The president wants a grand military parade. Why have we not historically had such displays?
At the height of its power, before it succumbed to tyranny, the Roman Republic was the undisputed ruler of the Mediterranean Basin.
But, even as Roman troops spread republican rule, the legions were not permitted to enter their capital city, out of fear military power might unduly influence — or supplant — the rule of the people.
A Roman commander was required to surrender his command before entering Rome, to ensure he was not a threat to the people’s supremacy over their army. Even after a great victory, the triumphal parade could only be authorized by the Senate.
The Romans of the republican era understood an important truth: the military must be subservient to civil authority if a republic is to survive, and any undue mingling of military and civil authority is poisonous to liberty.
Those boundaries between civil and military authority evaporated when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River — the boundary beyond which legions could not pass — and ultimately crowned himself dictator for life.
There was, of course, a grand military parade at his coronation. It was huge. It was the biggest, most beautiful parade you’ve ever seen. And the republic died.
Rome continued on, as an empire, and spread further in its might, its glory and its cruelty.
But, republican rule by the people was lost, and tyranny eroded Rome from within, leaving only a hollow shell for the Visigoths to topple four centuries later.
Why all this talk of Romans?
Because, like the early republican Romans, our country has a longstanding tradition of avoiding grandiose displays of military might at home.
Like those early Romans, we’ve long understood that standing armies belong on the battlefield, not marching in our streets. Even our few triumphal parades have come only after battlefield victory, were limited in scope and were staged to welcome home our troops — not to flatter the chief executive.
Since our founding, we’ve embraced strict boundaries between the military that defends us and the civil government that is its rightful superior, because our founders were aware of the inherent risk in breaching those bounds. That’s a track record long held sacrosanct by presidents of both parties.
Much as we love and support the military, we long have avoided the kind of strong-armed pomp favored by authoritarian governments the world over.
There’s several reasons autocrats and their would-be peers love these costly military displays.
For countries that rely on the military to keep the populace in check, it pays to strut the weaponry about from time to time, to give pause to anyone who might forget who’s in charge.
And, since these grand displays are staged in honor of the head of state, they both placate the blessed ruler’s insatiable ego, and remind military and populace alike that the state’s weapons belong to the ruler, not the people.
We’ve foregone these absurd spectacles for one simple reason: we’re better than that. Everything that makes these displays attractive to despots has made — and should make — them repugnant to the American people, and to our leaders.
Our military doesn’t need to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to prove its might to the world, or to our own people. Our service men and women have proven all they need prove on the battlefield, and have our love without being paraded before the president.
No, a parade in D.C. doesn’t equate to the president crossing the Rubicon. But, he does seem to like dipping his toes in the water.
If the president has a hankering for a parade, I’d suggest he gather his cabinet, and walk the miles of corridors lined with broken men and women in our nation’s military hospitals. There, he may gain a truer view of what it looks like when a president puts the military into motion.
And, if he must have a parade, I’d suggest bringing back another old Roman tradition. Behind each victorious Roman commander stood a servant, whispering in the lauded man’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
It was a poignant reminder that praise is fleeting, life temporary and that even the most powerful leader remains but a servant of the people. It’s a message that would well serve this president.