A “whiff of grapeshot” is how English historian Thomas Carlyle described Napoleon’s method of stopping a Royalist riot during the French Revolution. Napoleon ordered his men to fire cannon loaded with “grapeshot,” shrapnel, directly into the mob, killing some and scattering the rest. The saying has lived on as a lesson in deterrence: decisive and brutal force used at the right time can avoid a more serious engagement with higher casualties.
The failure to learn this lesson about deterrence has compromised our now four-decades old conflict with Iran. The mullahcracy’s latest burst of braggadocios threats and empty boasts about “controlling” the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz is a good opportunity to display some old-school deterrent action.
We rich, comfortable moderns, of course, look on such brutal methods as relics of our savage past––barbarous behavior beneath our morally superior sensibilities. Don’t we live in the “international rules-based order,” where all agree that lethal force should be used only as a last resort, and that diplomacy and “engagement” should be the best way to resolve conflicts? Of course, the history of just the last century shows empirically that this is a pipe dream. In the real world our enemies and rivals live in, force isn’t an adjunct to diplomacy, but diplomacy is a “technical adjunct” to force, as Robert Conquest described the diplomacy of the Soviet Union, and what an advisor to Lyndon Johnson called a “weapons system” for the North Vietnamese.
Moreover, diplomacy will work with the most determined aggressor only after national prestige has been maintained by a consistent punishment of those who break their word or cheat on their agreements, or by determined actions that threaten the aggressor’s own power and prestige. Ronald Reagan’s world-changing diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev worked not because the Soviets shared our principles and aims, but because diplomacy was preceded by Reagan’s military pushback against Soviet adventurism in Grenada, Afghanistan, and El Salvador; by his unpopular and much decried deployment of hundreds of U.S. cruise missiles and Pershing 2 ballistic missiles in Germany and other NATO countries in order to counter the Soviet SS-20s; and by a military build-up, and the Strategic Defense Initiative to build anti-missile networks, that the Soviets did not have the money or technical skills to match.