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Fetishizing the Bayonet

Bayonets may have become a symbol of outdated military technology, as the president suggested in his debate-night jab, but they have a darker history.
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The blog-it, tweet-it, talk-about-it moment of the final presidential debate of 2012 involved, of all things, bayonets.

Monday night in Boca Raton, Florida, when Republican challenger Mitt Romney complained that the U.S. Navy is smaller than at any time since 1917, President Obama quipped: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed."

While many have already mined humor from the exchange, recent scholarship suggests that bayonets--which have suddenly become a symbol of outmoded weaponry--played a darker role in 20th-century history than many people realize.

In the March 2008 issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies, the University of London's Paul Hodges published a paper on "Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War."

In it, he writes that "The bayonet was widely fetishized in the British Army in the First World War era," producing "a vibrant, rich and quickly transmitted culture ... which had real effects on the battlefields of the war."

Those effects were hardly positive.

"Supreme confidence was placed in British masculinity," he writes, "a masculinity that depended on the effective and brutal use of this weapon. Training frequently focused on it. Both this confidence and training focus were misplaced, as in fact the bayonet was not a particularly useful or effective weapon.

"The combination of this strong fetishization of the weapon and its ineffectiveness had a tendency to encourage atrocity and prisoner killing, in which some soldiers indulged keenly, as the main opponents on whom the bayonet could be used successfully were those who were unarmed or wounded."

So even in 1917, the bayonet had outlived its usefulness on the battlefield and was primarily an instrument of brutality. That's something to remember if you hear day-after complaints that the president was flippantly tarnishing a glorious piece of military history.