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Greek Lessons From Milley

Milley’s Taiwan scenario looks an awful lot like Thucydides’ description of the Sicilian expedition.
Taiwan Holds Defence Drills
Taiwan's armed forces hold two days of routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base on January 11, 2023 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. (Photo by Annabelle Chih/Getty Images)

Our own Sumantra Maitra observed yesterday that Gen. Mark Milley’s remarks to Foreign Affairs show that the foreign policy consensus is, laudably, moving towards a preference for ending hostilities in Ukraine over committing to a great power war; Dr. M borrowed a tag from Vegetius underlining the importance of providing an enemy with a way out.

In that same interview, Milley noted that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan—which some commentators argue will be egged on by a brokered peace in Europe—is a horse of an altogether different color, and would be a much more difficult task.


In order to attack Taiwan, they would have to mount an amphibious invasion combined with paratroopers and air assault, rotary wing helicopters, missiles, all the prep fires that would go into that; they’d have to isolate beachheads and then have to have the amphibious lift in order to do that; and cross basically a hundred miles of water, which is challenging in and of itself. Then they’d have to ensure that the subsurface of the water was secure, as well, from submarine attack. They’d have to clear mines, clear beaches, they’d have to go in and essentially attack and seize an urban area that’s about three and a half million people, in a country that’s very mountainous and lends itself to the defense.

He went on to observe the difficulties of the operation relative to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which had the benefit of soldiers and commanders already thoroughly experienced with amphibious assaults.

So that military, even as good as it was at the time in 1944—don’t forget that Eisenhower wrote a letter of resignation in the event of failure the night prior. And that was over the English channel, which is, whatever it is, thirty miles, something like that. And now you’re looking at a hundred miles with a military that has never done anything like that at all. And to do that and pull it off successfully—even against the Taiwan military, which is not the Wehrmacht, granted—but the terrain is much tougher, much more complex terrain in Taiwan than it was at Normandy. I think it’s a real heavy lift, and I think the Chinese know that. 

In short, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan looks an awful lot like something from another classical author—Thucydides’ description of the abortive Athenian invasion of Sicily. As I observed in the linked column, Americans need to think hard about whether to make Taiwan our own Sicily with direct intervention, or, like the Spartans with the Syracusans, primarily to empower the Taiwanese to fend off the invaders themselves.