By BEN NUCKOLS and SAMANTHA GROSS(NBC News)
Americans won’t be seeing a huge ticker-tape parade in New York City anytime soon for troops returning from Iraq.
It’s not clear if veterans of the nine-year campaign will ever enjoy the grand, flag-waving, red-white-and-blue homecoming that the nation’s fighting men and women received after World War II and the Gulf War.
Officials in New York and Washington say they would be happy to help stage a big celebration, but Pentagon officials say they haven’t been asked to plan one.
Most welcome-homes have been smaller-scale: hugs from families at military posts across the country, a somber commemoration by President Barrack Obama at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
With tens of thousands of U.S. troops still fighting a bloody war in Afghanistan, anything that looks like a big victory celebration could be seen as unseemly and premature, some say.
“It’s going to be a bit awkward to be celebrating too much, given how much there is going on and how much there will be going on in Afghanistan,” said Don Mrozek, a military history professor at Kansas State University.
Two New York City councilmen, Republicans Vincent Ignizio and James Oddo, have called for a ticker-tape parade down the stretch of Broadway known as the Canyon of Heroes. A similar celebration after the Gulf War was paid for with more than $5.2 million in private donations, a model the councilmen would like to follow.
Mayor Bloomberg said last week that he was open to the idea but added, “It’s a federal thing that we really don’t want to do without talking to Washington, and we’ll be doing that.”
A spokesman for the mayor declined to elaborate on the city’s reasons for consulting with Washington. Ignizio said he had been told by the mayor’s office that Pentagon officials were concerned that a celebration could spark violence overseas and were evaluating the risk.
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said that he has not heard that issue raised and that New York has yet to make a formal proposal. He also said officials are grateful communities around the country are finding ways to recognize the sacrifices of troops and their families.
The last combat troops in Iraq pulled out more than a week ago. About 91,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are in Afghanistan, battling a stubborn Taliban insurgency and struggling to train Afghan forces so that they eventually can take over security. Many U.S. troops who fought in the Iraq War could end up being sent to Afghanistan.
A parade might invite criticism from those who believe the U.S. left Iraq too soon, as well as from those who feel the war was unjustified. It could also trigger questions about assertions of victory.
Mrozek noted that President George W. Bush’s administration referred to military action in the Middle East as part of a global war on terror, a conflict that’s hard to define by conventional measures of success.
“This is not a war on a particular place or a particular force,” he said.
Bush himself illustrated the perils of celebrating milestones in the war, Mrozek said, when he landed on an aircraft carrier and hailed the end of major combat operations in Iraq behind a “Mission Accomplished” banner in May 2003. U.S. troops remained in Iraq for 8½ more years, and Bush was criticized over the banner.
The benchmarks were clearer in previous wars. After World War II, parades marked Japan’s surrender. After the Gulf War, celebrations marked the troops’ return after Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait.
The only mass celebrations of U.S. military activities since Sept. 11, 2001, were largely spontaneous: Large crowds gathered in Times Square and outside the White House in April after Osama bin Laden was killed.
At the same time, Iraq veterans aren’t coming home to the hostility many Vietnam veterans encountered. The first large-scale event honoring Vietnam veterans was not held until 1982, when thousands marched in Washington for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Parades were later held in New York in 1985 — 10 years after the war ended — and in Chicago the next year.
“I think we’ve seen recent history in Vietnam, where that wasn’t done appropriately, and we want to make sure we do the appropriate thing by those that made the ultimate sacrifice and risked their lives for us to say thanks,” Ignizio said.
In Washington, federal agencies take the lead on planning parades, and so far nothing is in the works. A spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray said the city would be honored to host a parade but said local officials wouldn’t take the lead in staging one.
In recent years, most of the ticker-tape parades in New York have been held for the city’s championship sports teams.
“The sports celebrations that we’ve had in New York for the Yankees and the Mets were amazing,” Oddo said. “But these are the real heroes.”