President Barack Obama, in a pithy riposte to Governor Mitt Romney during the October 22 presidential debate, alluded to obvious changes in military technology of the last century. Republican candidate Romney supports a buildup of the nation's military, particularly the Air Force and Navy, as a means of assuring the security of the country as it faces increased challenges from piracy and Chinese regional ambitions.
When Romney noted that the U.S. Navy now has fewer ships than it did in 1917, Obama responded that the U.S. has "fewer horses and bayonets" than it did nearly one hundred years ago.
Obama's quip was true enough and certainly would have made points among high school sophmores. But he did not indicate clearly how he will deal with China, aside from talk about "pressure" and engagement. He batted aside concerns that China's ambitions are growing, just as the United States is becoming further indebted to that Asian country.
As a point of fact, bayonets and horses, as well as swords, still form a compliment in the American panoply. Horses draw the caissons bearing the mortal remains of American service personnel to their final rest at Arlington Cemetery. The infantry guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier still wield bayonets along with their rifles. Some soldiers and marines still receive training in the use of the bayonet as part of their martial arts. Bayonets are featured as part of the the 'Warrior's Cross' that plays a part in tributes to fallen soldiers and marines. Swords are still part of the inventory of arms in the Navy, for instance, and are found displayed in the ward rooms of various warships.
Obama's dismissiveness may have won some points with his followers, and he still might pull off this election. But Obama should bear in mind that witty remarks such as his are lost in a world increasingly violent and unpredictable. Unfortunately, his words will not be as persuasive with China - or Iran - as the point of a bayonet.