After Iraq: Should the US hold war parades?

Now that the Iraq war has ended, should returning troops get a parade?

In February, Sgt Angela Peacock participated in the Welcome Home Veterans parade in St Louis, Missouri. She and hundreds of service personnel marched through the streets of the city, while 100,000 civilians cheered and held signs.

"They said 'We Love You,' 'Welcome Home', 'Thank You'," Ms Peacock says. "We were shocked."

This week, she participated in another, very different celebration to commemorate the end ofthe Iraq war.

President Barack Obama hosted a state dinner to commemorate the end of the war. In attendance were about 200 troops, from commanding officers to infantry. Guests heard speeches from President Obama, Vice-President Joseph Biden, and other national security leaders, including defence secretary Leon Panetta.

Image caption Marines march in New York City's veteran's day parade

"It was like like no other experience I've ever seen," says Sgt Peacock, who served for seven years in the army before being medically discharged after serving in Iraq.

Unlike the parade, this event consisted mostly of veterans, and was formal and intimate.

"The message from the president was: 'We know that we'll never know exactly what you've been through, but we still want to say thank you'. I felt a lot of closure," says Sgt Peacock.

The question of how to provide closure for Iraq veterans is one that looms heavy now that the war has officially ended.

For the Pentagon, any public celebration of the war feels premature. Officials there are on the record saying that parades and celebrations should wait until all combat troops - including those in the war in Afghanistan - come home.

Not everyone agrees with that. Some were upset that the New York Giants received a ticker-tape parade in New York city less than a week after they won the Super Bowl, but that there were no set plans for the Iraq war veterans.

The parade in St Louis was the result of efforts bytwo independent civilians. Since their parade, they haveestablished a networkfor other cities and towns that want to do the same thing. Parade plans are currently in progress in other cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and San Antonio, Texas.

Support System

Even veterans from the more popular wars did not see instant celebrations upon returning home.

"After World War II, everyone seems to assume that there were these huge parades as soon as they reached the dock, but soldiers came home not as units but as individuals," says Thomas Childers, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Soldier from the War Returning.

Returning veterans sailed into large military bases, were processed there, then given papers to get home. Many returned home after the war in Europe ended, though the war in the Pacific was still raging.

"It wasn't as though there were huge bands playing and flags waving as soon as they stepped of the ship," says Mr Childers. "They were a bit later."

Indeed, most parades after World War II did not take place until a year after combat ended, which gave towns time to get organised and troops time to find their way back to their home towns, he says.

But advocates say parades are about more than tradition. For soldiers returning home from war, parades are more than a congratulatory pat on the back. They are also a useful way to re-integrate troops into the community, while introducing them to the services and support systems available to veterans.

"A bigger event on the local level helps bring vets to the benefits they need and the support available to them, and put them back in touch with the community," says Sgt Peacock, who works with theIraq and Afghanistan Veterans(IAVA).

At the end of the St Louis parade, she helped run a "veterans resource village," with booths about the various resources available - from psychological counselling to free suits for those looking to get back into the civilian job market.


Still, for many Americans it does not quite feel like time to celebrate. First, as the Pentagon points out, is the continued war in Afghanistan.

Jason Hansman, membership director for the IAVA, says that should not be a factor.

"I don't think it diminishes the service of the men and women in Afghanistan. Recognition of Iraq vets signals to troops in Afghanistan is that the civilian populace still cares, and that they'll be thanked when they return as well. It gives them something to look forward to," he says.

The ambiguous beginning and ending of the war may also play a role in the public's confusion. Though the campaign in Iraq had a very clear beginning, there was no official declaration of war, says Edwin Moise, a professor of history at Clemson University. The end was clouded in bureaucracy.

Image caption President Obama hosted a state dinner for veterans of Iraq

Most significantly may be the public's wartime fatigue.

"It my opinion that Americans are tired of nasty little wars on the other side of the world," he says.

Mr Hansman, of the IAVA, says that there is public sentiment for parades, but that window is closing quickly.

"We're in a unique moment in time where the American public is focused on the war in Iraq," he says. "That is the critical beat - we have the American public's attention, and we don't know how much longer we'll have the attention. It's also a good time for vets coming home. They're starting to feel a sense of closure."

For Sgt Peacock, both the dinner and the parade helped bring her that finality - though she recognises that few veterans were able to experience even one of those events, let alone both.

But she is hopeful the formal gesture was not the final word.

"President Obama made that clear," she said. "He said, this isn't the first time we've said thank you, and it won't be the last."