The most important military-related question after the third presidential debate is not who has the best policy for the troops, but which civilians can most skillfully deploy military jargon to prove they can hang with the troops. President Obama schooled Mitt Romney in the debate Monday night when he told him we don't need as many Navy ships as we did in 1916 because of technology. "We also have fewer horses and bayonets," he said dismissively. But then Fox News' Chris Wallace schooled Obama, saying after the debate, "The Marines still use bayonets, so it may not be clear who doesn't understand what the military still uses." But then Time's Joe Klein schooled him, writing, "does Wallace really think that bayonets are nearly as important as they were 100 years ago? They certainly haven’t been in my experience in war zones over the past 30 years." Klein launched a schooling counteroffensive:
And meanwhile, Romney made the sort of mistake that makes Marines cringe: early on in the debate, he called our troops overseas “soldiers.” That drives Marines up a wall. The Army consists of soldiers. The Marine Corps consists of Marines. Both exist under the umbrella of American troops or forces serving overseas. This distinction has been so noxious to the Army that in recent years, it has capitalized its troops — Soldiers — to match the Marine code. I would guess that Fox News may have gotten a few e-mails about that, unmentioned by Fox.
Got that, guys? Anyone knows anything knows that Marines are not soldiers and that in the Army soldiers are Soldiers! Yet the debate over what political people more perfectly channel the spirit of the troops raged on. On CBS Tuesday morning, Paul Ryan was outraged on behalf of the military: "To compare modern American battleships and Navy with bayonets, I just don't understand that comparison," Ryan said. "President Obama's comment about 'horses and bayonets' was an insult to every sailor who has put his or her life on the line for our country," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose daughter served in the Army in Iraq, tweeted. A Fox Nation headline said, "Mr. President, US Special Forces Rode Horses Into Afghanistan." However, horses are no longer in use, as Lockheed Martin has been unable to build a reasonably-priced IED-resistant V-bottomed horse. (See that? That sentence was two things: 1) a joke, and 2) my own way of saying "See I talked to a soldier one time.") The military, like most subcultures, uses jargon to wall itself off from outsiders. But unlike most subcultures, the military is something everyone wants to be associated with. You can show you're "with it" by dropping the right acronyms, or explaining military trivia -- like who uses bayonets in the drone era -- with the right amount of righteous outrage.
What's the truth on bayonets? In the Army's basic training, soldiers used to practice hand-to-hand combat by stabbing tires or human-ish shapes with bayonets. That stopped in 2010. (A GIF of bayonet training in 2002 at Ft. Benning, "Home of the Infantry," is at left.) Marines still use them at boot camp.
Soldiers rarely use bayonets in actual war zones. The Atlantic Wire spoke with Cpt. Ryan Duffy, a company commander in the 10th Mountain Division, who explained that Obama was half-right: bayonets aren't used that much, but they are really cool:
"The bayonet is awesome. They are usually rusting in a box somewhere, but that's the wrong answer. How are we supposed to fantasize about gutting a terrorist without anything to do it with? Seriously.
Anyway, it is a shame they took it out of basic training, if your primary weapon goes down, trying to choke somebody is not ideal. And, it's a free knife that can also cut barbed wire. Weighs like nothing...it's good to have when you are subject to human wave attacks. England still uses them a lot when they go places in lieu of hand to hand combat."
Duffy says that when he was in Iraq, the bayonets were "collected up" and kept in storage.