Mothers of All Parades

June 11, 1991

Forget all that talk about Red Square along the Potomac or on Broadway. The parades Washington and New York put on to celebrate victory in the Persian Gulf War were utterly American, right down to their extravagance and excess.

The nation's love affair with its men and women in uniform, its guilt over the way it treated their older Vietnam sisters and brothers, its pride in military hardware that actually worked, the commercialization and politicization of it all, not least the debate and protest that marched in cadence with patriotism and national togetherness -- where else but in this crazy, wonderful, polyglot, endlessly contentious and questing society?

Let it be said right quick that kids like to climb on tanks, just as they like to play with guns and toy soldiers. According to one report, there were 51 people standing atop an M1A1 Abrams tank on the Mall, where a mind-blowing array of lethal high technology was on display Saturday. At the end of military parades in Moscow, similar scenes are not unknown. But the tank-climbers are different. The Washington festival was open to everyone, not just the elite with tickets.

Does America's exultation over a winning war with ambiguous repercussions signify a flowering of militarism? We doubt it. The armed forces are in the process of being downsized by an astounding 25 percent in this decade. Their latest foreign exploits were delivering food and medical supplies to disaster victims in Kurdistan and Bangladesh. Bases are closing at home and abroad.

If there is any one sentiment that has prevailed in all the celebrations of Operation Desert Storm, it is relief that it turned out well. In the past quarter-century, the U.S. has endured the heartache of Vietnam, the humiliation of Iran's seizure of the U.S. Embassy staff, the embarrassment of the Iran-contra affair and a loss of economic competitiveness. Grenada and Panama were comic opera triumphs. It may be a measure of the nation's need for reassurance that it invested so much emotional capital in a war against a Third World power that ended in 43 days, only four of which involved extensive ground-fighting, causing fewer casualties than during a tough weekend in 'Nam.

That the Washington parade cost the taxpayers $7 million and New York's extravaganza exactly zero was appropriate to the two cities involved. Washington is a town in which everything is measured against the poll standings of politicians and the budget receipts of the various federal agencies. Yes, the Pentagon paid the bill and President Bush got the photo ops. New York, in contrast, is the metropolis of the melding pot, a place of passion. Its parade, privately financed, was a huge metaphor for a simple thank you, from grateful citizens to those who served in peril.

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