President Obama’s quip about “horses and bayonets” may have been the most memorable sound bite from the third presidential debate, but was it true?
The comment came after Mitt Romney asserted that “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” because it has fewer ships. Fact-checkers have determined that statement was false, but Obama took the bait anyway.
“I think Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama replied. “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, because the nature of our military’s changed.”
The line drew laughter from the audience, and sparked chatter on social media sites. But some have called foul, arguing that the bayonet -- a multipurpose knife that can be attached to the muzzle of a rifle -- is not as obsolete as the president suggested.
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Indeed, many Army soldiers are issued bayonets, and the Marine Corps includes bayonet training in boot camp for close-quarter combat and knife fighting. All Marines deployed in combat zones are issued bayonets.
The Army has 419,155 bayonets in its current inventory, Army spokesman Wayne V. Hall said Tuesday. The Marine Corps plans to buy 175,061 bayonets this year, in addition to the 195,334 bayonets it bought in 2004, said Captain Kendra N. Motz, a Marine spokeswoman. Even assuming some were lost or damaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military probably has more than 600,000 bayonets on hand.
It is unknown how many bayonets the military owned in 1916 or 1917, but it’s likely that almost all soldiers and Marines were issued bayonets back then, historians say.
“At that point in time, in 1916, we didn’t have tanks on the battlefield, we didn’t have helicopters on the battlefield,” said Hall, the Army spokesman. Today, “members of a tank crew would have no reason to be issued bayonets.”
So one way to guess how many bayonets the military owned back then is to consider the size of the forces -- and to note that the U.S. military grew considerably in 1916 and 1917 as the nation ramped up for World War I.
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The United States had 108,399 soldiers and 10,601 Marines in 1916, according to data published by the Census Bureau in 1975 and retrieved for The Times by Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. By 1917, there were 421,467 soldiers and 27,749 Marines.
That’s a total of 449,216 soldiers and Marines in 1917. Even if each of them was issued a bayonet, today’s military -- which has 561,979 men and women in the Army and 202,612 Marines -- likely owns more.
But military experts say that, like counting Navy ships, comparing bayonet inventories is misleading. U.S. commanders don’t order massed bayonet charges from trenches, the way soldiers fought in World War I, anymore.
“Obama was being more rhetorical than he was precise,” Thompson said. “He was just making a point about how military technology has changed.”
“They probably do have more bayonets today than they did back then,” he said.
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