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Reader riposte: Goose-step

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26 October 2009 11:35

Ed Cohen writes:

I've been reading Orwell's essays recently, which I think are essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century history as well as how ideas influence politics. They're also superbly well-written with plenty of wit and powerful logic. In 'The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius', I came across a very interesting passage which backs up your 'rule of thumb' about what military parades tell you about the political character of a country:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. 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. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army. The Italians adopted the goose-step at about the time when Italy passed definitely under German control, and, as one would expect, they do it less well than the Germans. The Vichy government, if it survives, is bound to introduce a stiffer parade-ground discipline into what is left of the French army. In the British army the drill is rigid and complicated, full of memories of the eighteenth century, but without definite swagger; the march is merely a formalized walk. It belongs to a society which is ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of the scabbard.

 As an aside, Orwell wrote that essay in London during the blitz, a fact he conveyed in this simple and powerful opening sentence:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

Photo by Flickr user simon edge, used under a Creative Commons license.

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