capital — calling it a waste of money that would break with democratic traditions.
The parade, if it takes place, could bring tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, howitzers and rocket launchers to Washington for the first time since June 1991, when then-President George H.W. Bush staged a $12 million victory celebration after the Gulf War that also served as a cathartic thank you to Vietnam veterans.
But even that feel-good effort drew isolated accusations that Bush was mounting a demonstration better suited to Moscow’s Red Square — complaints echoing even more loudly now that Trump is pushing for his own display of military might.
“I think confidence is silent and insecurity is loud,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters in expressing opposition to the idea. “America is the most powerful country in all of human history; you don’t need to show it off.”
“This is definitely not a popular idea,” added Paul Rieckhoff, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, describing the feedback he is getting from members of the largest group of post-Sept. 11 veterans. “It’s overwhelmingly unpopular. Folks from all political backgrounds don’t think it is a good use of resources.
“We are very aware of anything that politicizes the military,” he told POLITICO.
Former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), now a conservative radio talk show host, also attacked the idea on Twitter: “Obama wasn’t a King. Trump isn’t a King either. My side needs to quit treating him like one. We don’t elect Kings in this country, remember? No military parade.”
Some of the loudest criticism, however, came from Democrats who warned that such a parade — which the White House portrays as a tribute to military members and veterans — would be an affront to American principles.
“A military parade of this kind would also be a departure from the values of our constitutional democracy,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement. “We are a nation of laws, not of one person. In the past, we have held military parades to celebrate major national events such as the Gulf War or the end of World War II, as achievements by the American people who fought in and supported those efforts. A military parade like this — one that is unduly focused on a single person — is what authoritarian regimes do, not democracies.”
A pair of Democratic military veterans in Congress — Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Ted Lieu of California — wrote Defense Secretary James Mattis in a letter Wednesday that just “because authoritarian regimes like Russia and North Korea hold massive military parades does not mean that we must as well.”
The critics urged the administration to either scrap the idea or settle on a relatively small celebration to honor the men and women in uniform — without the kind of the weapons and heavy equipment commonly featured in parades in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang.
But Mattis told a White House news briefing that preparations for a celebration are underway, though he offered no details on whether a parade will definitely take place or what it would include.
“We’re all aware in this country of the president’s affection and respect for the military,” Mattis told reporters at the start of the daily White House briefing. “We have been putting together some options. We will send them up to the White House for decision.”
The 1991 parade, described at the time as the largest military gathering of its kind since World War II, included about 8,000 troops, a separate display of missiles and other large weapons, and drew an estimated 800,000 spectators. Its $12 million cost was considerably more than initially predicted.
The equipment on display included 67-ton tanks and 30-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicles, The Washington Post reported at the time — adding that on Constitution Avenue, “the treads of the heavy machinery left deep marks in the asphalt softened by the 85-degree heat.” Amphibious assault vehicles crawled up from the Potomac at 14th Street Northwest, 83 warplanes flew overhead, and spectators on the Mall got a glimpse of parked helicopters and a Patriot Missile launcher.
Retired Army Col. Rick Kiernan, who led the Army contingent in the 1991 parade, predicted that anything on par with that event would require an immense effort to stage today — requiring participation from thousands of troops who would have to drill beforehand, while bringing in Humvees, tanks, missile batteries, aircraft and other equipment to represent the various branches of the military.
It would also probably take troops away from their families and other official duties, he said.
Unlike 1991, he noted, the armed forces today are fighting in numerous nations around the globe, and military leaders have been warning of cracks in preparedness.
While Kiernan said he has no quarrel with finding a unique way to honor troops who have served in America’s recent conflicts, “I wouldn’t call lots of troops to Washington and take them away from their duties.”
Instead, he advised making it “a small representation of each of the services.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers questioned the price tag of what Trump is considering.
Four Democratic senators asked Mattis in a letter Wednesday to lay out the total cost in light of his testimony earlier this week that a lack of funding has left the Pentagon “overstretched and under-resourced.”
They asked what it would cost to plan the parade, secure the route and transport equipment, as well as what training or operations would have to be rescheduled or curtailed to accommodate the event.
“At a time of war, with American service members serving in harm’s way, such a parade seems to be inappropriate and wasteful,” Dick Durbin of Illinois, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Gary Peters of Michigan and Patrick Leahy of Vermont wrote. “Every penny of the millions of dollars that the parade would cost and every second of the tens of thousands of personnel hours its execution would require, should be devoted to the most essential missions of the Department of Defense — protecting the American people and our security interests.”
Others insisted any such preparations should be called off immediately.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a double-amputee Iraq War veteran, issued a statement saying that “our troops in danger overseas don’t need a show of bravado, they need steady leadership, long-term funding and resources so they can stay safe while protecting and defending our nation.”
Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis similarly called on the president to cancel the plans. “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,” he wrote in Time.
Instead he advocated for other ways to show gratitude, including local events.
“On a smaller scale, local parades make a lot more sense,” the former commander of NATO wrote, noting that 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?”
One Republican lawmaker took the opportunity to use the parade controversy to make a broader point about Congress’ lack of oversight of America’s foreign wars.
“I’m all for a parade,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, “if it’s to celebrate bringing our young men and women home from these unauthorized wars overseas.”
Connor O’Brien and Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.
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