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Between Tactics and Strategy – Notes from the Front

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Matheny, Michael R. Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 1945. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Michael Matheny’s Carrying the War to the Enemy offers a superlative argument for understanding American operational art, defined as “that level of war between tactics and strategy,” as beginning in earnest during the interwar years and fueled primarily through the military education system.[1] Carefully crafted from lecture notes, battle plans, and personal correspondence taken from the Naval War College archives and other repositories, Carrying the War to the Enemy offers a compelling look into how the American understanding of operational theory was shaped by the military’s experiences of total war during World War I, and was further refined by meticulous study in the nation’s myriad staff and war colleges.[2]

Matheny and the Experience of Command

Carrying the War to the Enemy is the culmination of over a decade of research by Matheny including a brief article penned at the Army War College and a dissertation carried out at Temple University.[3] Importantly, Matheny was mentored by Gregory Urwin, professor of military history at Temple University and editor of the Campaigns and Commanders series of which Carrying the War is a part, and the text certainly bears the marks of Urwin’s influence with its implementation of social and cultural methods.[4] A retired colonel of the U.S. Army and faculty member in the department of military strategy, planning, and operations at the U.S. Army War College, Matheny reflects on the myriad problems associated with the implementation of planning and operations-level warfare by individual commanders, and is necessarily motivated by the issues of implementing effective use of force in an age where strategy and tactics alone are not enough to achieve the ends required of the military.

Source Material

Based primarily in previously unexamined archival materials of the U.S. military, Matheny’s monograph focuses on the operational, rather than tactical, level of military actions, and thus utilizes much evidence from the training and planning stages of hypothetical wars that were employed as theoretical practice for American forces in the interwar years. This foundation of original material helps to solidify the argument that American operational art as a theoretical discipline can be traced to the interwar period.[5] Looking at the evolution of operations-level warfare and its associated logistics from the organization of armies into divisions and corps under Napoleon to the development of the staff system and postgraduate military schools in twentieth-century America, Matheny effectively lays out a road map of how the American way of war adopted operations as a fundamental part of its understanding of war in the aftermath of World War I, and how it may have been impossible for the military to devise such a framework without the lessons learned in that conflict.[6]

Less influential on Matheny’s argument is the secondary scholarship, which is largely used to contextualize his overall argument rather than to provide a substantial foundation for it. In all, this approach works rather well and gives the text a sources-driven argument which serves to weigh it with the authority of the commanders of the past without becoming overly-bogged down in historiographical contention.

Historical Context

It would be difficult indeed to separate Matheny’s work from the context of its time. Matheny’s initial forays into its associated research began in tandem with the declaration of America’s War on Terror and the book was published during the final stages of the nation’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq. As such, the need for a greater appreciation and implementation of operational art by U.S. forces following their heightened focus on grand strategy during the Cold War almost certainly played a key role in the construction of the text. The organization of senior officers who rely on numerous specialized junior officers to handle the complexity of the modern war machine plays a central role in Carrying the War, and in many ways reflects the problems of command faced by field officers in the twenty-first century.[7]

Structure of the Text

Carrying the War is divided into chapters covering the origins and development of operational art, followed by exploratory chapters on said development in the interwar years with regard to sea, land, and air power, and is capped off with one chapter each on the implementation of that art in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II and a final chapter on the lessons learned throughout the process.[8] In all, the meat of the work lies in its central chapters examining the development of operational art in the armed forces and their implementation in World War II, and it is here that Matheny best argues that American operational art developed simultaneously across the army, marines and navy, as well as burgeoning air force (the U.S. Army Air Forces at the time).[9]

Across these central chapters Matheny effectively narrates how the training that officers received in the military school system, which was largely theoretical as there was no budget for increased war games, grew the intellectual roots of combined arms warfare and its corollary operational theories within a burgeoning officer class.[10] Further, Matheny grounds his argument by providing a number of rich examples of this evolution including the organizing of the joint chiefs of staff as an organizational framework better suited to carrying out more complex operations during Operation Torch, as well as the practical application of theoretical exercises, such as the ORANGE plan, which served to prepare U.S. officers for war with Japan.[11]

Indeed, Matheny’s work is largely built by following the adoption, proliferation, and application of theoretical models of war such as the color-coded plans. Or, as Matheny would have it, operational art. To use the example of the ORANGE plan, the most frequently practiced of the color-coded plans, Matheny expertly follows the adoption of the plan as a theoretical exercise to its employment as the basis of preparing for actual war near the onset of the Pacific conflict to the reflections of Admiral Chester Nimitz after the war, who recalled such training as the basis for the US decision to liberate the Philippines.[12] It is in this manner, following the conception of theoretical approaches to operations up through the art of its application, that Matheny’s text is built to be read.


In all, Matheny’s argument that American operational art first developed in the military academies during the interwar years, and not just in Europe as has been previously argued, is both well researched and expertly crafted.[13] Matheny’s tracing of the rise of a bona fide officer class and the development of a theory-based curriculum of operations at military senior schools serves well to mark operational art as a crucial part in rehearsing America’s eventual victories in modern war.[14]

Above all else, Matheny has done an admirable job to bring the study of operations-level warfare firmly into the historian’s view. His idea that the professional school of old breed officers from World War I focused on America’s strengths rather than its limitations in order to develop a new way of modern war is one that will not soon be overturned.[15] As Matheny wrote regarding the successes of Operation Overlord, “it was not a matter of which side possessed the greater means, but how the Allies used those means.”[16] To this end, Carrying the War to the Enemy serves as an examination of the means by which victory was achieved in World War II but, perhaps, also as a reminder for what it is necessary for the U.S. to return to in order to maintain victory in the twenty-first century.

[1] Matheny, Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 1945 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012), xiii.

[2] Matheny, Carrying the War, 44.

[3] Michael Matheny, Origins of Modern American Operational Art, PhD diss. Temple University, 2007.

[4] Matheny, Carrying the War, xi.

[5] Matheny, Carrying the War, xx and 16.

[6] Matheny, Carrying the War, 7 and 90–91.

[7] Matheny, Carrying the War, 19.

[8] Matheny, Carrying the War, 3, 17, 45, 92, 121, 160, 202, and 253.

[9] Matheny, Carrying the War, 91, 120, and 159.

[10] Matheny, Carrying the War, 252.

[11] Matheny, Carrying the War, 161.

[12] Matheny, Carrying the War, 202–203 and 216–217

[13] Matheny, Carrying the War, xv.

[14] Matheny, Carrying the War, xiii and 254.

[15] Matheny, Carrying the War, 269.

[16] Matheny, Carrying the War, 201.

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