A flag-waving crowd of 200,000 Saturday cheered veterans of Operation Desert Storm as the nation’s capital staged its biggest victory celebration since the end of World War II.
Stealth fighter planes zoomed overhead, tanks and Patriot missiles rolled by and more than 8,000 battle-clad troops marched past a beaming President Bush in a display of the American military might that crushed Iraq in 43 days of combat.
“Great day,” the President exulted, reflecting the popular mood as well as the glorious summer weather, which produced temperatures in the low 80s and puffs of white clouds floating in a deep blue sky.
The elaborate celebration, which cost $12 million, drew scattered protests from critics, who said that it glorified militarism. And the turnout for the parade--estimated at 200,000 by U.S. Park Police--was far below predictions of 1 million or more spectators.
However, by the time a fireworks display ended shortly after 10 p.m., the crowd had grown to 800,000, Park Police said.
Old-fashioned patriotism was clearly the order of the day among the vast majority who lined the parade route.
“It’s a way for the American people to feel good about themselves and their country,” said Dawn Gillogly, the wife of a retired Air Force colonel.
“I’m just glad they’re back,” said Ethel Hammond, who climbed on a crane to get a better view of the marching troops. “I had so many relatives over there (in the Persian Gulf), I had to scrub my knees every day from praying for them at church.”
She clapped and yelled when she saw her daughter and son-in-law--both Army captains--march by with a contingent from the 82nd Airborne Division.
There was some grumbling, even from a Desert Storm veteran, Army enlisted man Jeff Benton of Milwaukee. “I think the celebration and things going on are a little too extreme,” Benton said. “The parade is sort of a campaign boost for Bush and the Republicans.”
And Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), appearing on a television interview program, groused that “the celebration has been going on longer than the war.”
But they clearly expressed minority sentiments on a day when flags flew nearly everywhere along Constitution Avenue and shouts of praise prevailed along the 2 1/2-mile route that passed the Lincoln Memorial, crossed the Potomac River and wound up at the Pentagon.
At the close of the parade, many spectators joined in singing “God Bless America.”
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the Desert Storm forces, led the parade at the outset in his familiar brown-and-tan camouflage uniform, walking over and saluting the President when the troops reached the reviewing stand.
Immediately after that, Schwarzkopf joined Bush and other dignitaries behind a bulletproof glass partition to watch the spectacle.
Schwarzkopf, who got a big cheer from the crowd, will lead another victory celebration Monday in New York that will feature a ticker-tape parade in the Wall Street financial district.
“It’s a lot better when people are throwing ticker tape rather than eggs,” said soldier Ken Jones of Dayton, Ohio, who served in the Gulf.
His remark contrasted with the bitterness of veterans of the Vietnam War, who came home to a deeply divided nation and never basked in the warm welcome that Desert Storm troops received Saturday.
As the parade continued, a small group of Vietnam veterans who wore their old uniforms came together spontaneously near the memorial to those killed in that lost conflict.
“When we came back from Vietnam, people wouldn’t talk to you, like you had AIDS or something,” Paul Barton of nearby Alexandria, Va., recalled. “I made myself a promise 20 years ago that, if there ever was another shooting war--even if I was the only one on the side of the road--there would be a parade.”
Even some of the “smart weapons” made famous by the Gulf War drew loud applause from the enthusiastic parade watchers. The Patriot missile, shown on television during the conflict knocking down Iraqi Scud missiles, was a big favorite, along with the delta-winged Stealth fighter, which roared over the Washington Monument at the start of the march.
Crews stood up in hatches of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M1-A1 Abrams tanks to flash V-for-victory signals and thumbs-up signs in response to cheers of approval as the armored units rumbled by on rubber treads designed to protect the city pavement.
The day began on a solemn note, however, when President Bush fought back tears as he paid tribute to the 376 members of the U.S. armed forces who died during the troop buildup and the fighting to liberate Kuwait.
“War also deserves quiet, sober remembrance, and we can offer humble homage to people who last summer answered their country’s call and never returned,” the President said in a memorial ceremony in the amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery.
Bush choked up briefly when he said that Kuwait is a free nation again because “we dared risk our most precious asset, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives--the finest troops any country has ever had.”
Families of some of those who died during Desert Storm were in the audience. Some wept openly, especially during the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the conclusion of the ceremony.
After Bush spoke, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah, expressed thanks for the American intervention that ousted an Iraqi army from his homeland.
“To the families, we say we share your grief,” the envoy said. “May God rest in peace the souls of our martyrs and bless their families.”
After the morning memorial service, the mood became celebratory as the parade continued for nearly two hours and then troops joined their families at a huge picnic on the Ellipse, just south of the White House grounds.
“I love it,” Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Hover, of Pensacola, Fla., told a reporter. “Everyone says we are heroes, and I guess we are.”
Some critics decried the cost of the celebration. The Pentagon is slated to pick up about $7 million of the tab. The remainder will come from private contributions, including $1 million each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Most of the funds were used to bring the 8,000 troops and some of their equipment to Washington from duty posts as far away as Germany, as well as paying the expenses of members of the families of those who lost their lives in the Gulf.
One demonstrator along the parade route, Sam Nickels, argued that the $7 million in government funds could have been used to prevent cuts in benefits for the poor.
“War is not just a celebration,” he said. “That money could have gone elsewhere.”
But the overall mood was of jubilation, in part because the Gulf War was won so quickly and ground forces were only in combat for five days.