Ask many military historians about the origins of American operational art and many will place it sometime after the Second World War. Conventional wisdom has long held that the American military only developed a rough understanding of operations – the planning and conduct of large-scale (Corps-size or greater) coordinated offensive and defensive actions – in the twin crucibles of the European Theater of Operations and in the US Navy’s drive across the Central Pacific. These traditionalist accounts have generally put the United States Army in the role of either being reluctant students, schooled in the nuances of modern warfare by the masters of the art, the German Wehrmacht, or as being pulled along unwillingly by the more sophisticated Navy and Marine Corps.
If that is what passes for conventional wisdom, then Michael Matheny is having none of it. A senior instructor at the United States Army War College and a retired Army officer, Matheny is the author of Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 1945 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011). In this enlightened study of the US Army’s experiences and educational efforts between 1917 to 1945, Matheny introduces a new perspective in the story of American operational art. Even as the United States Army was struggling to learn how to wage mass modern industrial war in the forested hills of France, insightful officers were considering how best to achieve the maximum offensive result, applying the greatest concentration of force at the minimal cost. The new problems uncovered during the First World War became the subject of intensive study during the Interwar Years in the Army’s professional schools, which, Matheny argues quite persuasively, ultimately gave American military officers a qualitative edge over its foreign allies and enemies in the Second World War. While admittedly a take on the American way of war that is rather exceptionalist and triumphalist, Matheny backs up his claims with four solid case studies – Operations TORCH and OVERLORD in the European-Mediterranean Theater, and Operations KING II and ICEBERG, the 1944 invasions of the Philippines and the 1945 invasion of Okinawa. In the end Carrying the War to the Enemy presents an interesting foundation through which to begin reconsidering the course of American arms in the Second World War, and which makes a strong effort to recast a flawed conventional narrative.