The emperor’s new clothes are a military uniform. In the past week or so, President Trump, losing his public relations battle against the coronavirus, has cloaked himself in the mantle of commander in chief by announcing that the military’s preeminent pilots would perform those fly-bys that he said he “can’t get enough of,” declaring that the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy would return to it so that he can deliver a commencement address; and calling for a reprise of his 2019 Fourth of July military extravaganza on the Mall.
“I want to see those shows,” Trump said of the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, who will fly over New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania at midday Tuesday in the first of the events that will combine the skills of the two squadrons. Of his Independence Day pageant, Trump noted that even though it was pouring last year, that “didn’t bother the pilots, didn’t bother the military,” and “we’re going to be doing that again on July Fourth.” (As a former Army officer, I can tell you that it’s not fun for soldiers to participate in these things; they have to work on a rare holiday and spend days and often nights of hard work preparing behind the scenes.) As for the U.S. Military Academy graduation, he commented that he didn’t care for the look of a ceremony with social distancing — he prefers the “nice and tight” look — but that he had done the commencement addresses at the other service academies and “I’m doing it at West Point.”
In all these anticipated events of martial showmanship — all announced at coronavirus task force briefings ostensibly intended to update the American public on the pandemic — the common denominator is the president’s desire to appropriate the military as a symbol not of the nation but of himself. Trump seeks not to honor those in uniform by displaying them and their weaponry in front of the nation, but to glorify himself by placing the military in the background, regardless of the cost. At a time of unprecedented loss and disruption to all aspects of American life, the president’s obsession with military adoration is objectively wasteful and dangerous: Whether they are Blue Angels or academy cadets, the armed forces do not exist to provide photo ops for Trump.
The Pentagon paints the flyovers as a way “to thank first responders, essential personnel, and military service members as we collectively battle the spread of COVID-19,” according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post. But with the president stealing a march on the Pentagon by announcing the events himself first, the gesture seems foremost to signify his own power. After all, how many of the people being honored will get the chance to be inspired by these demonstrations, given the importance of their lifesaving work and the fact that the aeronautical thank-yous will avoid flight paths that would make it easy for people to congregate? Moreover, these flights cost $60,000 an hour. The cost of Trump’s military-inspired Fourth of July celebration is unknown, but certainly any amount of money devoted to such things is poorly spent at this juncture, and elite pilots’ lives are always at risk in these daring demonstrations.
Some military displays are more important than others. A U.S. Military Academy graduation is one. I remember my own. With all my things packed away, I left an empty barracks room to march up to the football stadium. Sitting in the hot sun listening to then-vice president Al Gore speak, most of us were just waiting to hear the words “class dismissed!” from the cadet first captain. A U.S. Military Academy graduation celebrates grit, persistence and achievement. The U.S. Military Academy represents the entire country, with admissions apportioned more or less geographically. Those who go there are a diverse group of men and women united by a desire to serve. The cadets have all struggled in their own ways in a difficult and competitive environment. Graduation is also a moment of thanksgiving for families who are proud of their cadets and in some ways went through their trials with them. Yet in this pandemic, the joyful throngs of parents and new lieutenants are very real health hazards to all involved.
A true leader would forgo the privilege and publicity of a U.S. Military Academy commencement address in the interests of the troops’ welfare. The Air Force Academy already held commencement exercises, with cadets seated six feet apart and parents watching at home. The Naval Academy chose to cancel graduation altogether. But this year was Trump’s turn to speak at the oldest and most storied of the academies, and he appears unwilling to give up the backdrop of 1,000 cadets and the million-dollar view of the Hudson Valley. As the academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, weighed the pros and cons of various options, the president again got there ahead of time with the news, announcing that he would be speaking. Given the necessary mitigation measures, it probably won’t feel much like a celebration. As U.S. Military Academy graduate, Lt. Gen. (retired) Mark Hertling, former commander of the Army in Europe, wrote in an op-ed for CNN, it’s more like mandatory fun for a president to fulfill his “political desires,” and that “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” The muted graduation event will be little more than a campaign rally with the cadets’ big day as background and footnote.
And at what cost? Cadets would have had to return to the academy to finish their academic work, move out of their barracks rooms and complete out-processing procedures unique to students who also become lieutenants and join the army after graduation. But Trump is adding burdens by requiring all cadets to be there at the same time and most likely for longer periods, with all the expenses associated with supporting the corps, from laundry to mess hall staff to food. The academy is more than a school; it is a working Army base with military police and other active-duty soldiers who would need to be on duty to support not only graduation but also the intensive security procedures associated with a presidential visit (not to mention civilian law enforcement). The academy historically has adapted to accomplish its mission even in times of crisis. During both the First and Second World Wars, the U.S. Military Academy accelerated graduations — sometimes with classes graduating within months of each other — and reduced the time spent there to three years from four. In the midst of a pandemic, there is simply no good reason to hold a ceremony and risk the lives of all involved.
Yet, there is a reason: Trump, a man who avoided military service, insulted Gold Star parents, pardoned war criminals and mocked a decorated veteran and prisoner of war as a loser. The president seeks to surround himself by military pomp to lend the appearance of strong leadership. It is the emptiest of gestures. The military parades he favors are, historically, the purview of dictators. They symbolize not just military power, but military power subservient to a supreme leader, be it the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Military pageantry in the United States, like the homecoming parades after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, honor service members, not the president, and they are more about people and less about weaponry. A Blue Angels flight through the clouds may seem innocuous, if extravagant, but what happens when Trump orders other Navy pilots, similarly skilled, to “shoot down and destroy” an adversary, as he did via tweet in reference to any Iranian gunboats caught harassing our ships? And what if it’s not for national security, but to distract from a national disaster and to pander to his base?
The president’s reflexive turn to military ceremony may seem superficial, but it betrays a more serious threat to the critical partnership between civilian leaders and the military as well as the role of the commander in chief. He simultaneously undermines their authority and professional expertise. Perhaps Trump’s unilateral willingness to seek a militaristic solution to his pandemic failures should not be surprising. After all, based largely on his whim, a Space Force has made its debut as a branch of the armed services, costing billions to establish and appearing to be largely redundant, another entry in Trump’s “catalog of bad ideas.”
The archetypal observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted in the 1830s that “the President of the United States possesses almost royal prerogatives which he has no opportunity of exercising.” That was before Trump.