As I lay awake in the wee hours of the Fourth of July, I can’t help but think of some poor private pulling guard on a Bradley Fighting vehicle in the middle of D.C. While politicians and the media are focusing on the cost of a military parade on our nation’s birthday, I can’t help but think about the enormity of BS that the troops are going through to pull off this Charlie Foxtrot. Here is why these dog and pony shows suck for the troop on the ground.
I don’t know what is happening at the president’s parade, I can only go off my personal experience. I’m sure that when Trump says, “I want to have a military parade.” He might think it is just a matter of getting a bunch of soldiers on a bus, dropping them off down the street and having the walk by him a couple hours later. But before we can get the troops there, someone has to choose what troops to get.
At any given time, the president has a high-level officer near him that doesn’t have a real job and looking to pad his Officer Evaluation Report (OER). Hopefully, he will pull from nearby units but I have a feeling he will go with his favorite unit. Whatever combat patch he wears is the division getting the call. Or, alternatively, whatever unit he has a hard on for.
The officers at every level will treat this like a personal request from on high and take it far more seriously than needed. The division level commander can’t say no to the president even though the president doesn’t care which units show up, as long as someone marches past him. All officers that won’t be on the reviewing stand with the big guy is looking to pad their OER and aren’t giving their troops a second thought.
For a captain to look good to the colonel, he has to have a crack set of troops looking all spit and polished. Should be easy to get volunteers, right? After all, who is more patriotic than the American service member? In this case, just about everyone. Don’t get me wrong, we love the flag and all that stuff. But this is a day off and no one wants to be in a major dog and pony show on their day off.
I’ve been selected for a presidential visit. They asked for volunteers, a dozen or so raised their hands. Then each platoon leader was instructed to select about 20 troops. My platoon had two very strict criteria.
- Who will not screw up (intentionally or not) and embarrass the unit, and by extension the entire U.S. army, in front of the president?
- Who is left?
Thank God that was just the divisions standing in formation. We did that in a day. A parade is a whole other level of bullcrap.
A parade is just walking. In formation. One would think that is easy. Marching is taught in Basic Training. Meaning it is one of the most basic soldier skills. Ask any soldier about the command “Counter column. March!” and the words “soup sandwich” will likely follow. I have never seen a unit execute it right on the first try and usually ends up with the first few soldiers running into each other like idiots and the maneuver stopped so they can unfuck themselves. There is always someone that forgot how to right wheel and so they have to practice until they get it right.
That is about the first hour. But they will keep practicing because all other work was cancelled and there is nothing else on the schedule. After a while, the company commander will want to see and it will be performed for him. Then the companies need to be combined and the cluster starts all over again. Then they have to practice until the battalion commander gets to see, and then on other the brigade.
Meanwhile, the troops are being inspected, as if anyone more than 10 feet away is going to be able to see them. I was once chastised by a first sergeant because my camouflage uniform during a practice had a black spot near the knee. A black spot. On a camouflage uniform. In a crowed of camouflage uniforms.
Troops you can put on a bus, vehicles you have to ship. There are already images of tanks on the backs of flatbed trucks in D.C. Loading them isn’t a big deal, but someone is going to have to watch them. 24 hours a day. There is some unlucky private, walking around a 70-ton Abrams just counting the hours until his relief shows up and thinking about how bullshit the entire situation is. And there is some NCO that has to listen to that private bitch about it for eight hours.
First you have to load the vehicles on the trucks, then get them to D.C., then find the vehicles and then start pulling guard. If the soldiers are lucky, some agency in D.C. will cover security. But I am guessing that no commander wants to leave it to anyone that doesn’t have a vested interest in the tanks. Because if one graffiti artist tags a tank, someone is losing a career.
And let’s not forget about the bands. I can’t imagine it will just be the Marine Corps band. Every service will want their own. That is just going to add a layer of complexity. The good thing about having a band nearby is that the beat makes it easy for everyone to stay in step. What sucks is when you are in the trail of your unit’s formation and the band I the next unit is not in step with you unit. A number of bands competing for your ears is not fun.
Hurry up and wait
Every single veteran can relate to this and has a story about it. The concept of 30 minutes prior is the source of a many a soldier’s rage. Whatever time Trump says to start the parade, General Nuisance is going to require the troops to be there 30 minutes prior. That in itself makes sense. Gives the troops plenty of time to get formed up and ready. If that was it, life would alright. But each layer of command will put their own “30 minutes prior” which pushes the arrival time earlier and earlier.
Division wants brigades 30 minutes before the general said. Brigades want the battalions 30 minutes prior to that. At least when it reaches the company level is shortens to 15 minutes. Companies want platoons 15 minutes prior to battalion formation. Platoons want squads 15 minutes prior to that. Squads want team 15 minutes prior to that. It honestly gets that stupid. A noon start time can have a soldier arriving at 0600.
I actually had a battalion commander order the leadership that no soldier could be forced to show up more than 15 minutes before his stated start time. It was seen as revolutionary and he enforced it for as long as he cared about it.
Then once the troops are all formed up, it is a lot of waiting around. All those concerns about pretty uniforms goes out the window as bored soldiers find a quiet spot in the shade to nap. Modern soldiers should thank God they have smartphones to entertain themselves. It makes the time go faster.
Hopefully, they are pulling units from the area and not tasking the 101st from Fort Campbell or some nonsense. Maybe the troops can get back home in time for dinner and fireworks. But someone is getting the short end of the stick and has to load the vehicles, or guard them until they get loaded because the shipping company has the holiday off.
Other types of dog and pony shows
The Change of Command: I 100% understand why we have those. It is part tradition and part common sense. It is a way for the outgoing commander to say “here are the troops and equipment I am passing to you.” The two commanders do a review of the troops with the outgoing showing that he is passing off a good group of soldiers and the incoming getting introduced to his or her new troops. I don’t deny that it makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.
The change of command rehearsals are drawn out. They run through the entire ceremony a number of times. At the part where the commander is going to give a speech, they just say “remarks complete.” It is space filler for where their speech will be. After the unit has been through the entire ceremony half a dozen times, they have to endure it one more time. The only difference is the addition of the next higher unit commander, their wives and their speeches.
I had a commander thank everyone in his speech. He thanked the chow hall workers, he thanked his first dog for teaching him friendship, he stopped just short of thanking the first girl to give him an awkward handy for giving him the confidence to succeed in the military. It was excessive. It was made all the worse that it wasn’t a CoC for my unit. For some reason, some of us were pulled to fill in for another unit’s CoC. I guess there just weren’t enough soldiers to make it look good.
The worst one was a general level change of command. It started with a promotion of one general from one star to two. Then he took over command from the other general. And he gave long speeches at both! Two ceremonies, back-to-back, two separate speeches. We were about 5,000 soldiers, on an airstrip (the only place that could accommodate the formation), in mid-summer Germany, with full battle gear. This was 1996, nowhere near the Global War on Terror. Why are we wearing helmets?
Even better, we are at fixed bayonets. I’m sure it was all to look tough, but having unsheathed knives in the sweltering heat is a recipe for trouble. What happens when some poor sap locks his knees and passes out in formation? He takes out the person in front of him. There are medics floating around the rear of formations ready to attend to the fall outs. The battalion to our left and right had soldiers dropping like flies. One was easily down one third of their troops. My battalion commander yelled at us later because one soldier fell out. Because we are Infantry goddammit and we are better than that.
The Retirement Ceremony: I get it, you want to send one of your senior troops off well. If it was just the people that loved him or her it would be great. But the post had a monthly ceremony for every soldier retiring that month. The ranks were filled with random units so it is possible no one in attendance knew who was being recognized. Pomp and circumstance, I get, the military is a organization deeply rooted in tradition, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.
The worst was a retiring one-star general change of command. He straight up said it was going to be his last military speech so he was going to make it worth it. It was easily the longest speech I have ever heard and it was mostly him patting himself on the back. The only good thing about that one was that I wasn’t in formation for it because that guy droned on forever.
The exception to the rule
Major dog and pony shows suck, but there are times when it is kind of fun. Of course, these are instances where the time requirement is minimal. When I was part of the I Corps Color Guard we did a parade in Tacoma. We arrived a few minutes early, walked the mile route ahead
of the military units, and were back in the van heading home in short order. We also presented the colors for the national anthem at a Mariners game. Immediately after, we changed into civilian clothes and watched the game for free. That did not suck.
I honestly think that a military parade on the Fourth of July is the least patriotic thing you can do. Forcing military members to work on their day off, on a day that our great nation told England to fuck off, just to placate on man’s ego is really against what we fought for. When I think about military parades I think of Russia, China or North Korea. The only U.S. military parades I think were positive were troops returning from WWII and Desert Storm. And the last one mostly because there were most likely senior officers and enlisted that had been in Vietnam and got a horrible reception.
What the president should do is invite some BBQ pit masters to the White House, get a pallet of domestic beer, have all his staffers turn in their cell phones and let them get drunks and blow off steam without media, or camera phones, around recording anything. If he really wants to celebrate the true holiday of the spirit, maybe drunk dial England later.