What would he think about military units marching in close formation past the reviewing stand, their officers’ chins tucked in, smartly saluting a civilian whose only uniform in life was the one issued by his high school basketball team?
Here’s what Ben Franklin would say: “Been thither, done that.”
During the winter of 1755-56, Ben Franklin, a civilian like Obama, raised and commanded the largest militia in British North America.
Raids by Native Americans on towns in western Pennsylvania stimulated the action. The Shawnee, distressed by incursion into their territory by Europeans, responded as one would expect. Tales of massacres soon reached Philadelphia where pacifist Quakers, reluctant to engage in combat themselves, gave financial support to Franklin’s call to establish a militia, which would march westward to aid settlers with fort construction (and warfare with the natives if necessary).
Franklin suggested that the militia’s soldiers elect their own officers. As he put it: “It seems likely that the people will engage more readily in the service, and face danger with more intrepidity, when they are commanded by a man they know and esteem, and on whose prudence and courage, as well as goodwill and integrity, they can have reliance, than they would under a man they either did not know, or did not like.”
Needless to say, the men elected Franklin to lead them. He was, after all, Pennsylvania’s most prominent citizen. Ben Franklin declined the term “general” for his position, accepting “colonel” instead. Nevertheless, when Franklin and his brigade visited the Moravians en route west, the locals addressed him as “General Franklin.”
After successfully constructing forts in three Pennsylvania locations, Franklin and his army returned to Philadelphia. Soon thereafter, on March 16, 1756, Colonel Franklin marched part of his militia past Pennsylvania’s Royal Governor—a man who viewed Franklin with suspicion. (Franklin wanted the Pennsylvania family—owners of much Pennsylvania land—to pay their fair share of the militia’s cost, something they refused to do.) This show of strength did not go unnoticed by the governor.
The next day, when Franklin left Philadelphia to attend a meeting in Virginia, his troops gave him a military send-off, accompanying him to the ferry terminal with swords drawn — an inappropriate gesture, according to proper military etiquette. When Franklin found this out, he decided that he had had enough of martial displays. As he wrote about the incident: “For tho’ a great number met me at my return, they did not ride with drawn swords, having been told the ceremony was improper. … I who am totally ignorant of military ceremonies, and above all things averse to making show and parade, or doing any useless thing that can serve only to excite envy or provoke malice, suffered at the time much more pain than I enjoy’d pleasure, and have never since given an opportunity for anything of the sort.”
I wonder if President Obama was thinking the same as he reviewed the troops, knowing that in less than 72 hours he’d be asking generals to prepare a plan to withdraw soldiers from Iraq and redeploy them into Afghanistan.