“Studiedly neutral” would be a fair way to describe the reaction of General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked on February 7th about President Donald Trump’s desire to stage a big military parade in Washington, DC, modelled on the annual Bastille Day procession in Paris.

The general, America’s most senior military officer, was asked for his view of the parade while in Bangkok, as he emerged from a meeting with the Thai defence minister. Ramrod-straight in his four-star marine general’s uniform, the chairman replied: “I’m aware of the President’s request. We are in the initial stages of planning.” Pressed for more, the general offered the same reply a second time.

Your reporter is travelling with General Dunford, as one of four journalists covering a tour of American bases and allies in the Asia-Pacific. The mood, generally, on this eight-day marathon is best described as briskly, soberly efficient. Your blogger should make clear that he has not heard General Dunford express a personal view on Mr Trump’s parade—the Trumparade? But as an outside observer, it would be easy to imagine that it might strike military planners as a potential distraction, at a grimly busy time.

America is a nation that has been at war for a long time, which still has troops fighting from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, which is watching Russia warily in the Baltic and in Ukraine, and which in the short-term is building up military assets in Asia to deter North Korea, and in the longer-term to hedge against an ever-more assertive China.

America’s military is also run by men and women who have seen a lot of war. The serious mood of the American military, in February 2018, is worth bearing in mind as political Washington responds to Mr Trump’s project, and watches commanders like General Dunford for signs of enthusiasm or wariness.

After the Washington Post broke the story that Mr Trump had asked General Dunford and the defence secretary, James Mattis, to work up plans for a big parade, political pundits have been weighing in on whether such processions are un-American, or reek of communist or fascist displays of firepower. It is noted that Washington has not seen a large military parade since 1991, when it hosted a victory march for troops from the Gulf War. News outlets have run images of North Korean nuclear missile launchers trundling through Pyongyang, and recalled Mr Trump’s tweets boasting that he has a bigger nuclear button than the North Korean despot, Kim Jong Un.

Democrats face a dilemma, however: whether to risk being seen as anti-military. For in an age when Americans’ trust in institutions is generally low, the armed forces are a rare exception, with 72% of respondents expressing a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military in the 2017 edition of an annual Gallup poll (Congress was trusted by 12%).

Does that mean that a Trumparade would be a guaranteed triumph for the president? The answer may be complicated.

On the one hand, it is true that a national reverence for the troops has not generated lots of large-scale military parades. This is on the face of it a bit odd. Tributes to the armed forces and to veterans are a staple of hometown July 4th parades, baseball games, television advertising and even flights on American airlines (it is routine to hear gate agents invite military personnel to board planes first, and for cabin attendants to thank veterans for their service). Charities for wounded veterans are a ubiquitous presence at county fairs, and a favourite cause for political candidates.

So why would anyone think it un-American for tanks to roll down Pennsylvania Avenue? Pondering this question from Bangkok, where troops in steel helmets are a slightly menacing presence around the capital, perhaps the answer lies in differing views of the state.

At their best, tributes to the troops and to veterans feel like the vast majority of Americans who have never served trying to thank the 0.5% of the population currently on active duty. It is common to interview Americans who say they remember how Vietnam veterans were scorned or ignored when they returned home, and how they are determined to do better today. The tributes are often intensely personal—troops walking through an airport or train station in camouflage expect to be stopped a dozen times, while strangers emotionally thank them for their service.

At worst, there is a touch of guilt, even pity in tributes to American troops. Your reporter has talked to officers who worry that Americans think every soldier comes home disabled or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Your blogger remembers watching a July 4th parade in Cody, Wyoming, at which a group had recreated a full military funeral in replica on a float being towed down the main street, complete with flag-draped coffin, astroturf grave surroundings, and a grim-faced honour guard firing deafening rifle-volleys of blanks into the air.

This reporter once wrote about why America is one of the only countries that awards medals for being wounded in combat (Canada introduced a Sacrifice Medal in 2008). Purple Hearts often involve heroism but do not need to: they are awards for hardship. Congress has a special fondness for the Purple Heart, I noted. Members had it bumped up precedence tables in 1985 and often weigh in on who should get it.

History frames this focus on suffering, starting with the American Revolution. The Purple Heart pays homage to a merit badge created by George Washington, at a moment when his Continental army of citizen-soldiers was near mutiny, starved of pay and rations by the Congress of the day, after years of combat against the better-equipped professionals of the British army. That idea of American soldiers as citizen-volunteers, forsaking their families to fight for liberty, retains great power.

European parades do not in fact reek of fascism or furious nationalism, it should be pointed out. The Bastille Day parade in Paris is patriotic, but also includes police units and students from military colleges. For many years the French parade has also included troops invited from allied countries, and from multi-national bodies such as the United Nations and European Union. The Belgian national day parade in Brussels includes troops but also police officers, ambulances, postmen and telephone company vans. Britain’s Trooping of the Colour features storied regiments but derives its meaning from the monarch, before whom the colours are trooped. Such Euro-parades are, in essence, a celebration of the state.

Celebrating the armed might of the state in that way is not a straightforward idea in America, perhaps explaining why tanks do not rumble annually through Washington, DC. Though that is not why the Trumparade is controversial, of course. Sceptics of this display of national pride have a still simpler worry: that the world’s most powerful armed forces are being summoned to celebrate not a country but one man, the commander-in-chief.