The Corner

Of Bayonets and Submarines

Obama’s line last night will no doubt do the rounds, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. The president said:

“Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. 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 — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Sure. We had “ships that go underwater” in 1916, too. So did the Germans, whose bellicose government had been using them effectively since 1903. One of them sunk the RMS Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,195 passengers — 123 of which were American citizens. The sinking of the Lusitania was then followed by the sinking of the SS Arabic — in which three Americans died — and then, in 1917, by an announcement from Germany that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare. This sequence of events was so outrageous to the United States that, using it to bolster his case, Woodrow Wilson managed to convince a previously reluctant American public to follow him into declaring war on Germany. In fact, then, contrary to the president’s snark, not only were there submarines around in 1916, but German deployment of the technology was so ubiquitous and deadly against American interests that it formed a significant chunk (the other being the Zimmermann Telegram) of the American casus belli

To bayonets. Actually, we probably don’t have fewer bayonets now than in 1916. Back then, the army was about 108,000 men strong, and the National Guard boasted about 90,000 men. There are no reliable numbers on the number of bayonets issued — and so chronic was the shortage that American soldiers preparing for war in 1917 were relegated to using brooms instead — but, arguendo, let’s be generous and assume that every man in any sort of defense capacity was given one. That’s 200,000 bayonets at the most. At present, we have almost a million servicemen who have been issued a bayonet, if only for training — they are standard issue for Marines — and around the same number of reserve bayonets. (The U.S. did not have a substantial reserve of men or weapons in 1916.) Even with these generous back-of-the-envelope calculations, the United States now purchases ten times more bayonets than it did in 1916. 

I’ll give Obama the horses point, although quite how this serves as a counterargument to ensuring the maintenance of American naval supremacy I remain unsure.

UPDATE: My estimate as to how many bayonets the U.S. government had was wrong. However, it’s still about three times as many as there were in 1916:

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