Parading into a Cataclysm

(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

North Korean soldiers march during a military parade on February 8, 2018, in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the military.

The 45th president of the United States craves a military parade in the nation’s capital. Most presidential inaugural parades feature hundreds of members of the armed forces along with school bands and civic groups. But the 2017 fete clearly was not enough of an ego-booster for the new president. Unique among recent commanders-in-chief, Donald Trump has an unhealthy fixation on soldiering and levying deadly threats.

Should a military parade ever come to fruition, it would be intended to be a psy-ops spectacle—one designed to rouse Americans to rally against a one-of-a-kind foreign threat: North Korea. Trump desperately wants a face-off between his armed forces (and he clearly believes they are his to use as he sees fit) and those belonging to his designated adversary of the moment, Kim Jong-Un. The former reality television star understands which buttons to push and which symbols to deploy—and a parade’s the thing.

Trump’s reckless bellicosity comes at a curious time in the steadily deteriorating dialogue between Kim and Trump. On Thursday, the eve of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the volatile leader of the Hermit Kingdom’ showcased his soldiers (no one inside or outside North Korea debates that point) and weapons to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the country’s military.

 

 

Despite Trump’s oft-expressed desire to emulate France’s Bastille Day military extravaganza, the images of that North Korean parade likely impressed the president.

Nevertheless, Americans opposed to Trump will have to tread carefully on the subject. Such overt displays of military power are antithetical to the American political ethos.

 

 

But a substantial number of Americans will welcome them, and some of the president’s supporters will be eager to charge parade opponents with insufficient patriotism. The parade reeks of a dress rehearsal for the kind of power that Trump would like to wield: undisputed control of the instruments of war, which can be deployed at a time of his choosing (as would be the case if he ruled North Korea).

Trump can choreograph his own patriotic displays. But on North Korea, he is also trotting out supporters who can buttress his desire for pageantry and tough talk with their own foreign policy credentials. Into this quagmire steps former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who serves as a de facto adviser to the president on China and North Korea. In a late January appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kissinger weighed in on the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In his prepared statement, Kissinger counseled that “the ultimate goal” on the Korean Peninsula must be “the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s existing arsenal.” He later told the committee, “The temptation to deal with it with a preemptive attack is strong and the argument is rational.”

Kissinger’s advice still holds sway in some quarters on Capitol Hill, but his impact on the thinking of ordinary Americans is negligible. A parade with all the patriotic trimmings Trump can muster, by contrast, could serve as a useful tool in persuading at least some Americans to get behind the wars to come. But Trump’s posturing on North Korea glosses over the cataclysm that would be unleashed by a nuclear first strike. A mid-January Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed did not trust Trump to “handle this authority responsibly.”

Trump’s most formidable challenge will be one that parading the troops cannot resolve. The question is whether the president can succeed in ginning up support in the Defense Department for a mammoth display of military might that many people find questionable, particularly given the myriad issues faced by American soldiers: low pay, multiple deployments, PTSD, suicide, and homelessness, to name just a few.

An informal survey of more than 80,000 Military Times readers suggests that a parade will be a hard sell among the very people Trump purports to hold in high esteem.

 

 

“There's nobody bigger or better at the military than I am,” Trump declared in 2015. Yet, Trump fails to appreciate that military parades occur all over the country several times a year on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. They are mostly modest affairs to honor sacrifices, and parade-goers accept them as such. They are not multimillion-dollar productions to stoke enthusiasm for future conflicts, as demanded by a man who turned down five opportunities to serve his country during the last big Asian quagmire.

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