- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Judging from the social media reaction, this was probably the most memorable line of Monday night’s debate:
You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed.
This got us wondering, does the military still use bayonets?
Sort of. The Army eliminated bayonet charges from basic training in 2010. The last U.S. bayonet battle was in 1951, when Capt. Lewis Milett led a charge against a fortified position on a hill in Soam-Ni, Korea, earning the medal of honor in the process. In 2004, a group of British troops running low on ammunition, launched a bayonet charge against a group of Mahdi Army militiamen. According to the after-action report, the charge "achieved tactical success primarily because of psychological and cultural factors. … this case, the value of surprise, countering enemy expectations, and strict troop discipline were three deciding characteristics of the bayonet charge."
While no longer all that useful on the battlefield, military historian Richard Kohn told the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 that the U.S. Army kept bayonet training for as long as it did as a way "to develop in soldiers aggressiveness, courage, and preparation for close combat” and “basically to try to mitigate or eradicate the reluctance of human beings to kill each other.”
While Army recruits no longer charge dummies with bayonets fixed to their rifles, they do still receive training on how to use a knife or bayonet as a handheld secondary weapon in close combat. And as the Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran notes, U.S. marines still train with bayonets and many are issued them as standard equipment.
As for horses, the military does still have some — both for ceremonial purposes and for training Special Forces troops. In 2001, U.S. Special Forces famously joined with Northern Alliance fighters in a horseback assault on the Taliban at Mazar-e-Sharif. Mules have also played an important role in transporting supplies over Afghanistan’s rough terrain.
So the military does indeed* have fewer horses and bayonets these days, but they haven’t completely gone the way of the dreadnought.
*Update: The Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes points out that there were only about 200,000 Army troops in 1916, make it unlikely that there were more than the 419,155 that the Army still has in inventory. It’s a veritable golden age of the bayonet we’re living in.