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Why Trump’s military parade won’t be ‘like the one in France’

The Pentagon and White House are planning a military parade requested by President Trump, breaking with U.S. tradition. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Chesnot/The Washington Post)

BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin has them. So does North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Now, President Trump wants his own military parade in Washington, with soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards. Officials told The Washington Post on Tuesday that they have begun planning a grand military parade later this year showcasing the might of America’s armed forces.

“The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Post, which noted that shows of military strength are not typical in the United States. The last of its kind took place in June 1991, when 8,800 U.S. troops and the weapons that helped the United States win the Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein were celebrated in Washington.

But in Europe, defense scholars immediately raised questions about whether Trump’s desired military parade would really fall into the same category as France’s Bastille Day parade, which is held annually and is deeply rooted in the country’s history and values. Although Trump's parade, like the French one, would feature the nation’s military might, it might send a very different message, some European defense analysts and columnists said.

“For the record: France's Bastille Day military parade is an old tradition, going back to 1880. Its longevity and popularity have many historical reasons. Probably different from Trump’s motivations,” wrote Sylvie Kauffmann, an editorial director and columnist with the French newspaper Le Monde and a contributing writer to the New York Times, summarizing a widely shared sentiment in Europe on Wednesday.

Whereas France’s Bastille Day — founded to celebrate the turning point of the French Revolution — has been associated with an annual military parade for more than a century, efforts to combine a similarly patriotic holiday with a military parade in Washington might strike many foreign observers as odd timing. Why now?

To White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the answer appeared clear Tuesday evening: “President Trump is incredibly supportive of America’s great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe,” Sanders said. “He has asked the Department of Defense to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation.”

But a military parade in Washington would likely be perceived as a more timely political message from a single individual to the nation and, indeed, to the world, along the lines of: Look at how strong we (and I) are.

“People are going to compare it more with Kim Jong Un than with the Champs-Elysees,” said Nicholas Dungan, a France-based senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “If (a parade is organized due to a) personal desire of Trump, because he sat at the Champs-Elysees, then it becomes political. In France, the parade isn't political, though. It's part of this nation.”

France's Bastille Day parade, which has persisted through two world wars and a Nazi occupation, has also been used to emphasize a very different message, which could be summarized as: We are only strong together. What Trump may have missed while watching the Paris parade last July was that its organizers have frequently invited foreign troops — from Morocco and India to the United States, Britain and Germany — to march alongside French soldiers or to even lead the procession. Instead of the French flag, French soldiers sometimes carry the European Union flag, even though the political bloc does not have its own army.

“Especially the decision to invite German troops to the Champs-Elysees involved a lot of symbolism,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations. “In the collective French memory, German troops last marched on the Champs-Elysees in June 1940,” said Gomart, referring to the date when the Nazis occupied Paris. Rather than sending a message of aggression, French leaders have used their annual parade to also set a pacifist agenda.

On a continent where Trump has never had many supporters, defense analysts worried on Wednesday whether the president’s possible misunderstanding of military traditions was a sign of a broader problem. “At what point does healthy appreciation for the military turn into unhealthy obsession?” asked German defense expert Marcel Dirsus. Brian Klaas, a fellow at the London School of Economics, referred to Trump's plan as a “strongman military parade” and  an addition to “Trump’s wannabe despot checklist.”

Those concerns echoed similar European responses that have emerged throughout Trump's first year in office. When Trump warned North Korea of “fire and fury” last summer, analysts wondered whether he was aware of the catastrophe that would result from an attack with  nuclear weapons.

After Trump emphasized the size of his “nuclear button” in January, observers from the United States and elsewhere criticized the remarks as “infantile” and ill-advised.

“Trump plays with the subject so carelessly and recklessly as if it were some kind of video game,” Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has advised several secretaries of state, said on Twitter. “My head’s exploding.”

The way Trump discusses nuclear weapons echoes a pattern observed among military officials in the past, researchers have noted. They were referring to a 1985 study by Carol Cohn, who analyzed military remarks that compared nuclear war with “an act of boyish mischief.”

Cohn said that those kinds of remarks were an expression of a “competition for manhood” and “a way of minimizing the seriousness of militarist endeavors, of denying their deadly consequences.” She concluded that they posed a “tremendous danger” in real life.

Size appears to have mattered in Trump's desire to organize a military parade in Washington, too.

“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters last year, referring to the Bastille Day celebrations. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France.”

He added: “We’re going to have to try to top it.”

Pundits and lawmakers weighed in on President Trump’s plans for a military parade in Washington. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

French gendarmerie and police motorcyclists ride in formation down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees during the traditional Bastille Day military parade in Paris. (Reuters)

James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.

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