My favorite exchange during the final presidential debate came right after Mitt Romney dragged out his tired mantra about how the United States needs a stronger military and how, gosh darn it, the Navy actually has fewer ships than it did in 1916.
"Well, Governor,” replied the president, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets."
Zing! I loved it. I had been yelling something similar at the television screen every time I’d heard Romney pull out this inapt and deliberately misleading analogy on the campaign trail, and now with a television audience of millions, there was Mitt with egg on his face to go along with his painted-on smile.
President Obama had shown Romney up as both the neophyte he is when it comes to military spending and as a liar and manipulator delivering creaky old Republican talking points. Viewers of the debate had to be left unsure whether Romney knew what century this is.
Of course, the Republicans and other enemies of common sense were quick to spin Obama’s tart but spot-on comeback into something else entirely. GOP hacks and conservative commentators saw an opening, and have been working tirelessly to make sure shipbuilders in Virginia, a potentially critical swing state, are aware of the president's suggestion their industry is a thing of the past. Others railed about Obama’s perceived insult to the United States Navy. Not a few self-satisfied smart assess cracked wise about the notion that the Navy ever used horses in the first place.
Well, it was easily understood by the majority of debate watchers that President Obama wasn’t just talking about the Navy; he was talking about the nation’s military in toto. Obama's point was clearly that the nature of our military has changed, that we need to abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and get real about the nature of security and warfare in the 21st century. Raw numbers and random facts from the past are meaningless when making comparisons to today’s military and its capabilities. Instead of the obsolete strategies and equipment used to fight last century’s wars, we need to spend more wisely on things like cybersecurity and anti-terrorism technology. In other words, we no longer need so many horses and bayonets.
But let’s clear up something else while we’re at it. Before chortling Republicans make more jokes about seahorses they should be sure they know what they are talking about. Did the United States Navy ever use horses? You bet they did. Thousands of them.
Not far from where I live in New York the U.S. Navy stabled dozens of horses, employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for pulling wagons and lorries, loading and unloading ships, and general transportation, well into the 20th century. Now multiply those horses by the number of naval stations and shipyards around the globe, and you begin to get the idea. There was even a specialist rating of Dog and Horse Handler in the U.S. Navy until it was discontinued in 1951. The last working Navy horse, a World War II Army veteran named Dexter who was transferred to the Navy in 1945, hauled trash at the Philadelphia Naval Home for disabled and retired sailors. Dexter the horse, beloved mascot and therapeutic buddy to the old Navy veterans, was buried with full military honors upon his death at the age of 34 in 1968. Horse lovers and history buffs of all political persuasions may visit his grave in Dexter Park at Gray’s Ferry Landing in Philadelphia.