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America isn't a tank country. Trump's misguided 'Salute to America' tried to make it one.

Trump doesn't seem very invested in keeping military and state separate. And his ridiculous Fourth of July event made that very clear indeed.
Image: Washington Prepares For President Trump's Speech On The Fourth Of July
Members of the U.S. Army finish parking a Bradley fighting vehicle in front of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of the Fourth of July "Salute to America" celebration on July 3, 2019 in Washington.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

For days, President Donald Trump publicized the fact that, as part of the Independence Day festivities in Washington, he would deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. That speech, which occurred Thursday despite rain showers, generated a loud volume of opposition from pundits and officials, many of them in the District of Columbia. The principal objection was that he had personalized a national celebration in which previous presidents have played little or no role, and that he had turned the nation’s birthday into an event that was tantamount to a campaign rally.

Of course he was doing exactly this, but after more than two years of the Trump presidency one would be shocked if he didn’t seize such a high-profile opportunity to place himself at the center of attention. And in any case, if a less divisive and vainglorious president had announced the same thing, there probably would have been less objection.

But the part of the announcement that should have generated the most consternation was his demand that the event include a full-blown military presence, including tanks. He wanted to see these armored vehicles at the Lincoln Memorial while he delivered his address.

There are “tank countries” — countries where armored military vehicles and other machines of war are displayed visibly and constantly. These are countries such as Russia, China and North Korea, for example, countries where the military is displayed as much as a threat to citizens as they are a message to outsiders.

But the United States is a not a tank country. We have lots and lots of tanks, of course, but one aspect of our strength is that we do not, and do not have to, display it. We do not have to fly helicopters laden with machine guns over the National Mall to remind Americans that we have such weaponry at our disposal. And we do not need fighter plans to remind Americans what it means to be patriotic.

It is desperate and a little dangerous to act this way. We do not look stronger when we display our military might in this way, but we do look less sure of ourselves.

It is desperate and a little dangerous to act this way. We do not look stronger when we display our military might in this way, but we do look less sure of ourselves.

There are also plenty of practical reasons why this was always a silly idea. Logistically speaking, asking the Army to find Abrams and other tanks, clean them and get them to Washington seemed to be a wholly unnecessary amount of effort. Such tanks could not simply be driven to the nation’s capital; instead they had to be hauled by train or flatbed.

Once in Washington, there was a serious risk that the tanks would tear up the roads. According to the Associated Press, civil engineers were tasked with checking the city’s infrastructure following the event to make sure the military vehicles haven’t done any serious damage. (And the city expects the federal government to pay for any damage that did occur.) Then there’s the fact that the tanks could have damaged the Lincoln Memorial itself. Each tank weighs more than 60 tons, meaning it could have threatened the integrity of the rooms below the memorial.

All of these concerns are fair. Tanks shouldn’t be parked at the memorial and the fact they were parked there will likely cost taxpayers a lot of money. There are other practical considerations, but the most cogent argument is still that we just don’t do this sort of thing.

Now, it might be true that such a display gave some of our enemies pause. Big guns under the command of someone who makes snap decisions should be feared, this flawed logic says. But if the administration’s wobbly decision-making in the wake of Iranian and Russian aggression and North Korean intransigence are any indication, no competent adversary will be driven to acquiescence by a sophomoric display of hardware.

But most importantly, America is not a tank country, nor is it a country that politicizes its military — or it shouldn’t be. There’s a good reason for this, which is that no one man or political party should be able to control our armies. We do not go to war on a partisan whim; we go to war as a united democratic nation, and only when we have exhausted all other options. But as the scandal over the Trump administration’s reported request to hide the USS John S. McCain in May shows, Trump and his White House don’t seem very invested in keeping military and state separate. His Fourth of July parade merely proves this point.

CORRECTION (July 12, 2019, 4:20 p.m.) A previous version of this article misidentified a vehicle. It is a Bradley fighting vehicle, not an M1 Abrams tank.