BIDLACK: Who loves a parade? Not the military

Author: Hal Bidlack - February 13, 2018 - Updated: February 13, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

In 1984 I was in a military parade. Well, not exactly. I was in the military and I was in a parade, up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Our Olympic Arena team had won several trophies for excellence at the missile operations competition (think Red Flag for missiles), and the nice folks running Cheyenne Frontier Days that year invited us to participate in a parade through downtown Cheyenne. There were several of us, on a flatbed truck with bunting around the edges, and three really big trophies. We waived to the nice folks, as we followed behind a couple of big tractors and in front of (always be in front of) a bunch of horses. That is the totality of my experience marching as a military member in public parades.

Fast forward to my time teaching at the Air Force Academy. Each day, the cadets form up and march to lunch, and thousands of tourists make it a point to observe this impressive military formation. But, at its core, it’s kids marching to lunch, on a military base.

As a rule, we military folks do not like to show off to civilians. We know the US military is the best in the world. From top to bottom, for all the challenges the US military faces, I wouldn’t trade it with any other military in the world. Every recent president has understood that. Every president until the current one.

As you have no doubt heard, last month Mr. Trump directed/questioned/proposed, depending on your own partisanship, that the leaders in the Pentagon put on a show – a major military parade down the heart of our nation’s capital. He wanted tanks and missiles, planes and bands, and all sorts of stuff he never saw up close himself, because, well, bone spurs. He wants to “honor” the military, he says, by having a France-like show that we are the biggest and baddest.

When I think of Mr. Trump’s military experience, or lack thereof, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend several years ago. He had gotten married in Las Vegas, at the Star Trek exhibit. He showed me a picture of himself on the “bridge” and said, “Look Hal, I have a uniform like you.” Now, he said it with a smile, so I didn’t hesitate to be snarky in my reply, “No,” I replied, “you were wearing a costume. I wear a uniform.”

If you want to honor the military, buy a Soldier a beer, pick up the dinner check for a sailor or a Marine, give an Airman a thank you. But don’t ask them to strut their stuff in a parade.

Mr. Trump does not seem to understand the key difference between an actual military and playing with soldiers and making them parade for him. Back in my teaching days, I would ask my freshmen students what made their future Air Force job fundamentally different than the civilian world. They hemmed and hawed for a while, before I told them my thought: your job is, at its core, to blow things up and kill people. That, my friends, is what makes the military different from the nice folks who work at Ford or Walmart or your local grocery store. The military is a blunt tool, a bull in a china shop. Blow things up and kill people. As a missile launch officer, my job was to be prepared to rain down death on a massive and horrific scale.

And that is why you do not play war with the military. That is why you don’t threaten military force when there are other options available. And that is why you don’t strut the military about in parades to appease an ego, no matter whose.

As I type these words, above me on my wall is a shadowbox of my late father’s WWII rank, and a very rare and special patch he earned. You see, my father was assigned to the Manhattan Project. He was among the first to deal with death and destruction on the level we now face every day in the nuclear forces of the United States. It was new then, it is just our “normal” way of doing business today.

That, my friends, is why we should always have a mature and thoughtful person living in the White House.  If you want to honor the military, buy a Soldier a beer, pick up the dinner check for a sailor or a Marine, give an Airman a thank you. But don’t ask them to strut their stuff in a parade. It isn’t appropriate, and it is not dignified. In the real military, you get that juvenile urge out of your system when you are a cadet, unless, it appears, you have really bad bone spurs.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.