Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Speak Softly And Carry A Big Stick

Here in America, we take comfort from the presence of police with guns on their hips, secure in the knowledge that effective, forceful help is always at hand should we need it.

However, somewhere along the way, our military and civilian leaders have developed the misguided notion that we must, as a country, look peaceful and that the way to do that is to hide any visible display of force.  In other words, we must look weak in order to look peaceful.

This is absolute bilgewater.  The rest of the world does not want to see us looking peaceful, they want to see us looking strong and ready to step in at a moment’s notice to protect them just like the police officer on the corner of the street. 

You don’t look strong and ready by leaving your weapons in barracks or walking around with unloaded guns.  You look strong and ready by having all the guns and ammo with you that you might need.

Of course, there’s one other aspect to looking strong and ready and that is you have to occasionally demonstrate that you’re willing to use them.  You can’t surrender two boats, ten crew, and overwhelming weapon superiority to the Iranian equivalent of the Three Stooges.

Much (all) of our comfort and sense of security when we see police comes from the knowledge that they will, with absolute certainty, act when a crime is committed.  Of course, of late, this principle has been violated repeatedly and ordinary citizens are beginning to lose faith in the police and the police themselves are beginning to hesitate to do their duty due to, again, misguided efforts to create scapegoats out of the police – but that’s for some other blog to address.

In the 1983 Lebanon Marine barracks bombing, the sentries did not have magazines loaded in their weapons and could not respond to the suicide vehicle.

We failed to act when Iran seized our boats and crews and now Iran is engaged in more aggressive acts, not less.  A recent example is the incident involving four Iranian boats approaching an American destroyer at high speed before breaking off at 300 yds, well within rocket attack range (1).  Our previous failure to use force is creating more unsafe incidents.

Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the saying,

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Hand in hand with that is the implication that the stick must be used now and then.

Of course, hand in hand with using the stick occasionally is the need for the usage to be meaningful.  Our recent retaliatory Tomahawk strikes on some isolated radar sites that no one appears to have claimed ownership of (if the sites even existed) is not a meaningful use of the stick.  It harmed no one to any appreciable extent and, therefore, meant nothing.  Conversely, the recent Tomahawk strike on the Libyan airbase associated with chemical weapons was somewhat more meaningful but even that stopped short of sending an unequivocal “don’t tread on me” message.

We are so afraid of collateral damage that we have relegated our big stick to a twig.

Other countries, in particular our potential enemies, understand this and are working to create their own big sticks and, when necessary, use them. 

From the recent Russian “National Security Strategy” document comes this,

“…the role of force as a factor in inter­national relations is not declining.” (2)

Russia and Putin understand that military force is the underlying foundation of political power.  Mao, too, understood it when he said,

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Those who abdicate their military power also abdicate their political power.  Such is the position the US finds itself in today.  We are speaking loudly but no one is listening because our stick has shrunk and we refuse to use it.  Contrast this with our enemies.

China is building a very big stick, is actively using it, and is speaking softly and being listened to by the Pacific Rim countries.  They have annexed the entire East and South China Seas and have, for all practical purposes, ejected the US from those waters and are in the process of solidifying their gains in the form of construction of military bases on artificial islands – a pretty impressive display of the use of the stick and the word.

Russia is rebuilding its stick and is using it actively and frequently – they seized Crimea and have invaded Ukraine.  Russian words are once again being heeded throughout Europe and Asia causing something of a panic among European militaries.

We need to rebuild our stick, stop talking uselessly, and start using our stick judiciously so that when we speak, someone will actually listen.  The stick makes the words effective.  We’ve lost that and we need to regain it.


(1)USNI News website, “Video: Destroyer USS Nitze Harassed by Iranian Patrol Boats”, Sam LaGrone, 24-Aug-2016, 

(2)Defense Intelligence Agency, “Russia Military Power”, 2017


  1. Yes, we need to "rebuild our stick." "Using our stick" before rebuilding it will only accelerate our relative decline.

    You are doing a great job highlighting the numerous shortcomings in naval strategy, procurement, readiness and training. Yes, it's nuts to talk tough now.

    Beyond the scope of just Navy matters, about 50 years of moral and social capital, infrastructure, and manufacturing capacity needs to be recovered. Core national power.

    It's pointless getting into a war with Iran at the instigation of Saudi Arabia (9/11 perps), Israel and their Beltway lobbyists at any time, but doing so now or in the near future with them (or China) is truly "cruising for a bruising."

    Need to rebuild for the long-term.

    1. Your point is somewhat valid. A hollow stick isn't going to scare anyone. On the other hand, we can begin using the stick in a smaller way. For example, the recent Iranian seizure of our two riverine boats and crews was an example where we could have aggressively sent a message. We had more than enough of a stick to accomplish that. During that incident, we had bigger boats, heavily outnumbered the Iranians, and had far more weaponry. Instead of meekly surrendering, we should have aggressively defended ourselves (and then court-martialed the boat crews upon their return).

      Not every use of the stick needs to be nuclear.

    2. "Beyond the scope of just Navy matters, about 50 years of moral and social capital, infrastructure, and manufacturing capacity needs to be recovered. Core national power."

      Spot on and well said.

  2. I'm not sure whether you're talking about the boats themselves resisting more forcefully, or other forces.

    If it's the case of the boats themselves resisting capture, I agree, they should have put up a fight. They also should have looked at a chart and carefully plotted a course staying out of Iranian waters.

    The incident is redolent of the same failures in training and discipline displayed in the Fitzgerald and McCain reports. Which is why we must fix ourselves before any bellicosity. Or just fix ourselves and skip the bellicosity.

    If you are talking about a later violent intervention of other US forces, I disagree. There was nothing they could have done to prevent the capture. Farsi Island is almost 200km from Bahrain. The damage was already done with the capture and the videos of the crew. The crew was released in 15 hours. We don't know if there were express or implied threats in the discussions, probably not because the US and Iran were functional allies at the time fighting ISIS in Iraq and had common interests (which continue).

    I don't have much hope in the recovery of national power. A combination of leftist collective social degradation and rightist Ayn Rand selfishness militates against it.

    1. I'm talking about the immediate incident and the boat crews defending themselves.

    2. Yes, those boats have 3 .50 cal and a .30 cal Gatling gun. Could have shredded what the Iranians sent.

    3. Thomas, if you have not read my previous post on the incident, it is well worth reading. It clearly documents from the Navy's incident report what the situation was at the moment of surrender. The boat crews violated the Code of Conduct, exhibited cowardice, and committed mutiny, among other violations. Check it out: "Surrender Was Unnecessary"


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