THE MARCHING MORONS 

I have always been irritated by parading soldiers. The word that comes to my mind is "automatons." My experience as a soldier in the reserves, minimal as it was, included a certain amount of close order drill. I found it detestable, but it was more bearable if I kept my eyes shut. The more like a zombie I performed, the better I pleased the sergeant. 

I know, for most of human history soldiers fought in formation. Civilized disciplined soldiers acting as a seemingly impenetrable phalanx had an advantage over disorganized natives. In armies composed mostly of foreign mercenaries, it was convenient to direct them in a compact mass that obeyed a few simple orders. This kind of battle can still be seen today in confrontations between mobs of protesters and phalanxes of police in riot gear. In such circumstances, close order drill is actually training for battle. 

But now, when wars ar fought with tanks and helicopters and supersonic planes, why torment soldiers with close order drill? The standard answer is the half truth that the purpose is ceremonial. It is true that parades can enhance group spirit and whip up patriotic fervor. But it is also true that drilling brainwashes the soldiers and accustoms them to blind obedience. (Just standing at attention is a kind of ego-annihilating torture. Ask anyone who has been subjected to it for an hour or so.) Of course, at the same time flexibility and initiative are vitiated, but apparently the generals think that those traits are less desirable in the ranks. 

If a parade were really no more than a show of pride, the commanders would be satisfied to have the soldiers walk with heads held high. Instead, they have been amazingly inventive in devising grotesque modes of locomotion that rival the "silly walks" in the Monty Python sketch. The infamous "goose-step" that was the trademark of the Nazis is now the regulation parade walk in some 30 armies. But some have gone further, so that one suspects that the weirdness of the parade walk is in direct proportion to the ruthlessness of the totalitarian state that employs it. 

It is worth noting here that something called "lockstep" is practiced in prisons. The prisoners are forced to walk in single file, in contact with each other front to back, and moving their legs in unison. If their feet are chained together, all the better. This is a means of shifting groups of prisoners from place to place without allowing them to impede the process. The similarity with close order drill is obvious. Both prevent the subordinates from making any motion beyond those they make in unison 

Synchronized performers, of course, are not compelled to do what they do, but the effect is the same, and my thought "automatons" is the same. Here also, the phenomenon is not new. In classical ballet, for example, the members of the corps de ballet are mostly prevented from acting as individuals. Their movements are synchronized. Often they are reduced to the status of a backdrop for the soloists, striking awkward poses and remaining motionless (suffering the same indignity as soldiers at attention.) Broadway musicals have learned the lesson that mass synchronized movement is more effective than complex choreography. 

Displays of synchronized multitudes have become increasingly common. The most extravagant are those at the opening ceremonies of the olympic games. The host countries try to outdo each other, so each ceremony is more grandiose than the last. I watched the opening of the games in Beijing in 2008, which were said to have cost 100 million US dollars, and employed over 15000 performers. I was amazed to see thousands of people, dressed alike, making identical motions, looking more like computer-generated replicas than real people. But then I thought that those who had made mistakes during rehearsals had probably been consigned long ago to "re-education through labor" concentration camps. The TV also gives me the impression that such mass displays are the main content of life in North Korea. 

In athletics, new group events are constantly being authorized. One wonders whether the group events will eventually displace the solo events. It began with synchronized swimming, but by now there are also synchronized diving, trampoline, floor exercises, skating, acrobatics, gymnastics, calisthenics, and tumbling. There is a separate international organization called World Gymnaestrada, devoted to the performance of "mass routines" with hundreds and even thousands of participants. It meets every four years. No medals are awarded. Even the exercise programs on TV show not one instructor but a group exercising in unison. 

In nature, many creatures engage in the same activity simultaneously. Insects swarm; lemmings rush over a cliff; flocks of birds and schools of fish twist and turn together. Humans, being social animals, like to belong, and enjoy losing themselves in a general excitement or enthusiasm. But these natural behaviors are not the same as the mechanical robot-like synchronization described above. Such programmed unison seems to be a product of the mass society of our overpopulated planet. A great deal of sanctimonious lip service is paid to the ideal of freedom, but there seems to be a universal acquiescence and approval of activities whose effect is the suppression of individuality.