7.0. Military Parades. On the patriotism within us
A military parade is organized and carried out as a show mainly for the benefit of public. In fact, it is legitimate to think that both the highest offices of the government and the army are already used to seeing what happens in the arena or low in the sky.
There was a wide range of options to choose from. Eventually, I opted for the following countries: Brazil, Chile, China, France, North and South Korea, Russia, UK and USA.73 As the reader can see, I included some super powers, some nations with a long, important history and some others that in our times have reached a high economic status and/or possess weapons of mass destruction. Some are also characterized by either overtly non-democratic or dictatorial regimes (there is no need to explain such a ‘difference’, which is, in any case, due to quite biased positions, as it is the case with everything else).
73 I omitted three countries previously expected — India, Japan and Turkey — for reasons I will explain further ahead.
The reader will see that these very serious parades, where every nation ‘flexes its muscles’ before the whole world and appeals to whatever amount of patriotism lies within each of us, have more than one element in common with the most silly tattoos and even with the frisky, musical happenings so much loved by who can be defined as the king of the musical kitsch: of course, André Rieu (and with this I am anticipating one of my conclusions).
Military rituality differs greatly from country to country, but we should not bother with that, although the long and almost perfect Chinese and Russian parades are very impressive when compared with… let us call them the ‘informal’ Brazilian shows. Also French parades are kind of ‘informal’, but surely much more precise than the Brazilian ones.
The following analysis appears in alphabetic order and will show how military parades may include non-military elements. In other words, if a sort of ‘militarization’ can be observed in several Russian folk music shows, as we shall see, precisely the opposite occurs in parades from other countries under examination in this chapter. In fact, one can sometimes notice the insertion of solo or collective numbers that, having nothing to do with the main (and only) topic of the performance, seem imported (manu militari,74 I would say) from very different show genres. Before speaking about some specific cases, I would try to understand the reasons behind such kinds of insertions. Captivating the interest of young people is certainly a priority, but how to do it? A worldwide solution is to update the parades by weakening their dreariness and converting them into a show. It is not easy by any means, especially among young people who often cultivate a well-motivated antimilitarism. There might be also political reasons applied by a specific country. In any case, even when I sometimes sensed them, I deemed that to elaborate and hypothesize on this aspect is not one of the goals of the present work.
74 Latin expression employed in common and political lingo meaning “with the use of military forces”, that is, coercively [EN].
In a parade organized in Brasilia in 2013, after half an hour of the customary exhibitions of army, navy, and air force platoons and a sad procession of veterans,75 a group of young girls with red, fluttering costumes appears behind one of the marching bands. From time to time they start running and waving their arms to the rhythm of Brazil, a famous samba that here was arranged with some martial features. A much larger group in green and yellow garbs (the colors of the Brazilian flag) follows: it is not a well-formed band since everyone walks and plays on his/her own. Between a group of cheerleaders and another band, we have an example of extreme ‘asynchronism’ in a military parade: two girls (one wearing a leather miniskirt and a see-through shirt is very coarse, the other wears ballerina dress) pass in between the squads. The first girl does nothing more than hailing while she walks on very high heels that make her movements all but martial; the second girl does somersaults every three steps. For many different reasons I still wonder what they were meant to represent there. Now it is time for a couple of thoughts before we leave Brazil to a side: 1) female military corps are among the most clunky and unsynchronized I have seen: a decisively fat and short woman stands close to another lanky woman, and both are off-center, as it is typical in this parade; 2) along with Japan, Brazil has the less attended parade, in fact the pedestrian areas and sidewalks visible in the background are almost empty.
75 Besides a parade of the Russian Federation in the Red Square (2014) whose diegetic time corresponds to the real time (two shots at the Spasskaya (Спасская) tower clock that show 10 and 11 am, respectively, confirm it), the timings indicated below — that I used to draw my conclusions — must be taken with reservation. Although I have always referred to the longest versions, I am not completely sure about the real duration of each parade. A military parade took place very recently (09/03/2015) in Beijing for the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the victorious end of the war against Japan (1945-2015). Even though I initially discarded the translated versions, I easily found out that the 'original' version goes from 2h12’49” to 2h14’11”; from 2h20’04” to 2h25’56” and so on. Therefore, I decided to use a version in original language (but with parts in English) that lasted 4h09’49”. The comparisons taken into account here, although not absolute data, are still very meaningful.
In Chile, right after the arrival of the authorities, what seemed to be a military parade turns into a half-an-hour folkloric show. Then a procession of carts and huasos on horses76 appears. One of these carts carries a typical music band composed of three guitars, a small harp, tambourines and two female voices. After a mandatory toast to the presidential dais, around twenty couples who followed the carts start dancing. Men wear black pants, white shirts and colorful ponchos called chamantos. They wear also big spurs and straw hats called chupallas. Women wear colorful clothes and flared skirts with petticoats that keep the skirts tense and open. Then, on a side, the real parade ironically starts with a British march. It is hard to say more about the rest. In any case, after two and a half hours, the only parts one can pay attention to are those staging works of great artists: Shakespeare, Mozart, Wagner etc.
76 Huasos are Chilean equivalent of the Argentinian gauchos and North American cowboys.
Instead, Chinese parades must be watched at least once in a lifetime. Some are very solemn like, for example, a 2009 parade that I will take here as a reference along with some very interesting documentaries on the corps’ training. Every little spot in the enormous Tian’ammen square has been decorated with bright colors as far as the eye can see. Despite the overall formality, only female squads composed of beautiful girls with skirts generously above the knees deploys in front of the audience. Yet, the unrivaled precision of their movements makes them all look like a clone of the same figure — recall what I said above in 1.4 about a robotic effect — that is, like automata or wind-up dollies, even with regard to their facial expression. The latter yields a probably sought-for sort of eeriness. The eeriness is even more striking when male platoons are deployed: they are loaded with weapons and move with precision and impassivity, as well as their female colleagues. My second example, a parade to celebrate 100 years of the Chinese Republic, shows one of the most remarkable mixtures of genres in this short survey. If the other parade was so accurate, enough to intimidate a European spectator, this one starts with a ‘human panel’ that reproduces a fast series of ideograms and drawings, being every participant a pixel of the whole image. Meanwhile, a rock song is playing. Right after, two groups of soldiers wearing different uniforms perform an ‘empty’ number, that is, they pointlessly wander back and forth, although the deployment seems to suggest a potential choreography that never gets to materialize. Then, two groups of cheerleaders arrive from opposite directions: it looks like they had been dragged straight from a small US town. But this is nothing! They are actually dressed as such, and move as such (although the precision of the 2009 parade was much higher), but instead of handling the traditional baton or the traditional pompom they have riffles.77 Meanwhile, more cheerleaders with different clothes enter the parade area… etc. Are we seeing a tattoo? Everything seems to point to that, but after the actual military parade it is time again for more acrobats, jugglers, gymnasts, flag pitchers, dancers and the inevitable dragons. All this is too much even for a tattoo.
77 I do not know whether they were real or fake weapons.
With regard to France (and thanks to YouTube), I was also able to see several military défilés,78 but I will focus only on one that occurred recently: on July 14, 2014. After almost two hours of austere parade and waning applauses, one can notice that in comparison to China and Korea there are no separate female and male deployments. Men and women are combined, but women occupy the last rows (is this machismo or faithfulness to tradition?). Moreover, there is no indulgence toward erotically allusive clothes (is this moralism or faithfulness to tradition?). After a horsed platoon with a brass band and three people standing on an old cart (probably used during WWI), a symphonic orchestra under a big gazebo starts playing the highly meditative Adagio from the Concerto for clarinet and orchestra in A major, KV 622, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the same time boys and girls in black and white attires or tracksuits rush in. They have a strange colorful arabesque drawn on the chest: perhaps is a symbol of ‘fantasy and liberty’. Many other youngsters quickly walk and join them with a white dove in their hands. An overhead shot shows a heart-shaped deployment, then the first group leaves and the second group arranges itself in semi-circle in front of the authorities. Now a couple moves away toward the presidential dais and many spectators, I think, can already foretaste a sudden flight of doves. But it is not time for it, not yet. First the couple hugs and takes a posture, and then the boy lays a white handkerchief on the ground while other participants come closer and form into six lines. Everyone raises their right arm and looks down: this is the only time the performance matches Mozart’s Adagio’s profundity. Unfortunately, the first group comes back and goes straight to help another group who is involved in forming a heart shape. Then, many other couples join, hug and take a posture similar, but not equal to the one the first couple took before. Now everybody dances, but they do it ungracefully and distractedly. Finally, while the clarinet fades out, the doves rise in the sky. These were just six minutes of pure sufferance, not really for the lack of precision (Chinese are born, not made), but rather because the overall plan did not have any aesthetic merit or sense of sobriety whatsoever (and more than anything else, because the whole ‘number’ had been unbelievably hypocritical since the beginning).
78 "Fashion show," but also "parade;" here, of course, in the sense of defilé militaire [EN]
A fifteen-minute walk away from Buckingham Palace, just after crossing The Mall and then to the right toward Horse Guard Rd., there is the rather wide but closed space of Horse Guards Parade. Since there is not enough room for having a real parade, the whole show is based on several exhibitions that the grenadiers perform in loco, as it were a very solemn tattoo. In the 104-minutes, BBC video Trooping the Colour. The Queen's Birthday Parade released in 2011, the speaker repeatedly says the name of the members of the royal cortège who are attending the parade. In fact, this is a country where the Crown is something the people have a feeling for and where almost every official matter revolves around the Queen and her severe posture. Perhaps, this is the reason why parades here are among the few that do not admit anything 'modern' or transgressive.
Pyiongyang’s central square — Kim Il-Sung Square — where a two-and-a-half-hour North Korean parade took place in 2013, is astonishingly large. The young dictator’s arrival is delayed a few endless minutes (it is obviously a well-calculated delay). The rhetoric triumphalism that colors the TV speaker’s voice is very evident, even without any knowledge of Korean. Same thing can be said of the slightly cavernous female voice that gets in here and there. No wonder that all this has been produced by a pro-Chinese communist dictatorship. In fact, North Korean people seem to have copied everything from Chinese militarists, starting with the absolute precision they show in filling a square with civil and military troops, and ending with the enormous words composed of thousands of human beings. I think a refinement deserved to be made: some drawings made of dozens of human bodies are anamorphic, that is, the point of view that permits to understand their meaning is clear only from the authorities’ gallery. In this parade everything seems to be coherent: several music bands meet, blend and join together while a group of pretty girls acts as macebearers. The result is one, huge band with uncountable brass instruments. Unlike France, in North Korea there are many female, armed platoons. Any transgressive numbers? Practically nothing, except for, perhaps, the moves and plastic postures of some girls at the end of the parade while the music swings between a march in 2/4 and drums in triplets on the upbeats.
People who are interested in parades with no 'special effects', but with a bunch of men, artillery and air forces, should attend those that take place near the famous Kremlin on the Red Square (Красная площадь) in Moscow. The initial small 4+4 squad with flags that walks to the rhythm of the slow and sacred music of The Sacred War (Священная Война) shapes the context and hints to what is about to come.
Moscow, Red Square: Russian Army Parade Victory Day, 2014.
Excerpt from the overture.
Compactness and continuity are such that the parade is over in exactly one hour, as it is marked by the Chiming (боем) clock of the Spasskaya (Спасская) Tower. This is not the only parade with such characteristics, but is a good example of balance between entertainment and sobriety. In the second half, during the procession of the most terrifying self-propelled weapons, popular songs are played as a sign of how inseparable the two components of the show — music and guns — are (see further on, about traditional Russian music). The percussion deployed all around the square and the large band in the center can guarantee rhythm and music along the whole space. A good part of the audience framed by the camera is composed of multi-decorated elderly soldiers accompanied by nephews in their teens, but there are also some youngsters. All the parades I took into account — the one I am going to talk about here is the 2014 Victory Day Russian Army Parade — have one common element: either armed or disarmed women, in official dress or with a miniskirt, are completely absent, the exception being the big female platoon deployed in the 2014 parade in Saint Petersburg whose direction and music are, though, very similar to the Moscow parade.
As it is well-known, South Korea is a unitary presidential, pro-US republic (in fact, in the 2013 Seoul parade, part of the music is constituted of US marches). Evidently, South and North Korean parades stay on opposite sides from all possible points of view and are used also to respond to the provocations that each country periodically launches to its enemy. Again in 2013, but just before the Seoul parade, the 65th anniversary of the Air Force was celebrated in the Seoul Air Base of Senognam: 11 thousand soldiers, 190 different pieces of artillery and 120 aircrafts participated. It was an unprecedented deployment of military forces. There are no ‘special effects’, but one gets impressed by the long series of helicopters and the robust cables tied to them from which three men are hanging while many others strenuously climb up. One has the same reaction watching several parachutists with their parafoil parachutes and flags wired to their feet: they are really amazing! What French paras79 would consider extreme acrobatics, for many Korean soldiers seems to be ordinary routine. In fact, once they landed in front of the authorities’ gallery, everyone can remain standing with no apparent effort. With regard to women, besides seeing some of them on jeeps and other vehicles, only a disarmed female platoon makes its appearance in the parade. The skirts are clearly below the knees, but the uniforms, or better, the colorful garbs that both men and women wear and the hackles on top of their hats, make them look like ‘operetta soldiers’. It is quite hilarious; however, this is probably the only flaw in the whole show. The South Korean parade lasts 1 hour and 52 minutes. It is, then, very far from Chinese extreme conciseness (45’) but, luckily, more restrained than North Korean and Chilean prolixity: 2h27’ and 2h35’, respectively.
79 “Parachutists” [EN].
A 2013 US parade lasting 2 hours starts with 'special effects'. Of course, it is a TV broadcast (as are most of the parades mentioned so far) but, considering that US is the inventor and first slave of mass-media, it is interesting to see that the show unfolds the whole ideological, more than numerically relevant repertoire from the very beginning. A speaker introduces the parade with triumphant words: "…From Constitution Avenue, Washington D.C., welcome to the 2013 National Memorial Day Parade. And now, please welcome the Two Hundred Voices Memorial Day Festival Chorus, under the direction of Cindy Petty, with special appearance by… ." The tenor Anthony Kearns, standing basically on the sidewalk, starts slowly singing America, the Beautiful. The choir is worth listening to but not to be watched because the singers are very untidy and badly dressed, so much for the speaker's exalted voice! More 'special effects' are about to come. The speaker introduces now the parade's guests: some secondary Hollywood actors, some country singers, one Miss America and several journalists, all defined by the speaker as 'superstars'. The absence of army officers is noticeable, even though they will come later. With regard to the parade, not even a small squad with flag is able to behave as the solemn situation would require when the notes of The Washington Post are playing. As to synchronism, each of six young soldiers bearing a drapery with the name of the parade on it makes his own way with no martial posture whatsoever. A little bit better — but it could not be worse — is the presentation of a bigger squad followed by a band with a macebearer. While seeing this, the screen splits and the Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, Commander U.S. Army's Military District of Washington appears in a smaller box giving a very short speech. Not even half an hour has passed before a group of majorettes shows up, but what they are doing outside a stadium is not clear. Maybe it is a way to say that a little sprinkling of sex does not hurt anyone. However, the top of kitsch comes when a typical open coach with an actor dressed like George Washington passes by. But he is not alone; in fact another slightly different coach passes by with an actor dressed like Abraham Lincoln. Basically, the whole North-American history marches through.
We should be happy that the same formula has not been applied in a European country such as France, Spain, UK, Germany or Italy because the show would have been much longer. Before closing this disappointing chapter let me say something more about Autria Godfrey and Dave Lucas, the two journalists who covered the event in studio. Both seem skilled and experienced, probably because they are working in such a big city as Washington, but for some reason they glorify everything they see with a constant smile on their face. Ironically, one could wonder what really differentiates the two journalists from their North Korean, low-voiced colleague. Of course, a dictatorship has too many unacceptable characteristics, but the rigid rules of show business that ban any form of critique and self-critique, are they not also the result of a different kind of dictatorship?
Unlike many countries whose parades are abundantly available for screening, not enough material can be found to allow an objective evaluation of parades from India, Japan and Turkey. Therefore, I can just say that Japan’s parades are poorly attended for a precise historical reason (but while I am writing I hear echoes of nationalism and military resurgence). Perhaps having suffered the first atomic bombing in history led to an antimilitarist feeling that could last no longer than seventy years… India could find place among the nations that consider being transgressive as an intrinsic element of the show-parade. Unfortunately, the videos I found are too short and therefore I can just make hypotheses. Judging from a brief documentary, Turkish army seems to have greatly evolved, although this is not the aspect I am most interested in here.