News that President Trump has ordered the Department of Defense to plan a large military parade in Washington this year has generated a new wave of concern over Trump’s authoritarian instincts, especially given the huge costs of such an overt display of martial pomp. But the president’s desire for a large display of military might is not unique to Donald Trump. In fact, it is merely the culmination of the American public’s decades-long, uncritical embrace of the all-volunteer force.
This phenomenon, which began gathering pace in the decades after the Vietnam War, reached a crucial turning point in summer 1991, the last time that the streets of Washington hosted a large military parade. These celebrations shaped not only the relationship between American society and its military in the long years of the “War on Terror,” but also foreshadowed Trump’s own particular brand of militarism.
Millions of Americans turned out to rejoice in the victory over Iraq and to venerate their armed forces as heroes. Gallup polling in the aftermath of the war showed that the military had become the most trusted institution in the country, a position it still holds, and politicians were quick to embrace the celebrations as an opportunity to advance their policy agendas.
The buildup to war with Iraq in 1991 saw a huge upsurge in support for the troops. Americans proudly displayed yellow ribbons everywhere from their front yards to their lapels. They sent thousands of care packages and letters to soldiers stationed in the Persian Gulf. And the entertainment industry also pitched in — from the Voices That Care supergroup that cut a single aimed at boosting troop morale to Whitney Houston’s flag-studded performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl.
This wave of patriotism was grounded in the notion that, regardless of the politics of the war, U.S. soldiers must be supported loudly and publicly. Most important: The experience of the Vietnam veterans, who had faced scorn on their return from war, was not to be repeated.
Given this atmosphere, it is no surprise that even before the war ended, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu had a draft schedule of homecoming events on his desk, having received ideas on managing the celebrations from a Washington public relations firm Feb. 22, two days before the ground campaign in Kuwait even started.
In the aftermath of victory, President George H.W. Bush’s White House was inundated with advice from political operatives and supporters on how to make maximum political use of the impending victory celebrations, which could, in the words of one adviser, “lay extremely solid foundations for 1992.” Other politicians saw the victory as a way to unite the nation politically behind the president: House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich urged Bush to use the volunteer ethos of the military to advance conservative policy ideas by urging Americans to “join with that volunteer Army of freedom” to “make the 21st century the next American century.”
Similarly, the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, which had close ties to the Bush administration and the Kuwaiti government, suggested that Bush appoint Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf or Gen. Colin Powell to run “Operation Domestic Prosperity,” a 100-day push to make the United States a “home for heroes” by passing the administration’s domestic policy agenda. Other firms suggested having the Department of Defense handpick returning veterans to “maintain and expand in a meaningful way the national sense of pride, accomplishment and good feeling generated by Operation Desert Storm.” These volunteers would be carefully selected and receive media training before being sent out to various media markets to promote the administration’s agenda.
The Pentagon was wary of linking the groundswell of support for the troops to the White House’s agenda, however, urging, “Our role is to be responsive to what is clearly an outpouring of local-, state- and national-level support, and to provide assistance and guidance.”
Ultimately, the White House took the Pentagon’s advice, taking a step back to allow others to run the homecoming celebrations. Through it all, the White House paid “particular attention to events that might offer political benefit to the administration.” But politics took a back seat to patriotism. Rather than following Gingrich’s advice, in his March 6, 1991, address to Congress, Bush called for “every community in this country to make this coming Fourth of July a day of special celebration for our returning troops. They may have missed Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I can tell you this: For them and for their families, we can make this a holiday they’ll never forget.”
Americans in big cities and small towns were quick to respond to Bush’s request, and parade committees sprang up across the country. Although not centrally planned, these parades all echoed the themes the White House had identified even before the end of the war: heroic soldiers and veterans (including Vietnam veterans), the triumphs of U.S. technology and the strength of the all-volunteer military.
Virtually every major U.S. city hosted a victory parade. New York’s celebration attracted at least 1 million spectators, while a large contingent of Vietnam veterans, led by Gen. William Westmoreland, marched in the Los Angeles event. The inclusion of Vietnam vets in the parades not only afforded them a belated welcome home but also underlined the administration’s point that the victory in Kuwait had, in the words of Bush, “kicked the Vietnam syndrome for once and for all.”
The Washington parade took place June 8, 1991, and featured more than 8,000 troops led by Schwarzkopf. Planned by the Pentagon and paid for with U.S. tax dollars and private donations (including $1 million from the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments), the parade focused not just on honoring the troops but celebrating the technology used to win the war. The parade featured a 12-minute fly-past of more than 80 aircraft led by a lone F-117 stealth fighter, an icon of the war, and 31 heavy military vehicles, including the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank and the Patriot missile system. Not only that, but seven blocks of the Mall were dedicated to what reporters jokingly called a “military petting zoo” displaying weaponry and equipment, even allowing visitors to try on gas masks or practice laying a howitzer on the Washington monument.
So Trump’s desire to celebrate the power and achievements of the U.S. military is not new. But Trump would be advised to remember that these events do not always live up to official expectations. The 1991 parade in Washington, for all its pageantry on display, attracted about 200,000 spectators, far fewer than the 1 million that parade organizers had hoped for. The crowd featured a heavy contingent of federal employees and defense contractors, a group that one reporter observed was “tightly connected to the military and the bureaucracy, closer than most of the country to weapons and the workaday of war.”
All told, though, the number of people who attended victory parades that summer reached into the millions, and the celebrations in some areas continued until September 1991, far outstripping the actual duration of the war itself. The parades gave U.S. citizens a chance to celebrate the troops, and in doing so allowed them to feel connected to their military without requiring any sacrifice or serious thought about war and its consequences.
In many ways, the cheering has not abated since, and some of the themes of these parades, such as the lauding of U.S. military technology, the all-volunteer force and — above all — the notion of the soldier as inherently heroic, have become a permanent feature of U.S. popular culture. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that Trump wants a parade. Perhaps, instead, we should be surprised that there haven’t been more national parades since 1991.