Americans Love a Parade

June 02, 1991|By JONATHAN SCHELL | JONATHAN SCHELL,Jonathan Schell is a colomunist for Newsday

On June 8, American military forces will descend on Washington with the most awesome display of firepower seen in the capital since "Nimitz Day," Oct. 10, 1945, when 1,028 planes overflew the capital in formations that twice spelled out "Nimitz."

Saturday, helicopters will land in downtown Washington, a Harrier jet will make a vertical descent onto the Mall, 60-ton tanks will roll down the avenues, and a fireworks display twice the size of the one planned for the Fourth of July will light the sky.

All this is not a coup d'etat; it is only a "parade," to celebrate the return of the troops from the Persian Gulf war. Two giant television screens on the Mall will display for the crowd the very spectacle that is before their eyes -- as if to confirm once and for all the principle that in our time even the most extravagant events disappoint unless they appear on some screen or other.

It's hard, contemplating the prospect of this gargantuan military festivity, not to be reminded of some of the peculiarities of the war that it celebrates. The most surprising feature of the war was its one-sidedness: More Americans were lost in accidents than in combat. (Iraqi casualties, almost entirely out of sight, were estimated at something like 100,000.) One soldier remarked while directing shells at unresisting Iraqi forces that the war, whose ground portion lasted for only a hundred hours, seemed like a "military exercise."

Now another military exercise is about to unfold. This one will be peaceful and, one trusts, without any casualties at all. If the "parade" has turned out to be something like a war, that may be because the war was a little bit like a parade.

The invasion of the U.S. capital cannot help recalling the invasion of another capital that never took place: the march on Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The upcoming simulated military action has the feel of a surrogate for that unlaunched campaign against the tyrant who thumbs his nose at us from the ruins of Iraq.

And the giant fireworks display, of course, cannot help but bring to mind one of the few enduring images the gulf war left us with -- the Baghdad sky alight with bombs and anti-aircraft fire.

It might seem strange that the United States is about to stage so huge a military celebration of so short and easy a war, but there is a logic to this development that flows from the logic of the war. The war was fought in the name of many things -- oil, sovereign borders, peace in the Middle East, a new order in the world. But it also had an intangible goal: to cure Americans of the psychological wounds incurred by defeat in Vietnam. Like the television screens planned for the Mall, the gulf war was a mirror held up before the American people -- a mirror in which we were meant to admire our renewed competence and power.

Repeatedly, the real war threatened the symbolic one for which the American psyche hungered, and repeatedly the interference was rejected. The Soviet Union interfered when, on the verge of the ground war, it negotiated an agreement according to which Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait. The agreement was turned down, and the ground war was launched. The Shiites and Kurds interfered when, after we had declared victory, they kept on fighting, and lost. Their rebellion was unsupported by the United States.

Now the substantive goals for which the war was fought are receding into a distant future. Secretary of State James A. Baker III's peace initiative in the Middle East has all but expired. The new world order is a dim, ragged hope. Only the therapeutic goal remains.

With the parade, then, the war, which always had as much to do with purging demons from the American soul as with any concrete objective, may have arrived at its true destination. The war machine, lifted clear of the messy Mideastern theater in which it fought, is arriving in Washington, where, on giant TV screens, the nation can watch itself watching itself admiring itself.

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