Responding to the American contention that “we were never defeated in battle,” a North Vietnamese officer reportedly answered that the statement was “irrelevant.” The American defeat was above the tactical level. Lacking was a coherent strategy and the operational objectives that might have supported it. And yet, perhaps one sanguine benefit of America’s defeat in Vietnam was the initiation of a renewed interest in the operational level of war. By concentrating on the Russians and the Soviet Union and their understanding of operational art, the American Army started to reconsider its own doctrine of war. In the process, the United States slowly relearned the lessons of its own past about the operational art of war and applied these to the present.
Harold W. Nelson reminds us that the American Army has practiced operational art throughout its history. In fact, the sheer size of the nation and its major wars forced its leaders to broaden the scope of their war planning and the execution of those plans for the first one hundred years of the Republic, while the post–1898 overseas deployments have had the same result. But, as Nelson convincingly demonstrates, the intellectual and doctrinal developments, which ought to have supported such endeavors, lagged far behind and only began to catch up in the period between World Wars I and II. Even then, the postwar development of nuclear weapons appeared to have at least temporarily stalled the emergence of operational concepts in the U.S. Army until it finally chose to address the Soviet threat on its own ground.
Prior to its official inclusion in American military doctrine in the 1980s, nowhere was the practical application of the operational art of war in America more evident than during the Civil War. Arthur Grant examines the Gettysburg campaign from the perspective of the operational level of war and the battle itself. Even though the two opposing generals, Lee and Meade, did not use this specific term, it pervaded their thinking and actions throughout the contest. The author first focuses on the respective objectives that guided General Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and General Hooker and his mid-campaign replacement, General Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac. He writes that Lee’s use of deception to dislodge the Union Army from Fredericksburg demonstrated an essential element of the operational art. But the Confederate general’s lack of operational intelligence caused him to be surprised by the speedy movement of the Army of the Potomac, another critical component of the operational art and one that certainly
affected the conduct of the campaign and the battle of Gettysburg itself. Lee simply failed to appreciate time and space in relation to the growing Union combat power. In contrast, Meade’s orchestrated use of mutually supporting corps during the urgent approach marches and his subsequent deployments during the battle itself demonstrated the importance of operational maneuver while in a defensive posture.
Russell F. Weigley redefines the importance of operational-level planning and its absence in the Normandy invasion during World War II and the attempted encirclement of German forces around Argentan-Falaise in June–July 1944. Weigley credits detailed tactical planning with the success of the Normandy campaign but points out several Allied operational successes as well. These included overall intelligence and the knowledge of the main German dispositions; deception measures that tied down significant German forces in the Pas de Calais area; over-the-beach logistical support for a one-million-man force; and operational fires applied by the numbered air forces to bomb paths for a breakout from the beaches. On the other hand, Weigley postulates that lack of operational planning and vision placed the more mobile American forces on the wrong terrain. Moreover, the exploitation of the breakout at St. Lô sent American forces westward for ports in Brittany for their perceived logistical value, when the main Allied objectives were to the east. The effort diverted precious resources and prevented a full exploitation of the Allied success. Lastly, Weigley points to personalities in command and their difficult relationships. The inability to encircle German forces at Argentan-Falaise was caused by a failure to redraw army group boundaries. The blame lay on the operational commanders: Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley. Weigley concludes that the Allies lacked operational objectives during the breakout and never developed an operational focus in the ensuing pursuit.
In the essay that follows, Stanlis D. Milkowski concludes that the small, ill-prepared American Army engaged in Korea achieved a brilliant operational success at Inch’on, which reversed the tide of defeat. His focus, however, is on the post-Inch’on campaign. The sense of victory gained there redefined MacArthur’s campaign objectives from the defense of South Korea to the destruction of the North Korean military forces. Here Milkowski analyzes the command relationships in the theater. MacArthur’s operational reserve-the U.S. X Corps, used so brilliantly at Inch’on-was subsequently kept under his control. The stroke at Wonsan on North Korea’s eastern coast, conceived as a second Inch’on, fell on thin air. In turn, the Eighth Army’s lack of logistical support, caused in part by the X Corps’ independent movement, slowed its northward pursuit. But X Corps continued to report directly to MacArthur, while the rapid drive into North Korean forces stretched both X Corps and the Eighth Army extremely thin. When the two battlefield commands began to encounter Red Chinese forces, MacArthur chose to ignore his opera-
tional intelligence. As a result, when the Chinese intervened en mass and forced the entire Allied force into a disastrous retreat, the cumbersome and split command structure only made the withdrawal, always a most complex maneuver under fire, extremely difficult to execute effectively. Milkowski concludes his assessment by faulting MacArthur’s failure to see the operational consequences of a divided command, which crippled his ability to articulate all the elements of his combat forces on or near the battlefield.
These deficiencies were not replicated forty years later, when an international coalition under U.S. leadership crushed the Iraqi Army and liberated Kuwait. By 1991 the operational art of war had become thoroughly embedded in American military doctrine, which was reflected in a variety of training modes, organizational structures, and technological advances. In the concluding essay of this section, Brig. Gen. John S. Brown, the Army’s chief of military history, summarizes the most recent developments in the U.S. approach to operational art and how those initiatives were applied so effectively in the first Gulf War. As General Brown succinctly demonstrates, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were virtually set-piece exercises that represented the maturation of a critical component of American military doctrine.
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