The XX Factor

What if the War on Terror Were Waged With Bayonets?

Men dress up and play at close-quarter fighting

Photograph by Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images.

This morning we learn that the Army still uses bayonets, though for purposes of corpse-poking and mine-probing, not so much enemy-stabbing. Even in WWI, according to the Western Front Association, soldiers “semi-seriously claimed that the bayonet was more useful in such mundane tasks such as chopping wood, opening tin cans, digging and even hanging up clothes, than it was in combat.” But when they were used to kill, they did so in an extremely intimate manner:

The professed ideal bayonet target areas of the body were the throat, the chest and the groin. Many veterans soon learned that a bayonet thrust to the chest of the enemy could present problems in withdrawing the bayonet, whilst a stab to the groin meant the victim tended to grab the weapon and refused to let go. Such hiatuses in close quarter fighting made the bayonet wielder himself highly susceptible to attack. 

Something about this passage from the Western Front brought me back to the moment in last night’s debate when Bob Schieffer asked Romney about Obama’s drone policy: Romney said he supported it “entirely,” and the subject died. It’s not a new observation that technology helps distance a populace from the warfare it wages. And you don’t expect, in a presidential debate, anyone to mourn the deaths of these seven children in North Waziristan at the expense of the soldier who killed them. But last night’s bayonet “zinger” conjured visions of the other extreme, the least anonymous form of engagement, the most undrone-like way to fight. Few kills are less intimate than the one you achieve by directing an unmanned combat vehicle over a hut, raining some fire, and bringing the vehicle back. Nothing, at the very least, gets stuck.

The hit on drone attacks in North Waziristan and Yemen is not that they are inherently indefensible, but that the administration has rarely been made to defend or discuss them. Last night, Schieffer apparently thought the policy was Romney’s to challenge, not Obama’s to justify. The drone program is classified, doesn’t cost American lives unless it is Americans you are targeting, and doesn’t seem to excite anything but agreement—“entirely,” Romney said—from the other party. From the administration’s perspective, there’s no reason not to double the drone fleet. The CIA has already said it wants more.  Last night we saw the political cost of assenting to that request, and it was zero.