Monday night, Mitt Romney noted that our Navy is at its smallest strength since 1917. The President responded thusly:
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916…Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed. We had these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. So the question is not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s ‘What are our capabilities?’”
A fine, snarky response, suitable for any playground. But let me give the President his due. Our military has indeed changed. We used cavalry extensively a hundred years ago. We do not now. Our fighter pilots fought great battles in the air with guns and now they use missiles. Our ships used to blast away with cannons and now they use…well…big cannons. And we still use ships to support those strange “aircraft carrier” things and, occasionally, to hunt down threats to merchant shipping such as pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Okay, maybe the President shouldn’t get much credit here. As it happens, horses played a pretty important role in recent military history as well. Just ten years ago, our invasion of Afghanistan began on horseback. Members of a group called Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, part of a larger force named Task Force Dagger, which consisted of Green Berets, airmen from the Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and combat controllers from the US Air Force. ODA-595 fought alongside members of the Northern Alliance, horseback, in the first-ever battle against the Taliban.
In fact, that battle, the Battle of Bishqab, featured a cavalry charge.
The combined Northern Alliance troops and Green Berets arrived at their staging area in the late morning. As the Afghan troops began assembling, Nelson, from his observation point two miles from the enemy’s position, began his reconnaissance. Through his binoculars, Nelson could see a cluster of empty mud houses on top of a hill that was the village of Bishqab. On another hill nearby he identified at least one trench and a collection of brown pickups, several T-54/55 tanks, a number of BMPs – armored personnel carriers armed with cannons and machine guns – and several ZSU-23 anti-aircraft artillery.
To reach the enemy, Dostum’s troops, about 1,500 cavalry and 1,500 infantry, would have to travel a mile over an open plain cut by seven ridges, each between 50 and 100 feet high and spaced about 600 feet apart. The momentum of their attack would be slowed during the crossing of those ridges and, worse, make them sitting ducks each time they reached the top of a ridge. To anyone familiar with military history, the Battle of Bishqab had the potential of being the Charge of the Light Brigade, Fredericksburg, and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg all rolled into one.
The difference here, of course, was American air power. But would it be enough?
With his position plotting complete, Nelson began calling in air strikes. As the bombs began to fall, Dostum shouted into his radio, “Charge!” The first horse cavalry charge of the 21st century had begun.
When the first wave of horsemen had covered about a half-mile, the surviving Taliban heavy weapons opened up. Men and horses began falling to the ground, dead or screaming in pain from their wounds. But whether it was the fact that the horsemen were moving too fast, that the Taliban troops had not ranged their weapons, or some other reason, the defensive fire was not as concentrated or as accurate as it should have been.
When the surviving horsemen reached the second ridge, they halted, leaped off their horses, and laid down cover fire for the second wave of cavalry. That second line crashed into the Taliban trenches. Suddenly Taliban soldiers were throwing away their weapons and running away. The battle continued to rage as darkness fell. When the aircraft above had to leave to refuel, Dostum’s troops were forced to abandon the battlefield when armored Taliban reinforcements arrived.
Soldiers on horses — American soldiers, mind you — also fought in a larger battle the next day and in the battle at Mazar-i-Sharif where Mike Spann, a CIA officer and our first casualty in Afghanistan, died.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld showed a picture of an American soldier on horseback in a news conference and that photo so impressed a sculptor named Douwe Blumberg that he began work on a monument to those soldiers. He visited Fort Campbell and worked with special forces soldiers there to make sure he had the details right. Vice President Joe Biden dedicated his finished work, a beautiful 16′ tall bronze statue he called America’s Response Monument, De Oppresso Liber (also known as the Horse Soldier Monument), on Veterans’ Day, 2011. It stood in the lobby of the building opposite Ground Zero for almost a year.
The President said he visited Ground Zero not that long ago. Perhaps he saw it. Or perhaps his Vice President mentioned the horse statue to him. Maybe not. He seems a bit hazy on the details of who our soldiers are and what they do.
He probably also missed the news that the Horse Soldier Monument was rededicated at its permanent location on Greenwich Street very near Ground Zero just this past Friday.
Perhaps once the election is over and he’s re-settled in his Chicago mansion, he can read Doug Stanton’s excellent book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan and learn a bit about what a strong and versatile military really looks like.
UPDATE: What’s this: A bayonet charge in 2011? In Afghanistan? That’s un-possible!
UPDATE 2: No American soldiers use bayonets these days, right? Not a one.