Warrior leaders days gone past

The spirit of the bayonet is to kill
“Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!”

So chant the new cadets as they go through the thrusting motions of bayonet training.

They have forsaken cadet gray for the Army green of combat soldiers. They wear green fatigues, black combat boots, steel pot helmets, and web belts, the uniform of the Vietnam era. It will be another year before West Point transitions to the looser fitting camouflage BDUs. They carry M16s, the GI rifle of the Vietnam era which is still used today. It comes equipped with bayonets. Who knew?

Bayonet training conjures up images from the Civil War or All Quiet on the Western Front, where soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the muddy trenches of Western Europe during the war to end all wars. How could bayonets possibly have a place in late 20th century warfare?

There were no indications that these cadets found bayonet training in anyway anachronistic. Or grisly. They were new cadets. They did what they were told, marched to whichever training they were told to march to, and accomplished the mission. They might make a lot of mistakes, but not because they were recalcitrant or rebellious. These new cadets were gung ho, motivated, overachieving. They wanted to serve their country. If West Point thought they needed to have bayonet training, well, then they needed to have bayonet training.

“The spirit of the bayonet is to kill!”

They actually had to say this, and say it they did. Loudly and enthusiastically. Clearly, the bayonet, if it ever had to be used, would be the last weapon of choice. You would have to be in a really dire situation to have to resort to using a bayonet. It meant you were out of ammunition and your rifle was a useless stick of steel. It meant that the enemy had overrun your position and was now standing over you. Of course, it kind of implied that your enemy must be out of ammunition, too, and had no backup or artillery fire coming in, or else why wouldn’t they just shoot you and be done with it? Oh, sure, there were probably a whole variety of Hollywood war movie scenarios you could come up with which might convey situations where you might have to use a bayonet. Frankly, having the presence of mind to even stick your bayonet onto the end of your weapon at the time of need worried me more. I had been toting my M16 around for weeks and hadn’t even realized that it harbored a bayonet.

I don’t think the point of bayonet training (excuse the pun) was to prepare us for hand-to-hand combat of last resort. I think it was an exercise, to try to instill within us the spirit of the warrior. To make us more assertive, more aggressive, more passionate. Combat was a serious business and we needed to take it seriously as future combat officers (not that women were allowed to serve in a “combat role,” but at least we would be trained that way at West Point).

If confronted head on by an enemy soldier whose clear intent was to kill me if I did not kill him first, I would kill him. Or die trying. I had little doubt of that. Not that I seriously contemplated it as I stood there in formation thrusting and parrying with air.

If this interaction were to happen today and somehow involve my protecting my children – and I can’t imagine how it would – I would kill him in a heartbeat, with no afterthought or remorse.

For bayonet training, we had marched down to Target Hill Field, which was down below Ike Hall, along the river, near the Two Mile Run Course and the sewage treatment plant. I am sure we conducted bayonet training out of the immediate view of tourists to West Point for PC reasons, not that “PC” was even a term then. The Vietnam War had not ended all that long ago really, and West Point did not wish to convey to the public that we were baby killers.

How ironic then that while we were going through the motions of bayonet training in the hot July sun, from somewhere a class of preschoolers had materialized and were hanging on the chain link fence watching us, goggle-eyed. I was horrified. What kind of teacher or day care worker would allow three and four year olds to observe this kind of violent training? Here we were chanting “Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!” and stabbing the air with our bayonets while small children looked on. I found it immensely disturbing but kept thrusting and shouting as I had been instructed.

To me, although what we were doing was infinitely serious, it was also a game of sorts. I could play the game, I could go through the motions and go through them passionately. I was determined to handle whatever West Point and the cadet cadre could throw at me, no matter how ridiculous or disturbing it might be. Beast was supposed to be an intense, highly stressful baptism of fire that would transform us from civilians into soldiers and West Point cadets in six or seven short, but, oh, so long, weeks. At the end of Beast, I would be a better person. I would be a real cadet.

As I kept thrusting my bayonet forward and to the side and upwards and downwards, shouting epithets of blood and violence all the while, I was getting rid of pent up energy and frustration, but I was not truly imagining myself stabbing someone through the gut with my pointed spear of steel. If I ever had to do it, I was sure that I would rise to the occasion, but I didn’t want to have to think about it. Having those little kids standing there made me have to think about it, even if only for a few moments.

During our time as cadets, we would be taught how to kill: how to fire M16s, shoot just about every weapon system in the U.S. inventory, throw hand grenades, and call for fire. We would be taught about war, both in philosophy where we would discuss “just” and “unjust” wars and in military art where we would study warfare throughout the ages, but I don’t remember ever having any training or serious discussion about violence and killing. Perhaps “real men” don’t talk about such things.

To say that West Point produces trained killers would be a gross misrepresentation. West Point does strive to train and prepare cadets for the rigors of combat. It does not do so because Army leaders should be bloodthirsty, crave violence, and enjoy killing people. Rather, it does so because its mission is to produce professional military officers trained to lead soldiers anywhere, and in combat, if need be.

To lead soldiers in combat, future officers need to learn the basic skills of the trade, which include mastering the use of basic weapons systems, tactics, map reading, and land navigation. Officers need to be tactically and technically proficient. Their job then becomes to ensure that their soldiers are well-trained, fit, and ready for battle – or whatever mission they might encounter.

Mature and professional soldiers do not want war. They do not want to kill people. They are trained to accomplish combat missions, which includes engaging hostile enemies with weapons. Thus, they want to be as good at their jobs as they can possibly be, so they can accomplish the mission as quickly as possible, with as few casualties as possible, especially to their own comrades.

Soldiers are realists. They see war as an inevitable evil that occurs when men run out of diplomatic and other options. It is not the soldier’s job to make policy. It is the soldier’s job to follow orders, to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Soldiers can only hope and pray that those policy decisions are just and sound.

I have never met any soldier who wanted to go to war. I would be very worried indeed if I did.

If our soldiers go to war, then I want them to be well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led. Because well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led soldiers have a much greater chance of accomplishing the mission and surviving than those who are not. War is never an ideal situation; it is a terrible, awful, horrible thing. And it always involves death and destruction.

It was William Tecumseh Sherman, who led the Union Army’s infamous March to the Sea during the Civil War, who said: “There is many a boy who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

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