So President Trump wants a parade. He has wanted one since his inauguration, when the planning committee for the event reached out to the Pentagon for “pictures of military vehicles we could add to the [inaugural] parade.” That request was eventually abandoned, but the idea has returned, apparently thanks to Trump’s having visited France’s Bastille Day celebration last year and observing its military march through the streets of Paris.
But the problem — one problem — with the idea is that an American military parade will not really compete well with classic examples we’ve seen around the world, such as parades in China, Russia and North Korea. North Korea had another parade Wednesday, with all of the pomp and circumstance that we’ve come to expect from such affairs.
The problem isn’t that the United States can’t compete militarily; far from it. The problem is that North Korea’s parade is a bit like a high school student who has been quietly practicing his Harlem Globetrotters moves and then putting on a big display in his school’s gym. Impressive, sure. But in this analogy, the United States is LeBron James, who has been publicly showing everyone what he can do for a while. If James wanted to put on a show in a school gym, he could, sure. But it’s not really going to have the same hyperactive panache.
Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute who is intimately familiar with the displays put on in other countries. He watches them closely to learn what he can about the systems under development and the politics behind how and when they’re made public.
Which is itself a central point: The United States’ military and military leadership is not an inscrutable entity that we can present to the world all at once in a massive demonstration of force.
In a phone call with The Washington Post, Lewis noted that an important aspect of North Korea’s parade was to try to suss out the power dynamics surrounding Kim Jong Un.
“You get a sense of who’s important by where they’re sitting and where they’re standing,” he said. He noted that in a recent parade, there was footage of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, “flitting around behind everybody.”
“It was one of the first insights we had where we were like, Oh! The sister’s really important,” he said. “She’s not just up there standing and looking. She is just offstage, making things go.”
In the United States, there’s no such mystery.
“It’s a little bit different now because the Trump family is enigmatic in this way,” he said, “but generally speaking, we have a transparent and open political process, so we don’t have to guess who’s important based on where they are on some dais.”
“That’s also true of military capabilities,” Lewis added. “We see them well before they appear in a parade.”
I had reached out to Lewis in part to get a sense of who would win a missile-measuring contest: How do the systems shown by Russia, China and North Korea compare with what would be in an American parade? He made it clear that such comparisons don’t work all that well.
“The problem is, our systems — they’re just different,” Lewis said.
For example, there won’t be any intercontinental ballistic missiles rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue — because we don’t have mobile missile launchers.
“We put our missiles in silos, which if you did that in China would be vulnerable because our missiles are really accurate,” he said. “So they put theirs on trucks to drive them around. We don’t really do that, because the Russian and the Chinese missile? Eh, we’re not that worried.”
There was an effort in the 1980s to develop a mobile missile system, which resulted in a vehicle evocatively called the Hard Mobile Launcher.
It was “rad looking,” Lewis said, but also expensive and unnecessary. One of the two remaining versions was recently sold for scrap by a museum in which it had been housed.
So on that score, the United States’ parade can’t compete.
“If you have a fetish for mobile ballistic missiles, then the Chinese and especially the Russian ones are really, really cool, and we don’t have anything like that,” he said.
The parades in Russia, China and North Korea are all “heavy on the heavy equipment,” he said, unlike in other countries. There’s a deliberate effort to include systems that are visually impressive, to reinforce that sense of the power of the state.
“They’re picking things that look good on parade,” Lewis explained. “A lot of things are very much parade-oriented. Like the submarine-launched ballistic missiles in the North Korean parade are just carried on flatbed trucks. That’s purely for the parade; they don’t carry them that way. They’re in canisters, and the canisters get moved around. But they make sure to take them out of the canister and expose them so that you can see them.”
“Whether it’s a tank or a missile, the thing that, if you’re a viewer, is they’re all enormous,” he added. “They’re physically imposing. . . . In the act of curation they tend to pick things that are big and scary-looking. It’s not necessarily a representative sample of the hardware that’s available to them.” Nor is it all new technology in many cases.
The parades often save the best stuff — such as nuclear missiles — for the end. (Lewis compared them to “The 1812 Overture.”) In between are flyovers by military aircraft and plenty of marching soldiers. It’s hard to outdo another country’s marching soldiers, although the Indian military certainly gives it a shot.
The North Korean parade also includes floats.
“They always have a float dedicated to machine tools, which is really boring, but you don’t get the fancy missiles without the machine tools,” he said. “Sometimes the stuff is kind of cheesy, but it’s still very important, because it tells you that it matters enough for them to brag about it.”
The United States, of course, doesn’t need to include floats demonstrating its high-technology capabilities.
In this case, U.S. military dominance and openness is disadvantageous. Everyone already knows what we have and who’s in power; no one’s tuning in to the U.S. military parade to learn who’s running the Army or to see whether we’ve mastered armored vehicles. And, at least in the case of mobile missiles, we can only pass out comic strips, while North Korea and Russia have big inflated Garfield balloons. (This is a metaphor.)
“I think confidence is silent and insecurity is loud,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said of Trump’s parade idea Wednesday. This was a rhetorical argument against the United States feeling the need to prove itself. But one might also argue that the U.S. military parade has been internationally ongoing for the past five decades.
Oh, LeBron can dunk? Good to know.