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Trump and the seduction of war

Troops march over the Memorial Bridge in Washington,

Troops march over the Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., during the National Victory Day Parade in June 8, 1991. The celebration to honor Gulf War troops drew an estimated 800,000 spectators. Credit: AP / Doug Mills

“Tramp, tramp, tramp along the highway,

Tramp, tramp, tramp, the road is free,

Blazing trails along the byway,

Soldiers of war are we.”

That’s Nelson Eddy marching his rangers through the woods in Victor Herbert’s 1935 film, “Naughty Marietta.”

Is it possible that teenage Donald Trump, a student at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson, heard that song as Nelson singing, “Trump, trump, trump,” and he embedded a sliver of military leadership in his head? Why, after multiple deferments from serving in Vietnam, loosen limitations on bombing, killing more civilians in Syria and Afghanistan? Why now, when there has been no big parade since the first Gulf War, and there is no evidence we will “win” in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, call for a military parade?

Perhaps with showbiz in his blood, he’s caught up in “The Four Feathers,” that 1939 Technicolor masterpiece about the British army in glorious red jackets marching off to slap down rebels in Sudan.

When parades are formal, they celebrate ideas and people whom communities respect. Or, though not strictly parades, demonstrations many thousands strong have confronted moral issues like gun control and racial bigotry.

I remember Veterans Day parades in Trenton, New Jersey, where I grew up. One of the marchers was a veteran of the Civil War — history embodied in his uniform. I grew up the son of a World War I hero, joined the ROTC at Fordham University, marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1955, and served two years in the anti-aircraft artillery in Germany. But I hear no call from the public to spend up to $30 million for a parade suggested by news videos from North Korea or Russia, where dictators flex their egos to the goose-step tramp, tramp, tramp of robotic thousands in uniforms.

Columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times wrote in February that a military parade will affirm Trump’s potency. His message is that people like Trump think “real men fetishize weapons, glorify brutality, degrade their adversaries and grope the objects of their affection.” According to biographer Michael D’Antonio, Trump is “a frightened guy. A tough guy wouldn’t have to demonstrate it . . . This is masculinity by way of 1950s comics and 1960s Playboy magazines. It’s a cartoon.”

When I was small, my father at bedtime would describe the battlefields of World War I — climbing out of the trenches, trudging into the smoke as the German machine guns blast away, cutting down our men at every side. I recently watched again the 1925 silent classic “The Big Parade.” A rich young man enlists in the Great War to satisfy his father, who yells, “Do something or get out!” and his fiance, who tells him he’ll “look great” in uniform.

The endless stream of men and trucks stretches across the screen into the horizon as German planes swoop down and strafe them. That night on the battlefield the soldiers surge forward into the darkness as the machine guns mow them down. In the woods, the corpses pile up as the poison-gas bombs explode around them. They dive into shell holes until ordered over the top. The rich man’s son tries to rescue a wounded comrade who has fallen into an enemy trench. Emotionally beaten, he cracks and screams, overwhelmed by “mud, blood and stinking stiffs.” He comes home with one leg.

We should call our young men and women to battle only when absolutely necessary; and when they come home, pay for their college education.

The Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, a former Fordham University professor, is editor emeritus of America magazine.

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