Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War

Douglas Macgregor. Naval Institute Press, 2016. 268 pages. $34.95.

By Allen Boyer

This book is hammered together from two sermons and five cautionary tales, and it holds up marvelously. Author Douglas Macgregor, an Army tank officer who fought in Operation Desert Storm, touched off a fierce debate with his first book, Breaking the Phalanx (1997). Breaking the Phalanx was controversial because it called for slaughtering some of the Pentagon’s most sacred cows: closing regional military commands, scrapping the Navy’s carrier program, and buying attack helicopters rather than Air Force support planes. Margin of Victory is less controversial, but it can be just as provocative.

Following Clausewitz, Macgregor focuses on “wars of decision,” conflicts that change the shape of the political and economic world: “wars the United States cannot afford to lose.” He argues that we cannot predict against whom the United States will fight, or where, or when; we can bear in mind only that the next war of decision will inevitably occur; and we must concentrate on winning the first fight. Nor can we afford to wait, he warns: “Wars are decided in the decades before they begin, not by the sudden appearance of a new, technological ‘silver bullet’ or the presence of a few strong personalities in the senior ranks during a single battle.”

The first battle that Macgregor discusses, the British Expeditionary Force’s defense of Mons in 1914, is a study in flashback. Mons was a fighting retreat – very nearly a disaster. But the point of Mons, Macgregor finds, is that the British had a force that could stand up against German infantry and artillery. The British Army of Queen Victoria’s day fought tribal warriors and Boer militia. Its proud regiments were unprepared to fight a well-trained, well-equipped modern army. From 1905 to 1912, Sir Richard Haldane had struggled to build the B.E.F., an elite force of seven divisions (six infantry, one cavalry) that could deploy quickly against any foe in the world. At Mons, Haldane’s vision was vindicated; the B.E.F. held the French flank, preventing German victory.

The Battle of Shanghai, which raged for four months in the fall of 1937, was reckless and thoughtless – a bloody opening to a war for which neither side was ready. To gain control of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek put at risk his army. Even when surprise was lost, the Chinese futilely threw division after division into the attack, wasting units trained for years by German officers. The Japanese landed an army starved by years of financial cutbacks. They had tanks, artillery, and aircraft – but too few. The Japanese had “failed to change enough to achieve a true margin of victory,” Macgregor writes. Neither side could overwhelm the other. The Japanese pressed on into China, while the war grew increasingly bitter. The battle to control Shanghai ended with the destruction of Nanking.

The third battle, the Byelorussian campaign of 1944, features two armies that pursued different paths of reform. The Wehrmacht had developed the tactics of the blitzkrieg – calling down artillery and dive-bombers on enemy strongpoints, punching open the way for tanks and fast-moving infantry. However, German success with these new tactics concealed the weakness of German logistics; supplies for panzer divisions were pulled by draft horses. The Russians looked further ahead, to a concept of “deep battle” – broad strikes far into enemy territory, backed by up strategic reserves and immense supply chains. Russian resources, deployed by a unitary command  (“a Soviet marshal could [order] in minutes what took General Dwight D. Eisenhower months of negotiations with US and British air force commanders to do: unleash 700 long-range bombers”) won the day.

The shortest battle described in this book, between the United States Army and the Iraqi Republican Guard, is one in which Macgregor fought. On the afternoon of February 26, 1991, at a map gridline called 73 Easting, Cougar Squadron of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment swept the desert clear of Iraqi forces, wrecking more than 70 tanks, 70 armored vehicles, 44 trucks, and 32 bunkers. This was the swift, devastating tank battle of which the Army had dreamed for fifty years – and yet it was not decisive. War planners called a halt to Operation Desert Storm, leaving Saddam Hussein in power.

Macgregor’s chapter on the Yom Kippur War of 1973 tells how two different armies each played to its own peculiar strength. Anwar Sadat, like Viscount Montgomery before Alamein, trained his soldiers exhaustively and massed artillery to support and protect them. He learned from Russian wartime experience in crossing rivers under fire. He sneaked five Egyptian divisions into trenches on the west bank of the Suez Canal, which was defended by only five Israeli battalions. When the Egyptians stormed across the canal, the defenders panicked – but when the Israelis regained their nerve, their daring brought the chance for a brilliant counterstrike, their own attack across the canal. The Israeli drive into Egypt could hardly be stopped, but the Egyptian beachhead in Sinai could not be dislodged. The two armies fought each other to a standstill, from which statesmen eventually forged a peace.

Margin of Victory is a meditation on military history. After his best divisions were ruined, Chiang Kai-shek, who had gambled on capturing Shanghai, became the wary, evasive, do-nothing despot whom General Stillwell despised. The fact that Chiang could shift strategy so radically underlines the unpredictability of war. Hitler’s generals and Stalin’s marshals both planned to fight sweeping tank battles, and they ultimately fought sweeping tank battles – ignoring casualties, since they answered to dictators, not voters. Because armies will fight the kind of wars they prepare for, this history suggests, the Army must choose carefully the kind of war it prepares for. However, Margin of Victory is also a soldier’s pamphlet. Captain H.R. McMaster, the young officer who commanded Eagle Troop of Cougar Squadron, the spearhead of the attack at 73 Easting, is now Lieutenant-General McMaster, the president’s National Security Adviser. A generation of soldiers have heard Macgregor’s preaching, and may share his faith.

Allen Boyer (ΦBK, Vanderbilt University, 1977) is a lawyer and writer in New York City.  His fifth book, “Rocky Boyer’s War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz that Won the War in the Southwest Pacific,” will be published in May.  Vanderbilt University is home to the Alpha of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.