When I was graduating from Army basic training, our unit was assigned to put on a program for the families of arriving recruits. It was a carefully choreographed spectacle to show them what their family members would learn in the coming weeks.
In one part of the performance, three newly minted soldiers proclaim why they decided to join the military. Some said they came from a family with a long military tradition. Others said they wanted to defend their country from those who would harm it. Others still said they just had a general love of their country and freedom. It was carefully rehearsed, with the three soldiers who spoke chosen by the drill sergeants.
But there was one condition: The speakers could not say that they enlisted for college money.
This strikes at the heart of a problem that President Trump’s parade is a mere symptom of: We are not honest with ourselves about our military, and our blind worship of the institution is troubling.
This year the United States will spend $824.6 billion on defense. Meanwhile, social safety nets get gutted, schools go without heat, tens of thousands die from opioid overdoses and infrastructure crumbles.
The military is rarely open to criticism. Any negative remark by a public figure must be prefaced with “but we are thankful for our brave soldiers, who sacrifice so much to keep us safe.” The sentiment has become a mindless tic, a meaningless platitude that is nonetheless repeated.
No other institution earns such veneration. Sanitation workers, who have a dangerous job and play a larger role in the day-to-day comfort of U.S. citizens, are not thanked for their service. No one points them out to their child and says, “That is what a hero looks like.”
Worse, it seems that the people who are the most vocal in their support of the troops are the first ones to march along when the war drums get beaten. By the twisted logic of U.S. military worship, questioning a war is tantamount to betraying the troops. Antiwar protesters are shouted down, proven right and forgotten.
Then the cycle repeats.
We are a nation that uses the threat of crippling university debt to persuade kids to risk their lives in pointless wars. This is difficult to accept. It is far easier to thank them for their service and say that the pain is for a worthy cause.
American rituals include buying a new yellow ribbon magnet for the SUV after the old one gets faded by years in the sun, standing for the national anthem, saying that we shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees while there are still homeless veterans, and then forgetting about the homeless veterans as soon as the refugees get turned away. These rituals help distract us not only from how callously we treat our own citizens, but also how callously we treat the world as a whole.
In 1993, as the United States was considering whether to send troops to intervene in Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked a question of Army Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to his memoir.
“What’s the point of this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” she pointedly said.
Powell was so disgusted that he had to leave the room, he recalled. He later said, “American GIs are not toy soldiers.”
That is what this parade will be. A shining display of America’s toy soldiers for the country and the world to see. They can all witness the United States proudly displaying its No. 1 priority: a killing machine more powerful than the world has ever known and that keeps growing because it is never satisfied. A machine that is always looking for the next target.
Military parades are popular in tin-pot dictatorships for a reason. They hide a suffering populace behind rows of military vehicles and fighter jets screaming overheard — fighter jets whose hourly operating costs are enough to feed, clothe and shelter a family of four for a year.
If the parade lasts an hour, at least two people will have died of opioid overdoses before it finishes.
Jason Berger served the Army in Iraq and was honorably discharged as an enlisted specialist. Twitter: @JasonBerger1