General Matthew B. Ridgway: A Commander’s Maturation of Operational Art

June 2, 2012

On 22 December 1950, the situation for the Eighth U.S. Army fighting in Korea was dire. Eighth Army had previously advanced through nearly the entire expanse of the Korean Peninsula to its northern boundary at the Yalu River. It abandoned the capital city of Pyongyang and retreated below the 38th Parallel that centrally divided the peninsula because of an attack by two hundred thousand Chinese. Eighth Army had already lost every bit of its fighting spirit, and then its commander, General Walton Walker, died in a jeep accident. Less than four days later, Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command. He immediately met with Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas A. MacArthur and Eighth Army’s subordinate corps commanders to gain understanding of the situation. Next he visited the soldiers on the front lines to get a sensing of the enemy and the operating environment. Thus began Ridgway’s visualization of how future military operations should unfold.

General Ridgway developed this astonishing ability of accurately visualizing military operations through the means of a solid foundation of leader development combined with combat experience. Over the course of the first 24 years of his career, he received professional schooling through the Army’s educational institutions. Key training assignments—such as nearly three years at the War Department, War Plans Division (WPD)—reinforced his education. Moreover, his World War II combat experiences—including several failures during Operations Husky, Neptune and Market, followed by successes in the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity—solidified his ability to quickly and accurately assess and then visualize combat operations. Well-developed leadership and extensive combat experience produced a commander capable of rapidly visualizing an entire campaign and reversing an all-but-lost situation. General Ridgway so successfully visualized and reversed the deteriorating situation in Korea that, within five months, President Harry S. Truman had named Ridgway Supreme Commander, Allied Powers, replacing MacArthur.

General Matthew Bunker Ridgway (1895–1993) was one of the United States Army’s greatest general officers; he commanded at every level, finishing his 38 years of service as the 19th Chief of Staff, Army. Throughout his career, he demonstrated that determination in every duty assignment and educational program led to more advanced duty assignments and educational programs. General Ridgway was a 1917 graduate of the United States Military Academy, a 1935 graduate of the Army Command and General Staff School and a 1937 graduate of the Army War College. Several prominent figures mentored General Ridgway in his life, among them four men who eventually became the Army’s four five-star generals: Generals of the Army George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas A. MacArthur and Omar N. Bradley. During World War II, General Ridgway served as commander of the 82d Airborne Division through Operations Husky and Neptune and later as commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps through Operation Market, at the Battle of the Bulge and during Operation Varsity. During the Korean War, he served as field army commander of the Eighth U.S. Army. Late in his career, Ridgway served twice as a theater commander and twice as supreme commander of allied forces. He reached the zenith of the Army Officer Corps having led thousands of soldiers in battle through two wars, first at the operational level and then at the strategic level.

Throughout the years that Ridgway served, the U.S. Army did not recognize the operational level of war, as it currently does, as the intermediate level between battlefield tactics and national strategy. Although several prominent military theorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote extensively about operational art, U.S. Army doctrine did not incorporate the concept, nor did professional military schools teach it, during Ridgway’s era. Yet Ridgway eventually applied operational art based on an informed vision that facilitated the integration of ends, ways and means across the levels of war.

Current U.S. Department of Defense doctrine defines operational art as the application of creative imagination by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge and experience—to design strategies, campaigns and major operations and organize and employ military forces. Operational art integrates ends, ways, and means across the levels of war.

Army operational-level commanders visualize this integration based on an understanding of their environment and reliance on personal factors of their education, experience, intellect, intuition and creativity. U.S. Army doctrine prescribes that commanders exercise mission command through a model of “understanding, visualizing, describing, directing, leading and assessing operations” (see figure 1). The second of the six components—visualization—is the most important and the one that Ridgway eventually mastered. In the Army, the concept of mission command is the application of “leadership to translate decisions into actions—by synchronizing forces and warfighting functions in time, space and purpose—to accomplish missions.” The operational commander first starts to “understand” by recognizing the national strategic end state, the enemy and analyzing operational variables. Following understanding, the operational commander then must “visualize” operations. Commanders do so based on visualization subcomponents such as principles of war, operational themes, experience, running estimates and the elements of operational art. The most important subcomponent of visualization is the elements of operational art, of which there are 11 listed in U.S. Army doctrine: end state and conditions; centers of gravity; direct or indirect approach; decisive points; lines of operation or effort; operational reach; tempo; simultaneity and depth; phasing and transitions; culmination; and risk (see appendix for key terms and definitions). How did General Matthew Ridgway’s visualization mature?

To understand how Ridgway’s ability to visualize matured, this study first reviewed how Ridgway’s visualization began in his leader development; it then analyzed several primary sources in determining when he learned from the experiences of failure and, finally, when he succeeded. Primary sources reviewed regarding Ridgway’s leader development include the Regulations Governing the System of Military Education in the Army, Annual Report of the Secretary of War 1920, United States Army Field Service Regulations 1923, The Papers of George Catlett Marshall and Annual Report for the Command and General Staff School Year 1933–1934, as well as General Ridgway’s own memoirs. Key historical accounts from the military schools—such as History of the U.S. Army War College and Military History of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, among other relevant secondary works— reinforced these sources. Primary sources analyzed regarding Ridgway’s combat experience include actual reports of operations, administrative orders and field orders issued by Ridgway’s headquarters. Among these reports are “82d Airborne Division in Sicily and Italy,” “Report of Normandy Operations,” “Summary of Operations 18 December 1944 to 13 February 1945” and “Summary of Ground Forces Participation in Operation Varsity.” In most cases, Ridgway himself signed these after-action reports. The Army Field Service Regulations from 1941 stated that a “decision as to a specific course of action is the responsibility of the commander alone. While he may accept advice and suggestions from any of his subordinates, he alone is responsible for what his unit does or fails to do.” This study analyzed the results of Ridgway’s first five sequential combat experiences for the absence or presence of the elements of operational art. Since Ridgway bore total responsibility for the results of the operations, it is logical that he would have conceptualized the operations ahead of time. The presence of these elements proves that not only did the organizations mature, but so did Ridgway’s visualization. By his sixth combat experience, Ridgway demonstrated superior vision that had not been evident in his first combat experience. The thesis of this study is that General Matthew Ridgway’s visualization of operations matured based on his leader development and what he learned from failure and from mastering operational art.