Brief History: Military Parades

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Miguel Toran / EPA

A troop of North Korean soldiers march Oct. 10 in honor of their country's ruling party.

On Oct. 10, North Korea celebrated 65 years of Workers' Party rule--and the anointing of its next leader, Kim Jong Un--with thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marching in concert through the streets of Pyongyang. Along the way, citizens in attendance waved bouquets of plastic flowers, while rockets wheeled by painted with slogans proclaiming, "Defeat the U.S. military."

North Korea seems to specialize in rituals of this sort, but such martial spectacle has deep roots in the past. As far back as humanity's first civilizations, generations of rulers have projected their power through displays of strength designed to awe. Through the sacred Gate of Ishtar in Babylon, returning warrior-kings filed into the city down a passage flanked by 60 giant lion statues as murals of the gods smiled down upon them. Ancient Rome's honorific triumphs were among its most important rites: victorious generals and Emperors paraded past shrines and crowds of roaring plebeians toward the Temple of Jupiter in a propaganda play meant to bind the Roman public to its leaders.

As empires dissolved into nation-states, these ceremonies swapped mysticism for aggression. The military parade entered the modern era with Prussia's crack army, famed for its jackbooted, lockstep discipline. Fascist and totalitarian regimes followed suit in the 20th century: Nazi rallies that took place across entire zeppelin fields purported to be the physical embodiment of the party's ideology. These days many countries, including democracies, hold triumphal marches but not nearly on the same scale as North Korea's. As George Orwell noted decades ago, "Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army." In the Hermit Kingdom, there are few chuckles.