A Brief History of Military Parades

A Brief History of Military Parades

If last year’s Olympics were China’s flashy coming-out party, the
massive military parade commemorating 60 years of communist rule on Oct.
1 marks a more serious side to the People’s Republic’s rise. 5,000 military personnel and 108 missile trucks — including several carrying ICBM’s capable of hitting
Washington — proceeded with pomp down Beijing’s central avenues as more than
150 fighter aircraft soared overhead. And to make sure the heavens don’t
rain on their parade, the Chinese will scramble a fleet of fog-dispersing
aircraft to intercept storm clouds. “[The event] will embody China’s
economic and technological progress,” said Gao Jianguo, a Chinese
military spokesman, in an interview with the state news agency Xinhua.

But while the celebrations in Beijing look proudly toward the future,
these sort of martial spectacles have deep roots in the past. Generations of
rulers have projected their power through displays of strength and awe,
going back to humanity’s first civilizations. Ancient Mesopotamian kings
lined their cities and citadels with friezes depicting glorious
conquests — often using the common visual theme of a giant potentate
in front of his army, literally stomping on the heads of his foes. The
effect was to boost a monarch’s prestige and cement his political
authority. Through the sacred Gate of Ishtar in Babylon, returning
warrior kings would march into the city down a passage flanked by 60
giant lion statues on either side, with murals of the gods smiling upon

The honorific “triumphs” of ancient Rome were among the Empire’s most important rites.
Victorious generals and emperors would process from the Field of Mars
past shrines and crowds of roaring plebeians toward Rome’s great Temple of
Jupiter. Toga-clad senators and the families of prominent patricians
followed ahead of conquering ranks of legionaries. Bulls were
sacrificed, laurel wreaths donned. Chariots bore the plundered loot of
subjugated tribes and captured barbarians were yanked along in chains. Some of
the slaves had instructions to mutter “memento mori” to their captors — an ironic note in a propaganda play
designed to bind the Roman public to its leaders.

The legacy of these Roman rites lingered for centuries in Europe. Every Easter in medieval Venice — the seat of what was
once a powerful Mediterranean empire — regiments of soldiers,
dignitaries and the clergy would file past the
city’s famous Basilica de San Marco toward the docks to watch Venice’s
ruler, the Doge, board a vessel, sail into the harbor and drop a
gold ring into the waters. This very public act symbolized Venice’s
divine marriage with the Adriatic Sea, the key to its Doge’s wealth and

As empires dissolved into nation-states, these spectacles of power
swapped their air of mysticism for a more tangible tone of aggression.
The military parade entered the modern era with the crack Prussian army,
famed for its lockstep discipline. Armies around the world copied the
German kingdom’s methods of mustering and marching, its salutes and
drills. Some of the strict measures applied to troops marching in
Beijing on Oct. 1 — such as the precisely prescribed distance between an
infantryman’s nose and that of his colleagues on either side — can be
traced to the diktats of Prussian tacticians.

The Prussians also bequeathed to the world the notorious goose-step,
first strutted by arrogant officers in the 17th century. As Britain
faced the prospect of German invasion during World War II, George Orwell
wrote the following of what he had seen of the gait from footage of Nazi
parades: “[the goose-step is] one of the most horrible sights in the
world… It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it,
quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing
down on a face.” The iconography was made all the more powerful by its sheer scale: massive Nazi rallies took place across whole zeppelin fields, purporting to be the physical embodiment of the party’s ideology.

The same became largely true for other totalitarian states, including
the Soviet Union, with its phalanxes of tanks and hi-tech missiles
streaming past the Kremlin every May Day. Elaborately-choreographed events involving
countless dancers and volunteers known as Mass Games are a particular legacy of Communism: they still go on
with regularity in North Korea, where tens of thousands train for months
and act out with mechanical precision surreal tableaus lauding the
isolated rogue state’s shadowy leadership.

These days, most countries, including many democracies, hold triumphal
marches, boasting military hardware and commemorating past sacrifices.
But, as Orwell noted many years ago, “beyond a certain point, military
display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not
laugh at the army.” In Beijing, tensions have run high and security has
been tight in the runup to Oct. 1. The government places great stock
in the value of this sort of national spectacle and the public has been
barred access to streets where the parade takes place. While the events
are meant to herald China’s arrival as a modern superpower, the era when
the Qing Emperor would sit perched atop his throne at the gates of the
Forbidden City, surveying his massed army before him, still doesn’t seem
that far away.

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