‘This looks like it’s becoming much more of a Republican Party event,’ says one retired general.
President Donald Trump boasted Tuesday that the nation’s military leaders are “thrilled” that he’s trotting out a dazzling display of troops, tanks, helicopters and fighter jets for his personal Independence Day celebration.
But multiple former military leaders are publicly expressing dismay, calling it the latest example of Trump politicizing the armed services.
The annual public festivities and fireworks display on the National Mall scheduled for Thursday are being overtaken by Trump’s “Salute to America” event, which is shaping up to feature a prominent role for the military.
“This looks like it’s becoming much more of a Republican Party event — a political event about the president — than a national celebration of the Fourth of July, and it’s unfortunate to have the military smack dab in the middle of that,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.
“The president is using the armed forces in a political ploy for his reelection campaign and I think it’s absolutely obscene,” added retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, a veteran of Vietnam, the Gulf War and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.
The Pentagon is offering few details about the deployment of military hardware and the extent of its participation, referring queries to the White House. But a small contingent of tanks and other armored vehicles has arrived in the nation’s capital, and, according to news reports, will be placed on display ahead of Trump’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
A pair of Abrams tanks were photographed on railroad tracks in southeast Washington late Monday and again Tuesday, accompanied by two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an M88 armored recovery vehicle. At least one of the vehicles bore markings of the Army’s Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division.
A Defense official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly confirmed to POLITICO that the unit had been tapped to send the hardware north by train. “From what I understand, the unit was given short notice — they only received the order last week,” the official said.
“There will be military vehicles on display at the Salute to America,” the Pentagon confirmed in a statement Tuesday. “DoD has provided two M1A2 Abrams tanks and two M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles in support of the event.”
Meanwhile, the Interior Department confirmed to POLITICO last week that the Navy’s Blue Angels will conduct a flyover and a Marine Corps Silent Drill Team will take part in the celebration.
Other aircraft may include F-22 and F-35 fighters, one of the aircraft used as Air Force One, and even a massive B-2 stealth bomber, according to CNN. In addition, ABC reported an MV-22 Osprey “tiltrotor” aircraft will be on hand, and the event could mark the public debut of the Marine Corps’ new presidential helicopter, the VH-92.
But the Fourth of July is not traditionally a holiday focused on the military — unlike the Bastille Day celebrations in France that so impressed Trump in 2017 and inspired his interest in a major military display.
“Military displays like this are a favorite tactic of those who want to wrap themselves in the symbols of who we are rather than really celebrating who we are,” said Jason Dempsey, a former Army major who studies the military and society at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank.
“The military is playing an ever more central role in American political life,” Dempsey added. “This fits into this larger, troubling trend of identifying America itself as a military state. The Fourth of July in America should be about so much more than our military and our ability to fight off the rest of the world.”
Barno called the Fourth of July plans “very unusual.”
“I think one of the big risks is that the military is being used in some ways as a political prop,” he said. “It’s looking highly politicized by anybody’s yardstick.”
The plans for July Fourth come after a string of appearances at military bases from Korea to Germany at which Trump offered “politicized diatribes against his political opponents,” Barno added.
“I hope the speech doesn’t become partisan, because troops shouldn’t be listening to the president talk about the other party,” agreed retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré. “Presidents usually leave their party business out when they talk in front of military audiences, but people are becoming numb to it.”
Just last month, then-acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan called on troops and their leaders to “reinforce the apolitical nature of military and civilian service.” He offered those words in a pair of memos issued after an episode in which the White House’s military office had asked the Navy to keep the destroyer USS John McCain out of sight during a presidential visit to Japan.
Other veterans and defense experts, however, insisted the flyovers and deployment of armored vehicles aren’t too far out of line with the Pentagon’s own routine displays at public events like air shows and other recruiting efforts.
“This is not such a big deal. It’s all been done before,” said Ron Moeller, an Air Force veteran and former senior CIA paramilitary officer — though not on Independence Day, he acknowledged.
Moeller cited past displays of military hardware and capabilities at a base just outside Washington. And in June 1991, troops and vehicles poured through the capital in a Gulf War victory parade with a $12 million price tag — which also involved tanks, Bradleys and even stealth bombers, according to news reports at the time.
The military display on Thursday could be expensive. For example, flying a B-2 stealth bomber will likely require a journey from an Air Force base as far away as Missouri or Florida.
“That will be millions of dollars in and of itself,” estimated Rick Berger, a Defense budget expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But he also said Trump’s military display could enhance military recruiting efforts and public knowledge of the armed forces.
“I don’t think it’s the worst thing to ship up a few vehicles out of the thousands that we own to maybe give some young Americans a glimpse of what the military looks like,” Berger said. “Public support gets translated into support in Congress, which gets translated into appropriations bills. It’s probably actually a good cost-benefit ratio given how separated the military is from the public today.”
Still, “this celebration definitely seems to be more politicized than in the past,” he added, “but so is everything.”