The evening of 27 July 1953 found Marine Corps forces manning a maze of interlocking trenches along a hotly contested ridge, aptly named Bunker Hill in South Korea. Over the previous year, American and Chinese forces fought repeatedly for control of the hill. As peace talks dragged on, the opposing forces continued to dig in and actively aggress one another. Separated by less than 50-meters of barren earth, the Marines occupied the southern crest of the hill while Chinese occupied the north. To the west of Bunker Hill on Hill 224, a platoon of Marines under the command of Lieutenant John “Obie” O’Brien, manned a small outpost. Lieutenant O’Brien was under strict orders to hold his post, and prevent the opening of an exploitable gap in the friendly lines. At 1000, 27 July 1953, the Peace Accords were signed, calling for a ceasefire effective at 2200 that evening.
Despite the agreement, the Chinese continued to tunnel furiously toward Hill 224, intent on breaching the Americans’ line and pushing them off the hill. Compounding Lieutenant O’Brien’s predicament was the order by higher headquarters that roughly stated ‘cease fire at 2100 and if one Marine so much as farts he is going to be strung up.’ Confused, confounded, and growing ever more anxious, Lieutenant O’Brien called the Company Gunnery Sergeant to question the wisdom of this guidance. ‘Gunny, they’re still digging and are only a few feet away. What do I do if they get in the trenches and I can’t shoot?’ The Gunny responded, ‘Use your blades, Mr. O’Brien . . . Use your blades!’ With that, the command was relayed down the trench line from squad to squad, team to team, ‘Fix . . . Bayonets!’
Through the long, fitful night, the platoon sat silently in their trenches, poised with their safeties on and bayonets fixed. When daylight came without a shot fired, the Chinese and American forces rose up in their positions and stared at one another. The ‘blades’ had held the line.(1)
While inspiring, 1st Lt O’Brien’s heroic stand raises numerous questions regarding the bayonet’s role on the modern battlefield. Is this ancient weapon of linear first-generation warfare still effective in asymmetric fourth generation warfare? Are bladed weapons as applicable in today’s Afghanistan as when Alexander’s Macedonians conquered the region? Or have time and technology reduced bladed weapons to curious relics of the past, more useful for ceremony than conflict? Most importantly, can “the blades” still hold the line in counterinsurgency operations?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to take a step back in time to examine the bayonet’s history before evaluating its application.
Originally a tool of defensive operations, the modern bayonet is a descendent of the 17th century pike. Pikesmen, armed with a knife mounted on the end of a quarterstaff, shielded musketeers from infantry and cavalry attack as they reloaded. The joining of the musket and pike into a single weapon came in 1647 when Seigneur Marcel de Puysegur ordered his soldiers to insert their daggers into the muzzle of their muskets during a battle at Ypres, France. (2) Known as “plug bayonets” since the bayonet was lodged directly into the muzzle, they were effective at blunting cavalry charges but rendered the musket useless for further firing.
In 1688 Sebastian Le Prestre de Vauban overcame this shortfall by designing the socket bayonet that slipped over the muzzle. As the accuracy, range, rate, and lethality of rifled weapons improved, forces dispersed across the battlefield, and the bayonet’s usefulness decreased. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, bayonets were responsible for less than 1 percent of battlefield casualties. (3) Nonetheless, the bayonet retained brutal psychological effect on anyone facing it. On 2 July 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg, COL Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Brigade clung precariously to its position atop Little Round Top. Having repulsed two charges by the Confederate 15th Alabama infantry regiment, the brigade was fatigued, depleted, and dangerously low on ammunition.
Recognizing the severity of the situation, Chamberlain shouted, “Bayonet!” The command “ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout.”(4) Inspired, his soldiers “sprang forward” and charged down the hill, breaking the Confederate ranks and saving the Union flanks. In his report of the day, Chamberlain observed, “At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.” The trench warfare of World War I sparked a resurgence of bayonet fighting. Mired in static positions by advances in artillery and machinegun technology, opposing forces often found themselves in close proximity. While artillery fire could demolish an enemy trench line, only an infantry assault could effectively clear and hold it against the inevitable counterattack. Consequently, the bayonet reemerged as an offensive weapon, generating many of the bayonet fighting tactics, techniques, and training practices still used today.
Modern military history is peppered with stories in which the bayonet was the decisive factor in the fight. During the Korean War, U.S. Army CPT Lewis L. Millett led the soldiers of Company E, 27th Infantry Regiment, in a bayonet assault against a Chinese machinegun position perched atop Hill 180, Soamni, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. More recently American and British units engaged in bayonet assaults during Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM.
The most noteworthy of these occurred on 21 May 2004 when 55 miles north of Basra, Iraq, approximately 100 Shi’ite militiamen ambushed 20 British troops from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Forced from their vehicles and running low on ammunition, the British troops fixed bayonets and charged the enemy. Assaulting across 600 feet of open terrain, they engaged in intense hand-to-hand fighting, killing 20 gunmen and capturing 12 without a single friendly loss. (5)
Every Marine a Rifleman Since 1775 when Marine sharpshooters first manned the rigging of naval ships to snipe at enemy combatants, the Marine Corps has taken great pride in rifle marksmanship. Adhering to the credo, “every Marine a rifleman,” and that a Marine’s primary weapon is his rifle, the Service has relegated the bayonet to a weapon of last resort. Because its weight alters a rifle’s balance thus impairing long-range accuracy, Marines have traditionally been reluctant to fix bayonets until the situation was either decisive or dire, either during the final assault or the last stand. Summing up generations of common perception, the 1957 Marine Corps manual Bayonet Fighting stated:
It is the spirit of the offense. The bayonet is an offensive weapon. It is symbolic of the spirit of aggressiveness. Cold steel at the end of a rifle brings fear to the enemy and an extra charge of courage and confidence to the man who can use it. Cold steel is the symbol of individual aggressiveness in the final assault. (6)
The manual goes on to describe the instances wherein the bayonet was effective:
- The lnal assault to drive the enemy from his defensive position.
- At night, on inlltration missions, when secrecy must be maintained.
- In close combat when hand-to-hand fighting makes the use of bullets impracticable or the loading of a rifle infeasible.
A later edition of the manual acknowledges another use citing, “In addition to its offensive roles, the bayonet can serve as a last ditch protective measure.” (7) This bias for offensive action, this singular focus on the assault, is reflected throughout the Service’s bayonet fighting and training manuals. Accordingly, generations of Marines have viewed the bayonet as a binary weapon with an on/off switch of functionality, vice a rheostat of scalable capabilities. More simply stated, when the bayonet is drawn, the fight is on! Death is the only outcome. This combative psyche is captured in one manual’s guidance that:
The bayonet fighter should be aggressive, ruthless, savage, and vicious. Herein lies the key to success with the bayonet. He must never pause in his attack until he has killed the enemy. He must follow each vicious attack with another, remembering that if he does not kill his opponent; his opponent will kill him. . . . The successful bayonet fighter strikes the first blow and follows up with the kill. (8)
Nowhere in its training manuals does the Corps recognize other, less extreme, less-than-lethal uses for the bayonet. It acknowledges no other tactical utility for the bayonet before the first blow or between the first blow and the kill. By not employing the bayonet across the spectrum of conflict—from lethal to non-lethal, kinetic (physical) to nonkinetic (psychological)—the Corps fails to fully capitalize on the capabilities inherent in this weapon. The first place to look for the bayonet’s effectiveness is not in the hand but rather in the head of the combatants.
By its very presence, the bayonet is a symbol of command authority and the courage necessary to employ it. Simultaneously a kinetic and nonkinetic weapon, the bayonet transmits a clear, unmistakable message not only to the intended target, but also to the combatant who draws it, and to all those who observe its use.
The willingness to employ bayonets imposes significant psychological effects on the user, the unit, the adversary, and the audience at large. Throughout history, edged weapons such as bayonets, pikes, and swords, have inflicted psychological effects on the enemy far beyond their physical effects. Historically, bayonet charges were highly effective, regardless if any wounds were inflicted on the enemy. This is because the purpose of a bayonet charge was not to kill soldiers but rather to rout them and seize the ground they held. It was the flourish of the blade and the determination of its owner that sent shock waves through the enemy’s lines, inciting them to capitulate or retreat. In his book, On Killing, LTC Dave Grossman, USA(Ret), observed:
Units with a history and tradition of close-combat, hand-to-hand killing inspire dread and fear in an enemy by capitalizing upon the natural aversion to the ‘hate’ manifested in this determination to engage in close-range interpersonal aggression. (9)
The second psychological effect is on the unit leader who gives the command, “Fix . . . bayonets!” Through his words, he announces to his Marines and all observers that he is fully in control of the unit and prepared to unleash its violence, if required. By voicing the command, the leader has to come to terms personally with what may lie ahead. He must overcome his natural fear of the unknown and demonstrate the same to the Marines under his charge. His decisiveness in doing so sets the tone for all other orders that follow. Similarly, as the command echoes down from the platoon to the squads to the fire teams to Marines, it reinforces each subordinate leader’s control of his unit, reiterating his authority to direct action and demonstrating his willingness to do so.
The command, “Fix . . . bayonets!” also alerts the members of the unit that the tactical situation has or will shortly change, and that they should mentally prepare to inflict violence.
Like a preparatory command during drill (“Right . . . face”) the order to affix bayonets provides the individuals with a mental moment to pause and prepare for violence. While normally a simple task, the physical act of affixing a bayonet in a hostile situation requires physical and mental self-awareness. It necessitates the individual to overcome his trepidation, muster his composure, and calm himself to perform this normally mundane function. This operational pause affords the Marine a moment to contemplate the tactical situation and where within the spectrum of conflict he stands. Is the bayonet being affixed to fight or defend, to protect, kill, or control? Aware of himself and the tactical situation, the Marine is now better prepared to face any eventuality and respond accordingly.
Despite a storied history as an assault weapon, the bayonet’s capabilities in counterinsurgency operations remain largely unrecognized and untapped. Nonetheless, by virtue of its multiple and mutually reinforcing physical and psychological effects, the bayonet is a superb tool for shaping the environment and “winning hearts and minds.” It is the ultimate strategic communications device. Its presence broadcasts an unmistakable message to all audiences, louder and clearer than any bullhorn ever could.
First, by drawing or affixing bayonets, a unit or individual physically demonstrates the willingness to escalate the level of violence, as required. Frequently, this symbolic act alone is sufficient to dampen aggression and keep neutral and even hostile individuals at bay. Unlike rifles which require abstract thought from the observer to perceive their destructive effect, edged weapons produce an immediate instinctual fear in their target audience. Having seen or suffered lacerations in the past, individuals are intimately familiar with the danger that edged weapons pose, and they respond accordingly. Second, affixing a bayonet affords the Marine additional standoff distance between himself and a hostile individual.
With the M9 bayonet affixed to the M16A4 Service rifle, a Marine is afforded 45 inches of standoff distance between himself and a potential adversary. Third, an affixed bayonet reduces the likelihood of an individual attempting to seize a Marine or his rifle. A person would be foolish to lunge at a Marine knowing that a slip or simple pare could result in a severe laceration. Fourth, effective employment of a bayonet allows a Marine the opportunity to incapacitate a hostile individual without inflicting life-threatening wounds. The bayonet can be employed along a spectrum of violence from non-lethal to lethal in a series of progressively more destructive steps. For example, if a Marine is threatened he can level his weapon with the bayonet affixed to coerce his adversary to cease hostile action. If that action fails to deter his aggressor’s behavior, the Marine can escalate his use of force by jabbing or slashing his opponent.
If that is unsuccessful in deterring his foe, he can employ greater violence to include striking at vital areas or firing his weapon. If at any point the adversary becomes compliant or incapacitated, the Marine can revert to less aggressive means to subdue or secure his opponent. Last, the bayonet is a superior tool for controlling volatile populations, such as crowds and prisoners. It coerces compliance without risking the detrimental effects of an unintended or misdirected rifle shot. A bayonet strike is silent and subtle and therefore less likely to provoke a widespread response. Conversely, the sound of a single rifle shot can inject fear and hostility into the most docile group. Also, unlike a rifle round which can’t be recalled once fired, a bayonet strike can be limited, isolated to a single individual, and more easily treated. But precision requires practice.
To reap the tactical rewards of the bayonet, Marines must train with the bayonet on a routine basis. Too frequently training commences with a unit’s bayonets secured in the armory, safe from rust, damage, or loss. Worst, when taken to the field, they are more often affixed to the hip than to the rifle and more likely to be used during chow than training. Unfamiliar with the weapon’s capabilities, too many commanders are hesitant to direct its use, unknowingly sacrificing bayonet proficiency at the altar of safety to the detriment of both.
Despite fears to the contrary, the bayonet’s benefits in training far exceed the risks. The first benefit is the warrior mindset it instills. The bayonet is a clear symbol to each Marine that he is a member of a profession of arms and may be called upon to inflict various levels of violence to achieve a mission. By using it routinely in training, the commander signals to his Marines that they are expected to be proficient with the tools of their trade and are trusted to handle them appropriately. It is patronizing to train Marines for combat, yet not allow them to aggressively train with the bayonet for fear of injury or loss. Despite the best of intentions, such paternalism contradicts the intent of combat training, dampening the warfighting spirit of the training audience. Such overly protective habits instill reluctance not confidence, hesitancy not proficiency.
In seeking safety, such restrictive safety measures shift the risk from the training venue to the battlefield where the consequences for hesitation or failure are much more severe. Second, routine training with bayonets enables Marines to better understand the spectrum of conflict and the tools at hand to inflict lethal or nonlethal force. Armed solely with a rifle in a volatile and ambiguous situation, a Marine faces the unenviable and unretractable decision of whether to kill or not kill. His only options are black or white, diametrically opposed alternatives at either end of the spectrum of conflict.
Conversely, the bayonet is adaptable to the tactical situation. It enables a Marine to traverse back and forth between nonkinetic and kinetic effects, between non-lethal and lethal actions, as required. By demonstrating in training that less lethal means are not only available but also potentially more applicable, Marines are more likely to capitalize on these options in conflict. Third, the bayonet significantly enhances muzzle awareness, thereby preventing injuries due to negligent or misdirected fires. To observe a rifle and determine that it can cause severe physical injury requires abstract thought. It requires the observer to perceive intellectually that the unseen round will detonate, leave the barrel, and strike him producing damaging results. As a consequence, Marines routinely endanger the lives of their unsuspecting comrades by errantly sweeping the muzzles of their weapons across their bodies during training as well as combat operations. The bayonet, however, is not an abstraction.
It is immediately recognized as being a threat. By its visceral effect and visual nature, the bayonet warns all observers where the end of the barrel is pointed. While Marines may not perceive the damage a rifle round can do, all are intimately aware of the injuries a sharp blade can inflict. Consequently, when bayonets are affixed to a rifle (whether sheathed or unsheathed), nearby Marines take notice and are acutely aware of the weapon’s direction and distance. The change in weapons-handling procedures is immediate. No longer do individuals allow themselves or their fellow Marines to cavalierly sweep their weapons’ muzzles across the bodies of unsuspecting comrades. Recognizing the danger, Marines quickly police their own, correcting errant weapons-handling procedures on the spot. Nowhere is this more evident than in urban operations. With bayonets affixed, entry teams allot great distance between members of the stack and exercise more care in the direction of their weapons while still maintaining an aggressive posture.
The risks of such training are real, but if properly managed, they can be minimized. A comprehensive operational risk assessment must be conducted of each potentially hazardous training event. Also, appropriate protective measures need to be implemented to include the posting of trained safety and medical personnel and directing the use of sheathed bayonets, rubber bayonets, or personal protective gear. However, should an injury occur due to a mishandled bayonet, the results are likely to be a single puncture or laceration, significantly less severe and more treatable than a negligently fired rifle round.
The Multipurpose Tool
In counterinsurgency operations as in combat, the bayonet has proven itself to be an effective offensive and defensive weapon, one that produces kinetic and nonkinetic effects well beyond its size and across the spectrum of conflict. It is the ultimate utilitarian warfighting tool, capable of shifting, incrementally or immediately, between non-lethal and lethal effects as the tactical situation warrants. Yet the weapon’s effectiveness in combat is contingent upon the commander’s willingness to employ it in training. Consequently, bayonet training must expand beyond its cursory role in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. It must be incorporated in all aspects of training—in the assault and defense, in conventional operations and counterinsurgency operations, while keeping the peace and controlling crowds, while patrolling streets and clearing buildings.
Through more routine, repetitive, and realistic training, Marines must become accustomed to the bayonet and confident in its use. Concurrently, leaders at all levels must become knowledgeable of the weapon’s physical and psychological effects. They must learn to leverage its benefits and mitigate its risks. Growing “cautiously comfortable” with their Marines’ routine handling of the weapon, they must gain increased confidence in their own ability to command and, subsequently, control its use. Only then will the blades continue to hold the line, but only if the first command—in training, combat, and contingency and counterinsurgency operations—is “Fix . . . bayonets!”
1. Letter from Col Robert Kummerow, USMC(Ret), to author, dated 1 June 2002, p. 1.
2. Since de Puysegur and his unit were from Bayonne, France, a town known for its dagger production, the dagger attached to the musket gained the title “bayonet.”
3. Information accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayonet-cite_note-1#cite_note-1.
4. “Report of Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, July 6, 1863,” The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate
Armies, 127 volumes, index, and atlas, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1880–1901, series 1, volume 27, part 1, p. 624.
5. Halpain, Edward, and Justin Walker, “Bayonets in Basra: A Case Study on the Effects of Irregular Warfare,” Urban Warfare Analysis Center, Shawnee, OK, 27 January 2009, p. 5.
6. Headquarters Marine Corps, Navy Marine Corps 1135–A03, Bayonet Fighting, Washington, DC, 22 March 1957, p. 1.
7. Headquarters Marine Corps, Fleet Marine Force Manual 1–1, Marine Bayonet Training, Washington, DC, March 1965, p. 9.
8. Ibid., p. 10.
9. Grossman, LTC Dave, USA(Ret), On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Little, Brown and Company, New
York, 1995, p. 126.