Margin of Victory: Five Battles That Changed the Face of Modern Warfare

  • Published

Margin of Victory: Five Battles That Changed the Face of Modern Warfare by Douglas Macgregor. Naval Press Institute, 2016, 268 pp.

Upon glancing at the title of this book, one might conclude that Margin of Victory might be solely a historical work, focusing on five separate battles that have some impact on the course of the modern military. However, the title can mislead the reader, as a further examination of the work reveals that Macgregor seeks to analyze five battles to highlight his observations about the current state of the US military. He then charges the reader to take note of the key lessons learned from those battles, highlighting both positives and negatives, which policy makers can apply toward the future of the US Armed Forces.

For the five battles, Macgregor focuses on the following: Mons, 1914; Shanghai, 1937, the Eastern/Russian Front near Belarus, 1944, the battles along the Suez as part of the Yom Kippur War of 1973; and the Battle of 73 Easting, 1991. On the surface, these battles do not seems to have a lot to tie them together. The Battle of Mons lasted little more than a day and was little more than the opening baptism for the British in what became a four-year slaughter, whereas the German/Russian battles of 1944, focusing on the German Army Group Center, lasted for weeks. The battles may have all produced winners, but decisive victory in the overall military campaign was not a given. Casualty rates varied from tens of thousands to a few thousand. This leaves the reader with an eclectic mix of twentieth-century engagements.

Yet Macgregor uses this work to highlight his view on the American military. While America only played a direct role in one battle (73 Easting), Macgregor chooses these five engagements as teaching points and warnings to American military planners about what a successful military must have and how the flaws in military thinking within a specific country’s armed forces can lead to needless struggle, if not outright defeat. For example, regarding Mons, the author highlights the fact that the British forces, while they did not win the specific battle, demonstrated a capability to match the Germans, using the skills that the British High Command only begrudging adopted in the prewar years. In the years prior to World War I, the British Army mainly fought colonial skirmishes or engagements similar to the counterinsurgency campaigns the American military finds itself facing for the vast majority of its actions today. Only through the efforts of a select few dedicated officers did the British Army offer training and planning for engagements with peer armies in a force-on-force situation. Primarily focused on counterinsurgency campaigns for the past 16 years, the US military may hold a similar thought process as the British Army in the pre–World War I years. It is easy to think of American military forces, relying on superior technical and material advantages to counter any peer threats.

Throughout the historical recaps of the other four battles, Macgregor weaves the actions of the combatants at the time of the fighting but always presents themes that tie back to the current US military and what the future could and should look like for future US forces. The variety of battles selected, with diverse combatants, battlefield environments, and resultant outcomes demonstrates Macgregor’s attempt to educate the reader, especially for those unfamiliar with most of the engagements or the details noted in the writing of this book. For a commercial audience, this mix of battles could prove enlightening and very informative. For those within the military, who might have previous knowledge or insight into the respective engagements, Macgregor’s assessment and insights serve as a catalyst for debate and critique.

While the history aspect of the work catches the reader’s attention, the introduction and conclusion will spark the most debate. The respective lessons he pulls from each battle analyzed are significant and tie into his overall assessment that the US military needs to take those lessons to heart for its current and future operations. However, it is interesting how he spreads his analysis over multiple battles and national situations. For example, when discussing the Soviet offensive against the German Army Group Center, a key lesson centers on unity of command and purpose at the strategic and operational level. Certainly, it is a key lesson and a long-standing principle of war. However, his view that the US should adopt a central, overall command of the total Armed Forces, subordinating the respective services, is most likely unrealistic given the nature of the American military and the entrenched service mechanisms that maintain separation. Some could argue that Macgregor is selectively picking various battles to meet his end state and that he would have been better served to stick with primarily American campaigns. Yet, given his assertion that the US needs to take stock of its current military status, it is helpful to bring in some outside examples of operations and actions that can apply to the American situation.

Overall, this work is worthy of consideration for a military historian and a military strategist. The target audience is primarily those who do not quite have the detailed understanding of American military actions and overall military history. Still, there are meaningful insights in this work from a historical perspective or lessons learned that apply to the current and future US armed forces. The writing style is engaging and the work does not bog the reader down in minutia. A reader can take much from this work, and it will be worth the time invested.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."