James Holmes

The Perils of Island Warfare

It’s a lot easier to take an island than it is to hold on to it.

So the Naval Diplomat spent last weekend discussing Asian security with glitterati from our fair Ocean State, the West Coast, and Japan. I hosted them at my cottage off Newport’s Bellevue Avenue and my gracious seaside estate overlooking the Narragansett Bay. Verily, it’s good to number among the Four Hundred.

It was a tad jarring, amid such genteel surroundings, that everyone wanted to talk about war in the Pacific. But maybe it shouldn’t be: New Englanders’ fascination with Japan dates to Commodore Matthew Perry’s celebrated voyages to the archipelago in the 1850s. Yep, the good commodore was a Newporter. And of course it was in Newport that naval thinkers gamed out the Pacific War during the 1920s and 1930s. Admiral Chester Nimitz lavished praise on local boys for their foresight. New England may jut into the Atlantic, but we have a long tradition of thinking about Asia.

The question on everyone’s lips is, how should Japan and America respond if China’s People’s Liberation Army seizes one or more of the Senkaku Islands? A flip answer: rather than rush in, they should read their Thucydides. Why? Because alongside all his insights into the nature of war and diplomacy, the wise old Athenian delves into the rigors and perils of island warfare. One lesson: taking an island isn’t the same as holding it. A successful landing force can find itself stranded and isolated if the opponent commands the sea and sky around the island — severing ties between the occupiers and their parent force.

A latter-day, aquatic counterpart to medieval siege warfare ensues. And any student of history knows that foodstuffs, fresh water in particular, are crucial for any castle garrison determined to ride out a siege. It’s hard to fight on an empty stomach. The doughtiest warriors are enfeebled without sustenance, ammunition, and spare parts. A contingent thus weakened finds it tough to resist enemy assault from the sea. Ultimately, perhaps, it can be starved out without bloody strife.

The vaunted Spartan infantry found that out the hard way. An Athenian expeditionary force landed at Pylos, scant miles from Sparta, and erected a fort to make trouble for the Spartans in their own backyard. After recalling the army from campaign, the Spartan leadership sent it to invest and reduce the fort. Among the Spartan countermoves was landing a contingent on the nearby island of Sphacteria to help seal off the Athenians from naval support.

Whoops. The Spartan navy was unable to maintain command of the waters around Sphacteria. The Spartans in those days were big buff guys who whiled away their time at Gold’s Gym. Masters of the sea they were not. In any event, the assailants on Sphacteria soon found themselves assailed by Athenian amphibious forces. Light Athenian infantrymen refused the Spartans the stand-up fight at which they excelled — think Leonidas in 300 — and instead pelted them with missile weapons from afar. Ultimately the unthinkable transpired. Spartans surrendered to philosophers and boy-lovers. Zounds!

Therein lies wisdom for the U.S.-Japan alliance. The common assumption is that the allies would dispatch forces to retrieve the Senkakus. And indeed they should. But not forthwith. Seizing an island is costly and wearisome. Why not stand off, repel PLA air and sea forces, and let the Chinese garrison wither? Take it from yet another New Englander, President Calvin Coolidge, who liked to urge Americans: don’t just do something; stand there! Quite so. Maritime supremacy grants commanders the leisure to wait out island defenders. Let’s make good use of such advantages.

Bet you’ve never seen Silent Cal paired with Thucydides as operational advisers.