Margin of Victory, Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War – by Douglas McGregor, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland 2016
This is an important book for two reasons, firstly, it gives a series of fascinating insights into some key campaigns and battles of the 20th century. Secondly, it provides an analysis of the weaknesses of the contemporary American military, in particular, the failure to fully integrate the four armed services.
The five battles cover a period of 77 years from the Battle of Mons in 1914 to the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991, in each case the author is primarily concerned, not with the actual events on the battlefield, but with the military culture and organisation of the opposing forces. It is clear that his purpose in doing this is to underpin his arguments about the current state of American military preparedness. But the deployment of the British expeditionary Force to France and Belgium in 1914 is perhaps the best example of the long-term impact of military reforms. McGregor argues that if the BEF had not been at Mons to hold up the Germans for a critical few days, the first German army of General Alexander von Kluck might have been able to attack the left and rear of the French army as he says with incalculable consequences. According to the author, the success of the BEF was possible because of the reforms instigated by some Richard Haldane, who was appointed as Secretary of State for War in December 1905. Haldane envisaged a strong regular British Army design from mobile offensive warfare which could be deployed in Europe or Asia. He resolved to transform a British Army whose primary role had been the protection of colonies from insurgencies and other local threats into a professional military establishment which could be deployed against any army in the world. Accordingly, his reforms built the foundation for a professional ground force capable of fighting an industrial age European power hundred and 60,000 men seven divisions which Haldane saw as a force “that might make the difference between initial victory and initial defeat”, and as McGregor says that is precisely what happened.
The second battle that McGregor considers as the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, in this case Japanese armies succeeded in capturing Shanghai in the face of determined Chinese opposition. However, McGregor considers the weaknesses of Japanese tactics, which he says reflected a failure to fully integrate all arms, that is armour, artillery, air and infantry, into an effective fighting force. He says that one reason the Japanese generals failed to learn from their operations in Shanghai was the weakness of their opponents in the early stages of World War II. He adds that Japan’s modest military advantage did not last long, and in 1939 the Japanese were decisively defeated by Soviet Armed Forces on the plains of Nomonhan. Soviet army small arms, tanks, artillery and organisation were demonstrably superior to anything the Japanese could field.
The third battle McGregor discusses was the destruction of Germany’s Army Group Centre by the Soviets in 1944. It was this battle which opened the way for the Soviet advance into Eastern Europe. He argues that the Soviet advantage was established in the 1930s by decisions which increased Soviet military production capability, the size of the Soviet army was also increased and by early 1941 it was over 4 million, larger than the German Wehrmacht. The early failures of the Soviet armies in 1941 and 1942 were finally overcome with new tactics and a focus on the mass use of tanks. In 1944 Russian advantage in men and equipment was overwhelming, and the response of the Wehrmacht was seriously constrained by foolish orders originating with Hitler. McGregor says the partial transformation of the Wehrmacht that provided Germany with its margin of victory in 1939 and 1940 turned out be insufficient for an extended conflict with Stalin’s war mobilisation state. As the war with the Soviet Union continued McGregor says “Germany lost the profound age in military capability possessed at the outset.” By 1944-45 nearly 85% of the Wehrmacht’s supply and transport was horse-drawn. He adds that the key factor in the Soviet victory over Germany was to the fact that the Soviet Union had “organised its forces to achieve absolute unity of command.”
The fourth battle was the Egyptian-Israeli conflict over the Suez Canal in 1973. Initially, the Egyptians achieved complete surprise in their attack on Israeli positions on the east bank of the canal. Prior to that event the Israelis had considered it impossible for the Egyptians to launch such a successful assault. The Egyptians deployed large numbers of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, which negated Israel’s advantages in airpower and armour. However, when the Egyptians moved out of their protected zone they became vulnerable, and they lacked the ability to quickly improvise shown by the Israeli forces. The Israelis also identified a gap in the Egyptian lines which they used to launch an attack across the canal which ultimately moves south to threaten the town of Suez. The war ended after Russian intervention, followed by American action to secure a ceasefire.
The final battle considered is the battle of 73 Easting 1991, which was part of the Desert Storm campaign. McGregor refers to this as a loss victory, because in his opinion the failure to pursue the Revolutionary Guard into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power was a lost opportunity. He also identifies weaknesses in the American chain of command and a failure to adequately integrate different services. He also believes that the success of American tactics against a significantly weaker opponent enabled senior military officers to ignore the need for necessary reforms. As he says, “No one with stars on their shoulders saw value in disclosing the truth: that Desert Storm was really a modern version of Alexander’s victory over the Persians at Gaugamela in 331 BCB, or even a replay of Kitchener’s victory over Sudanese tribesmen at Omdurman in 1899.”
The key part of the book is the author’s conclusion entitled “America’s Margin of Victory in the 21st-century.” He says, “If culture and leadership obstruct the process of adaptation and changing more the margin of victory is permanently lost.” This is the essence of his argument. It can be summed up as saying that where senior officers and civilian officials fail to learn the lessons of military failure and cling to outdated strategies and tactics with inefficient organisations, that defeat in war will become inevitable. McGregor says, of Desert Storm, that “without a coherent war fighting doctrine or integrated, unified command structure to guide the application of American military power, each service army, air force, navy, and Marine Corps fought its own war largely independently of the others.” He stresses the need for unity of command without which there will be no unity of effort, regardless of how powerful a nation state is. He claims that today there is no rational strategic framework in place to guide the development of American forces. McGregor says that in the 21st-century America needs the means to comprehensively plan and direct joint, integrated strike and manoeuvre operations.
He has some interesting comments about China and the development of its anti-access, area denial strategy (A2AD). He also argues that full-spectrum military dominance on a global basis is both unaffordable and unnecessary, and instead America should aim to achieve this dominance when and where it needs it. McGregor stresses again and again the need to integrate war fighting capabilities into joint operations, and to avoid interservice rivalries. For him the key aspects which ensure a margin of victory are effective military organisation, technology, and human capital; he also stresses that the military can never be certain as to their enemies.
This is an excellent book, which I strongly recommend to all who are interested in military strategy, it is well written and is of interest both to the military historian, and to the student of strategy.
However, there are some areas which I felt were less than satisfactory. In relationship to the Battle of Mons, I think that a reference to the British Army’s victories in 1918 would have been useful, because that was the first time an all arms attack involving armour, artillery and infantry, coordinated with air force, was successful. I also felt that the chapter on the Japanese Army in the 1930s and 1940s was not completely satisfactory, and a reference to the Burma Campaign, where the Japanese advance was halted and then reversed could have been added. Finally, for someone who is not a member of the American Armed Services, the final chapter, useful though it is, could have been clearer. An organization chart for a new US military command structure would have been interesting. These comments should not discourage readers from buying this book; I hope a second edition may add to the text in some areas.
© Andrew Palmer, 2016