Military Parades

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Alain Nogues / Corbis

Military parade in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on Sept. 9, 2008

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 rise of the People's Republic. Some 5,000 military personnel and 108 missile trucks — including several carrying ICBMs 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.

Though the celebrations in Beijing look proudly toward the future, this sort of martial spectacle has 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 them.

The honorific triumphs of ancient Rome were among the Roman 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" (Remember you are mortal) 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 then 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 to the Adriatic Sea, the key to its Doge's wealth and power.

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 — like 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 high-tech missiles streaming past the Kremlin every May Day. Elaborately choreographed events known as Mass Games, involving countless dancers and volunteers, 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 tableaux 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 run-up 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.