In my life I have participated in several military parades. Of these, two stand out. As an officer candidate in the Austrian Army, I marched in step to the tune of the Radetzky March past a crowd — my Father, my Uncle Winfried and Aunt Waltraud among them — down an alley leading to Eggenberg Palace, in Graz.
It was late fall and chilly dark. Half of the members of my company carried torches, which cast eerie shadows on the baroque exterior of the castle.
The second was in late summer. I was commanding a section of an honor guard marching in step through the village of Hengsberg to a green meadow, where a few hundred recruits swore their military oath in front of relatives and local villagers.
On both occasions, as we marched by, crowds spontaneously clapped, some shouting, “Bravo, super Burschen!” (Well done, fine boys!). I felt something like the spirited flush that once filled me — God knows why — when, as a boy, I watched John Wayne at Iwo Jima or Bataan. The shrill bark of red faced sergeants and long days of monotonous drill were for a brief moment forgotten.
National military parades are a thing of the past in most of the West, but they are becoming a popular form of statesmanship in Asia. By year’s end, lavish pageants of military hardware and marchers in formation will advance down boulevards of India, Pakistan, North Korea, China and Russia.
However alluring and visually striking, these parades embody militarism, the deadly business at the heart of every sovereign state. And the term “parade” comes from the Latin word parare, “to prepare.” Throughout history, parades have prepared citizens for war. When militarism and national insecurity intersect, as they seem to be doing today in Asia, carnage often follows.
Contemporary leaders might recall Europe’s experience in the late 19th and early 20th century of burgeoning military innovation and stockpiles of arms. The latest technology of human genius was harnessed and transformed into the most appalling annihilation of humankind as competing nation-states collided in two epic wars that risked toppling modern civilization.
In fact, Europe’s influence on parade marching in Asia today can be found in the marching techniques, which often feature variations of the Prussian goose step (Stechschritt), especially popular in China, Russia and North Korea. Of the goose step, George Orwell noted that it 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.”
Since the end of WWII, the nuclear threshold and the memory of 20th century conflagrations has checked militarism and limited hostile aggression to regional wars of greater and lesser ferocity. But endemic national disputes and the competition to field the most troops wielding the most sophisticated weapons has deflected global capital from a humane attention to crucial societal needs. The price of guns is a perennial sin tax of blood and treasure.
Military parades are an indispensable political platform for communicating power and ambition and are now amplified by the tools of mass media, which can orchestrate and glamourize rhythmic ranks of well-booted warriors and rolling chariots of gleaming steel.
In countries like China where only a figure for the topline defense budget is released, parades help show what taxpayer money is buying and boost national pride.
After a seven-year hiatus, Pakistan revised its Republic (Pakistan) Day military parade (see: “With Military Parade, Pakistan Sends Message to Indian, Taliban”). Strained relations with its historical ally, the United States, has prompted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to probe Russian openness for compensatory arms and energy deals. And noting a Western tilt towards India after NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Sharif wanted to secure Chinese President Xi Jinping as “Chief Guest” of this year’s ceremony, as both leaders posture for a strategic alliance comprising the Muslim world’s first Islamic Republic and, thus far, its only nuclear armed state (China declined the invitation allegedly due to security reasons).
Pakistan’s archrival and rising superpower, India, held its 66th annual Republic Day parade in January in New Delhi. Another Chief Guest, Barack Obama — the first American president to attend the event — with First Lady, Michelle, applauded the troops with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of dignitaries. Both countries are seeking closer ties as the United States formulates the action steps of its emerging “Pacific Pivot” and India determines its place in a multi-lateral world marked by the growing rivalry between China and the United States.
Russia will also hold a larger than usual parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of end of WWII, the country’s most destructive war. Putin has expanded Victory Day celebrations, feeding internal reactionary sentiment for Soviet era military prestige. After the blatant annexation of the Crimea and continued Russian support of separatist forces in Ukraine, the Russian President’s annual bottoms’ up of 100 g of vodka — the daily ration of a soldier of the Red Army in WWII — at the May 9th celebration will fuel speculation about Putin’s latest economic directives to “re-invigorate” the Russian military and sustain the planet’s largest nuclear arsenal (see: ”Putin’s New ‘Wunderwaffe’: The World’s Deadliest Tank?”).
North Korea held its biggest parade to date in 2013, yet the auteurs of this year’s spectacle, according to the North Korean media, aspire to outshine all past events. North Korean ideologues proudly espouse Seon’gun, “military first,” as state policy. Kim Jong Un appears to have fortified his power base and proclaims Armageddon against all who would oppose the Kim kleptocracy and the Supreme Leader’s statecraft of personal whim and nuclear blackmail.
Fearing the hegemony of an ascendant China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to ease post-war constitutional restrictions on Japan’s military and simultaneously boost a stagnant Japanese economy with its largest defense budget since World War II. Under the aegis of “Abenomics,” the Diet has approved an increase in military spending for three consecutive years. The Prime Minister annually reviews the nation’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) but has thus far avoided an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine– a highly controversial monument to Japan’s war dead — though advisors speculate he may reconsider in the face of repeated scruffs with China over the disputed Diaoyu -Senkakus Islands, and Abe’s perception of Japan’s “unrealistic pacifism.”
In response, The People’s Daily has voiced the Communist Party’s plan to “make Japan tremble” with a prodigious military parade next September. After staging only three previous military spectacles since 1960, the People’s Republic of China projects, in addition to the parade marking of the end of World War II, a triptych of martial extravaganzas over the next six years. Touting his domestic mastery and the steel and brawn of the largest armed forces in the world, President Xi Jinping will, for the first time in China’s modern history, invite foreign heads of state to witness this tour de force in Beijing. Leaders of Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines may tremble as well.
Military parades generate a festive enthusiasm that spirits participants and spectators into an illusive realm of shared human optimism. But just below the shouts and shine of cadenced joy, these spectacles harbor a ruinous cancer. A nation’s embrace of armed might is a fatal greeting and inevitable farewell to arms and all that arms will bear.
No one who has ever participated in a military parade can deny the rousing yet mind-numbing sensation that marching in perfect synchronization to the tune of martial music invokes, as well as the peculiar intoxicating bond that is forged between the soldier and the audience.
During a parade march, one is not allowed to move one’s head — save the dramatic “eyes right” for the presiding leader — and should only stare on the neck seam of the soldier in front, merely isolating single-mindedness by constricting vision.
This peripheral blindness, however, works both ways. It affects the soldiers, yet also the onlookers, creating paradoxically what Harold Rosenberg called “a herd of independent minds,” which is swept along in a martial reverie.
“The look in all of your eyes made me cry. You seemed ready to go out there and fight,” my aunt confided to me a few days after the torchlight parade at Eggenberg Palace. She was right. We were primed at that moment for war.
In the aftermath of mortal labor there is a solemn military ritual for the casualties of human conflict.
In June 2012, I stood in a long line of a few hundred American soldiers and contractors flanking left and right the main road of Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost Province, Afghanistan. A casket draped with an American flag, in it the remains of a soldier who had died the day before, was slowly carried through the base.
There was no music and no marching in step. A chaplain and a few soldiers of the unit he served escorted the casket to a C-130 transport plane waiting on the runway. A loudspeaker shouted out the commands, and even though I was wearing civilian clothes, I instantly assumed a military posture at the order of “Attention!” With no further thought, I also kneeled down at the command “Prepare for Prayer!”
When I later wrote about my experience in a story for the Austrian Daily (see: “Hero Ceremony am US-Stützpunkt”), many complained that I — as a correspondent — should not have participated in this “hero ceremony.” I felt I almost had no choice.
Parades, in one way or the other, are at the beginning and at the end of a soldier’s life. Yet, they also can mark — and this is what the world’s leaders should keep in mind — willy-nilly, the birth and death of states.
A version of this article has been previously published in The New York Times.