This summer, Americans are marking victory in the Persian Gulf war with hundreds of parades. The recent spectacles in Hollywood, Washington and New York are only the grandest. The Pentagon's official roster of homecoming events with military participation lists parades and ceremonies planned in more than 220 communities, theme parks and shopping malls. As everyone is now aware, the victory celebration has lasted longer than the war.
Parades have been an important form of communication for Americans from the earliest days of the nation. Processions and marches have been used to mark triumph and promote programs, to protest and dissent.
Perhaps most important, no matter what the particular political agenda, parades project powerful images of unity, community and consensus. And they do this through participation -- people gather together to march or watch marchers. The unison of bodies in motion produces powerful sensations of unanimity for both marchers and spectator.
In the military, parade drill is used to help build discipline and precision; on the home front, unified marching helps create an image of moral force. The marches of the civil rights movement, for example, both helped build solidarity and provided powerful images of just cause, images that were widely published and televised. In the case of parades, what seems like simple celebration is actually a powerful political tool.
It is precisely for this reason that we need to take a closer look at the gulf war homecoming parades, and especially at who's producing them and why.
Like many ceremonial forms today, these victory parades have been designed for television, and in fact a great deal of their importance stems from the fact that they are being seen all over the world -- in special broadcasts as well as snippets depicting wild jubilation on the 6 o'clock news.
The extravagant Hollywood parade, for example, was organized, planned and promoted by Johnny Grant, the president of local television station KTLA. Other stations overrode Mr. Grant's monopoly on the local broadcast, but he held onto international distribution rights. Similarly, in Manhattan, major media corporations helped fund and produce Operation Welcome Home.
Large corporations of all kinds are involved in the production of victory celebrations. The list of sponsors of the huge Manhattan procession reads like the Fortune 500 roster, and includes companies involved in military research and development such as Raytheon and McDonnell Douglas, as well as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T;, ITT, IBM, Sony, Philip Morris, American Express and Revlon, to name just a few. Also helping fund the New York parade were the Bank of Kuwait and the embassies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Televised versions of the parades are not possible without advertisers, who lately never miss a chance to associate themselves with a flag or yellow ribbon. Back in Hollywood, the TV broadcast of the parade was not only punctuated by advertising, but the parade itself with wrapped in a big blue electronic frame that read "Kodak"
The Pentagon plays on indispensable role in staging the parades, too. It is estimated that the Department of Defense spent between $5 million and $7 million dollars on the Washington extravaganza. Transporting huge numbers of personnel and heavy equipment to towns all over the United States, as well as setting up complex command systems to run the parades, is more than any American municipality could afford these days. The Pentagon is more than willing to foot the bill, and to act as booking agent for its star soldiers.
But there's more to this than commerce and the military reinvigorating an old tradition. A new "tradition" is evolving.
From Manhattan to Eureka, local rituals and ceremonies are now produced with major help from a coalition of well-funded outsiders. When parades are produced for the camera eye, funders will want to call the shots. Under the mantle of the warm welcome home, community and local meaning become less visible. Divergent or opposing views disappear.
For example, parade-planners in Seattle found out the patriotism has been defined as support for the hi-tech military. They were told that they couldn't count on Pentagon help in welcoming home the troops unless they also agreed to a massive display of military hardware. And of course, no corporate sponsor would want to be associated with the images of the real war -- whether wounded Marines or the destruction in Iraq.
Further, this new "tradition" helps rewrite history. Doubts about the war, and uneasiness about its catastrophic human and ecological aftermath, are erased along the parade route and, perhaps only temporarily, in public memory. The fifty years since World War II are gathered up into a glorious unity, unbroken by social conflict and domestic political scandal. Vietnam veterans receive special attention as the conflicts of that war are declared "healed". In reality, many Vietnam veterans seem less certain that their experiences and problems can be so neatly tied up.
While the wish to welcome home the troops is undoubtedly real, to a large extent ways these sentiments are expressed resembles what one mass communication scholar calls "public opinion from above". As the confetti settles, we need to look at how these highly orchestrated spectacles help define our reality. Are these our own or someone else's sensations of solidarity?
Susan G. Davis is associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of "Parades and Power."