Belmont Club


One of the questions the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, the Pentagon and possibly (but for the actions of the passengers on Flight 93) on the White House raised was whether the enemy in the War on Terror considered any place sanctuary. Sanctuaries are an essential part of limited war. Without sanctuaries, limited war becomes a fight to the finish.  The immediate question after September 11 was whether what ensued was going to be limited war. It was a hard question, for after World War 2, America’s first experience with limited war — and sanctuaries — was in Korea.

In Korea, each side had its own “safe areas”; its own sanctuaries. The fighting on the ground reflected these strategic realities. Since nobody was going for the knockout, no one was knocked out. Each side was scoring points before the judge of history.

To have pushed it [the war] to a conclusion would have required more trained divisions and more supporting air and naval forces, would have incurred heavy casualties and would have necessitated lifting our self-imposed ban on attacks on the enemy sanctuary north of the Yalu.

So argued General Clark some months after the signing of the armistice. What he was saying, in effect, was that there was no disposition in Washington toward undertaking the risks or the losses that military victory would have demanded during the year when he was in command. The limitations within which the Far East Command had to operate and the strength ceilings imposed upon the Eighth Army insured that no all-out effort against the enemy could be mounted. On the other hand, the Communist forces of Kim and Peng evidently labored under similar restrictions. They made no attempt to strike at the Japanese base area, giving it the same inviolability that the UNC granted Manchuria. At the front, Communists troops reacted strongly to attack, yet showed no signs of preparing to resume major offensive operations of their own. The rules were tacit, but nonetheless observed in mid-1952; this was a sparring match and not a fight for the championship.

If the public can name any hill fight of the Korean War it would probably be the Battle of Pork Chop Hill,  largely because of the movie starring Gregory Peck by the same name. Like the battle itself, the movie presents an ambivalent narrative of a fight waged solely by each side  to improve their respective negotiating positions at Panmunjom. Of course the Chinese were hoping for a US slip-up, for if sanctuaries existed their relative size was often determined by long term positional maneuvering. The Chinese were playing the game of inches in 1952-53 and so was the US.

War in a world of sanctuaries is a Game of Inches.

The problem with the Game of Inches is that the inches that are sought are not always the inches that emerge.  One interesting example of this was an engagement little known to the movie-going public: the Battle of White Horse hill in late 1952.  The Battle of White Horse hill dwarfed the Pork Chop engagement in every degree.  The Chinese 38th Corps decided to push the Korean 9th division off a hill in order to threaten the road complex behind and thereby force a retreat of the UN line.  In the epic struggle that followed the ridge of the hill changed hands approximately 24 times over ten days and resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Chinese 38th Corps.  About 500 South Korean soldiers died in the engagement and over 8,000 Chinese “volunteers” never returned home. Many of these Chinese casualties were inflicted by the tremendous volume of US artillery fires which had, by this stage, become a major feature of US tactical doctrine in Korea. A somewhat dramatized account of the battle, from the viewpoint of American artillery observers, A Hill Called White Horse, depicts the experiences of a forward observer team on the ridge itself, and their desperate attempts to defend themselves after the Koreans had been driven off for the first of 23 times.

They did this largely by calling down fires on their positions. As the team defended the entrance of their bunker against Chinese infantry the entire sky above it was alive with continuous airbursts which by the end had reduced the piles of sandbags in the area to the appearance of a corpse-covered dune. This enabled the observer team to survive until the Koreans arrived on one of their many counterattacks. The Korean 9th Infantry division became known as ‘White Horse’ thereafter, and the monument to its epic victory is now a revered site.

The reason White Horse is so significant is that in one sense, it represented the birth of South Korea. But no one could see this clearly at the time.  Contemporary US periodicals could only express relief that the ROKs did not do as badly as the journalists expected. But in fact the ROK was achieving the miraculous.

Today it is possible to conclude that the Chinese gambit in Korea has failed disastrously; the invasion forged a new national identity where only a tenuous one existed in the South. Mao Tse Tung created a dragon on its doorstep while saddling Beijing with the useless and parasitic North Korea regime. And that fact was made evident on the White Horse hill, where the ROK outkilled the 38th Army by 16 to 1 — with a little help from their friends.

White Horse also marked the moment when the US had both solved the tactical problem in Korea and finally realized it had entered the Cold War. As Peter Lane explained in his 1990 Command and General Staff thesis, the Far East Command had long been laboring under an artillery ammunition supply problem. After the rapid demobilization following World War 2 there was actually not enough ammunition on hand to sustain the kinds of volumes that were required in the Korean War. The reason was that everyone was retooling and gunning for a slice of the booming civilian economy.

Nobody wanted to build weapons for government contract any more. But without support weapons, American infantry had only slightly more combat power than the ‘Chinese hordes’. In a war of movement such as World War 2, this insufficiency in infantry superiority could be offset by maneuver. But in the confines of Korea, a hard truth emerged. Without a definite superiority in heavy weapons, many Chinese soldiers could beat the not so many US soldiers they encountered. MacArthur had at first believed that tactical airpower could level the field. By the time of the Chinese intervention he was disillusioned.

MacArthur did reveal a new view of air power. A month earlier he had credited his air forces with a high degree of effectiveness; now he cautioned Ridgway that tactical air power was much exaggerated, that it could not stop the southward flow of enemy forces and supplies. When Ridgway asked near the close of the meeting whether MacArthur would object to a decision to attack, MacArthur replied, “The Eighth Army is yours, Matt. Do what you think best.”

Ridgway concluded that the answer was artillery and more artillery. Artillery, the King of Battle, would make short work of the human wave attacks. Thus the Battle of White Horse provided not only a validation of the ROKs, but proof positive that artillery could beat ‘hordes’.

But if the Chinese game of inches produced unexpected results, so did the American. Korea demonstrated that the public could be affected by foreign wars in unexpected ways. If few members of the public can remember White Horse, fewer still can recall that the Korean crisis produced Harry Truman’s Proclamation 2914, apparently the only time since the since the Civil War that a state of emergency has been declared in the US.

During the Watergate scandal which erupted in the 1970s after President Richard Nixon authorized a variety of illegal acts, Congress investigated the extent of the President’s powers and belatedly realized that the U.S. had been in a continuous state of emergency since 1950.

Proclamation 2914 stayed on the books so long that ironically, President George W. Bush was still rescinding the last aspects of Proclamation 2914 as late as 2008. If you want to win a bet with a liberal friend, ask which American President proclaimed a state of emergency and which rescinded it. Then knock him down with a feather while you collect your hundred dollars. History is full of surprises.

The reason for Truman’s proclamation, as Peter Lane explains, is because Truman couldn’t get the economy to produce enough ammunition and other munitions for the Korean War. Truman used powers under the State of Emergency to get industry to do what he felt was needed, without angering the unions. The crisis, now remembered by history as the 1952 steel strike, is little remembered by the public today.

President Truman chose not to impose price controls, as the federal government had done during World War II. Instead, the administration attempted to avoid inflationary pressures through creation of a Wage Stabilization Board that sought to keep down the inflation of consumer prices and wages while avoiding labor disputes whenever possible. Those efforts failed, however, to avoid a threatened strike of all of the major steel producers by the United Steel Workers of America when the steel industry rejected the board’s proposed wage increases unless they were allowed greater price increases than the government was prepared to approve.

The Truman administration believed that a strike of any length would cause severe dislocations for defense contractors and for the domestic economy as a whole. Unable to mediate the differences between the union and the industry, Truman decided to seize their production facilities, while he kept the current operating management of the companies in place to run the plants under federal direction.

History’s jury is still out on the emergent effects of the September 11 attacks. But one possible narrative that could emerge is this: the attacks by Islamist forces on sanctuaries within the United States destabilized the strategic situation in the first years of the 21st century. The response of the Bush Administration was to demonstrate to the Muslim world that if American sanctuaries were not respected, then neither would the sovereignty of Muslim countries be sacrosanct. The long term effect of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was to restore somewhat the status quo ante principle of respecting sanctuaries.

However, the September 11 attacks themselves and the American reaction to them started a series of events which destabilized both the the Islamic World and the West. September 11 marked the start of the downfall of Sunni power. The Shi’ite faction of the Islamic world, encouraged by the defeats the Sunnis had sustained in Iraq, increased their aggressiveness abroad. The Sunni world, in the meanwhile, was running out of oil. The joint effect of renewed Jihadi militancy and increasing resource scarcity reflected itself in the Arab Spring, which represented the sunset of the old Sunni regimes.

But the West was not immune from unintended consequences. Following the Bush Administration’s failure to explain the new Cold War that had begun on September 11, a number of opportunistic politicians began to advocate the abandonment of the a forward foreign policy in preference to domestic entitlement programs. Once again, as in the case of the Steel Crisis of 1952, foreign policy was used to justify domestic social engineering. Americas retreat from the world had begun.

The story is still unfinished and as is the way with such things, the ending is kept hidden until the very end. The ending of the story which begans with epic defense the White Horse was written at the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but the tale which begins with the attack on September 11 is still being played out. Unlike the first Cold War, we cannot say how it will end. Who will write the words, at first tentatively and then completely?

 My Diary. My Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again. And
What Happened After.

    Adventures of Five Hobbits. The Tale of the Great Ring, compiled by
Bilbo Baggins from his own observations and the accounts of his friends.
What we did in the War of the Ring.


To write the ending to a tale and stick around to read it is what humanity knows in history as triumph. It has another name, though; one far more urgent. That other word is survival.

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