On the Military Value of Horses and Bayonets

President Obama’s snarky response to Mitt Romney’s observation about the dwindling number of ships in our navy in their final debate seems to have gone viral over the last couple of days.  Here is the quote for those of you who, like me, become nauseous when watching political debates:

Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets

I have no comment on who out-snarked whom but, having attended the military academy at West Point and served in the military for a while thereafter, I can at least throw in a few anecdotes.  Touching on horses, the old riding hall (Thayer Hall) was still there in my day, and remains there now.  However, it was converted to classrooms in 1956.  The contractors made a very competent job of it, because there was little left to remind one of its old function when they were done, and it served its new mission very well.  The building had a high wall facing the Hudson river next to the old riding field, and they used to march us down there to practice our “command voices” by shouting “Ma! Mo! Ma! Mo!” at the wall and listening to the echo.

As for bayonets, my father, who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, said they routinely threw them away as so much useless extra weight on their way across Germany.  However, we were still trained in their use in my day (the late 60’s).  They were considered good for morale, and I could probably still perform a convincing imitation of “butt stroke series number one” and “butt stroke series number two,” growling fiercely at the end as I plunged my blade into the heart of an imaginary enemy.  There’s no doubt that bayonet training helped to get us in shape during “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of every cadet’s career.  Try double timing with an M-14 with fixed bayonet at port arms to some field in the hot sun and then performing all the traditional gyrations for an hour or so, and you’ll understand why.

When asked, “What’s the purpose of the bayonet?” the proper response was to shout at the top of one’s lungs, “To Kill!”  When we returned to the barracks after training at the double-time, we would chant, “To kill! To kill!” in cadence with our steps, holding our weapons with fixed bayonets at full port arms in front of us.  Apparently some of the more tender-hearted officer’s wives on base were quite shocked to hear this, and complained to the Superintendant.  As a result, our class was the last to learn that the purpose of the bayonet was “To Kill.”  Its new purpose sounded rather more innocuous, but unfortunately I no longer recall what it was.

Of course, bayonets were included in our parade equipment, and we used to fix them on our weapons during marching drill.  Once, while we were marching in platoon formation, one of the more inept plebes (first year men) happened to be marching behind me.  At the command of “Present Arms!” he swung his M-14 a bit too far in front of him, plunging it up to the hilt through my fatigue shirt and cutting a nice scratch along my back.   After struggling for a while, he finally managed to extract it.  I’m sure the incident wasn’t “funny” to him, as plebes who became “famous” in that way came in for some nasty hazing in those days, but I still always smile when I think about it.  As for parades, bayonets add a nice touch as they glitter in the sun when the Corps of Cadets marches out onto the plain.  By all means, take one in if you’re ever in the area.

While bayonets may no longer be as useful as they were at Yorktown, the mystique about them remains.  As I recall, there were plans in my day to mount bayonet studs on the noses of Army helicopters.  I’m not sure if they were ever actually carried into effect.