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Peggy Noonan writes today in the Wall Street Journal that the US needs a military that acts swiftly and doesn’t brag. I agree with that first point — especially with the suggestion that we should have cut to the chase and sent in the troops to rescue the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. The military would have been delighted to execute such an assignment, a good thing would have been accomplished, and we would have demonstrated that America hasn’t completely forgotten how to flex its muscles. Nigeria’s not going to declare war on us. And is the international community likely to get on their high horse over the rescue of innocent girls? And so what if they do?
I wasn’t as convinced, however, by her assertion that great militaries shouldn’t brag. I understand the principle behind it: don’t showboat and let the guns do the talking. But I suspect the truth is that pomp and ceremony have always been a component of military might — and probably for good reason. Triumphalism is actually pretty effective at producing the “shock and awe” factor that great militaries like to inspire in civilian populations, both at home and abroad. I myself tend to react reflexively against propaganda, so the flag-waving jingoism often misses with me, but there’s no denying that plenty of people like it and it tends to make an impression. Compared to missiles and tanks, flags and musicians are cheap and safe. If there’s a chance of forestalling a war with a parade … throw the parade.
On a less utilitarian level, I’m inclined to think that the bragging may actually be a healthy and natural part of military prowess. Of course, I say that as someone who has never had any justification whatsoever to engage in that kind of self-aggrandizement. But I’m guided here mainly by reflection on how soldiers and military pomp were regarded historically. There seems to have been widespread agreement among the ancients that soldiers fought for honor and, insofar as they did their jobs valiantly, deserved it in a way that few other members of society did. Sedentary brainiacs (read: people like me or Peggy Noonan) find it easy to wrinkle our noses and piously suggest that war is no laughing matter. The people who are throwing the parades, however, know this far better than we.
In antiquity, I gather that it was pretty standard for victorious generals to throw themselves a showy parade after a successful campaign. I can recall a passage in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Virtues in which he actually classifies these triumphalist displays as proper expressions of courage. He’s making a point about how virtue calls for different things at different times. He illustrates this through the example of a courageous solder, who before the battle manifests his virtue by soberly preparing himself to fight, during the battle manifests it by fighting valiantly, and afterwards shows the same virtue by participating in the parade. In other words, St. Thomas sees these displays of pomp as an organic part of the good soldier’s military life.
Are military parades pompously ostentatious? Or does the discomfort some people feel at them say more about our uneasy relationship to honor and military might more generally?