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

Summary: Douglas Macgregor has a new book coming out soon, combining his experience planning and fighting modern wars with his knowledge of military history. As we fight our new long war, knowledge of past battles can help us see our way forward. Here is Professor Citino’s Forward to pique your interest.

Margin of Victory
Available at Amazon.

Margin of Victory

Five Battles that
Changed the Face of Modern War

By Douglas Macgregor
(Colonel, US Army, retired)

Forward by Professor Robert M. Citino
Posted with permission.

There is nothing readers seem to like more than a book that discusses great battles, major campaigns, or turning points, but a number of factors set Margin of Victory apart from the pack. That’s what makes Douglas Macgregor’s book a great read.

First, we have the battles themselves, each one a turning point in the history of the twentieth century. We have the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) desperately holding the line at Mons; the Imperial Japanese Army grinding it out at Shanghai against an outclassed but numerically superior Chinese army; the Red Army smashing an entire German army group in a rapid and seemingly effortless blow; the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) getting surprised early by an Egyptian thrust across the Suez Canal in 1973; and, finally, an irresistible U.S. armored juggernaut tearing through Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards in 1991 as if they were not even there.

Beyond serving as a tour d’horizon for twentieth-century operational level warfare, however, Margin of Victory does something all too rare in the world of “great battle books” — it actually manages to link its battles thematically. If one thread ties together all of these fights, it is Macgregor’s warning that change is constant, but it is the reaction to change that really matters.

The British, for example, would not have had a BEF deployed at Mons at all if a few clear heads (above all that of Secretary of State for War Sir Richard Haldane) had not recognized the changed realities of industrial-age warfare and carried out a series of far-reaching reforms from 1906 to 1912, including the establishment of a general staff, the formation of an elite strike force backed by a large trained reserve, and an emphasis on soldier education. Haldane’s pre-war military reform prepared Britain (just barely) to fight and win the war. If the BEF had not been at Mons to hold up the Germans for a crucial few days, the German 1st Army of General Alexander von Kluck might have had an open shot into the left and rear of the entire French battle array — with incalculable consequences.

"Mars, god of war" by GhostsAnd Decay at DeviantArt
Mars, god of war” by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt

The Japanese, by contrast, failed to change enough. Well into the 1930s, they were still clinging to phalanx-like “square divisions” (four regiments) that might have been ideal for the attritional nature of trench warfare but were far too unwieldy for swift maneuver. In a broader sense, they continued to rely on massed manpower when they might have downsized the force and used the savings to invest in higher-tech weapons such as tanks and aircraft.

The result was, as Macgregor recounts in some detail, a bloodbath, a struggle of attrition at Shanghai and the “grinding mill of flesh and blood” at Luodian. As they bogged down well short of their objective, the Japanese did have to introduce tanks and aircraft — pretty much their entire arsenal at the time — in order to grind forward and drive the Chinese defenders out of Shanghai. The lesson of the criticality of mobile armored firepower and its integration with the striking power of the air force and navy went unlearned, however, and it was a relatively unreconstructed Japanese army that took on even more powerful adversaries in 1941, sacrificing wave after wave of brave but undersupplied infantry against superior Western matériel.

The destruction of Army Group Center (Operation Bagration, August 1944), by contrast, is a tale of two reforms: the Germans dramatically increasing their tactical fighting power at the point of impact and the Soviets deepening the process on the operational and strategic levels — and 1944 would demonstrate dramatically which side had become more effective. From the reading here, it is almost possible to drum up sympathy for the Wehrmacht — relatively demotorized, undersupplied, indifferently led (at least on the army group level), sitting in that vast, vulnerable bulge east of Minsk, waiting to be destroyed. The Germans learned the meaning of “full-spectrum dominance” in a way they never imagined.

Likewise, 1973 is a complex story of military reform on the Egyptian side prior to Operation Badr, and on the Israeli side in the midst of the fighting, when it looked like all was lost. The Egyptians had spent a great deal of time contemplating the debacle of the physical and moral collapse of a vast mechanized army in matter of days in 1967, and they had drawn up a careful, cautious operational plan based as much on their weaknesses at maneuver warfare as on any particular set of strengths.

The Israelis, meanwhile, had not given much thought to the Egyptians at all. Why bother? They were hardly going to do anything rash like start a war. The IDF high command kept thinking that — right until those high-powered water cannon blasted a series of holes in the high earthen berm on the Israeli side of the Suez Canal and enemy infantry and tanks began pouring into the Sinai. It was a shock that still reverberates across the Middle East. Macgregor analyzes the IDF’s pain but also takes the reader carefully through the process by which the Israelis recovered their equilibrium. They reformed themselves on the fly, using infantry to dig the Egyptians out of the irrigation ditches of the Chinese Farm, for example, and then launched their armored counterstroke. A canal is a two-way crossing, after all!

Finally, there is the victory at 73 Easting, the signal moment of the coalition triumph in Operation Desert Storm. The outcome of thoroughgoing (and expensive) military reform during the Ronald Reagan presidency, Macgregor argues, was nearly thrown away before it happened (by timid leadership in the field) and then squandered altogether (by equally timid leadership in Washington). The result was the need for an encore, a repeat performance, as it were, in 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Macgregor knows something about this battle: he was an officer of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and played a key role in the fighting, an action recounted in depth in his 2009 book Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.

While Margin of Victory might have stopped there, it is the concluding chapter that truly sets this book apart from so many others on the scene. Here Macgregor transitions from a mere campaign history to a fervent policy recommendation for military reform. I can say with confidence that there are very few authors in the world who write as effectively or knowledgeably on this topic as he does. In previous books such as Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997) and Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003), he warned that an industrial-age military relying upon size and brute force needs to slim down and become leaner, more agile, and more scalable.

Increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike capabilities are here to stay, he has been arguing, and have changed warfare dramatically and fundamentally. Yet our armed forces and defense establishment still organize themselves very much like the year is 1945 rather than 2016. Read what he has to say here and see if you agree.

In the end, of course, Carl von Clausewitz was right. “In war,” the Prussian sage once wrote, “everything is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” All the more reason, then, for Americans to read this thought-provoking book. The “margin of victory” is always slim, and the walk from the victory lane to the losers’ club is all too short.

© All Rights Reserved.


Robert M. Citino

About Robert M. Citino

Robert M. Citino is the one of the country’s most distinguished military historians, an authority on modern German military history, especially on World War II and the German influence upon modern operational doctrine. His works have reached both the scholarly and the popular audience. His nine books have won many awards. He writes the “Front and Center” column for World War II magazine. He has taught at West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the Command and General Staff School. He is now a Professor of History at the University of North Texas.

Two of his books are of interest to a general audience: Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (2004) and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (2005).

Douglas Macgregor

About Douglas Macgregor

Douglas Macgregor retired as a Colonel in 2004 after a distinguished career with notable successes as a squadron operations officer in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War and as a planner and leader of other operations. He was a strong advocate for reform of the US Army, which froze his career. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven the need for fundamental change. See his Wikipedia entry for details.

He is vice president of Burke-Macgregor, a consulting firm based in Reston, Virginia; he occasionally appears as a guest commentator on television and radio. He has a Ph.D. in international relation from the University of Virginia.

Posts about his work…

  1. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars.
  2. Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget.
  3. What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?
  4. Doug Macgregor explains how our military reached its current state, so only desperate reform can save us.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about history and military history here., and especially these…

Two of Doug’s books well-worth reading

Available at Amazon.
Breaking The Phalanx
Available at Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War”

  1. I appreciate Citino’s review, and I respect MacGregor’s thoughts; however, this is one place where I take issue with military history as too narrow a field. For modern history, we have to look at battles outside of the western perspective and look at small wars.

    73 Easting raised a generation of delusional officers (myself included) that thought war was easy and bombs were smart. Let’s look at some other battles with low cost / high strategic impact.

    (1) Son Tay Raid. Alpha-testing at end of Vietnam War that verified our current methods of night raids. Beta-tested in Iran with Operation Eagle Claw in Iran.

    Tied (2) Killing of US Ambassador in Afghanistan in 1979 during Soviet-Afghan war / Taliban Defeating Russians

    (3) 9/11

    (4) Bombing of UN headquarters in Iraq. UN mission ended.

    Tied (5) 2008 Mumbai Hotel Raid / 2015 Paris Attacks.
    Editor’s note: Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

    1. Mike,

      You might find of interest this excerpt from the book:

      Chapter 5 Lost Victory: Desert Storm and the Battle of 73 Easting, 1991

      “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 BCE, or even a replay of Kitchener’s victory over Sudanese tribesmen at Omdurman in 1899. There was no incentive to admit that Desert Storm could have been over in a week had anyone in the senior ranks of the Air Force and the Army wanted to speedily end it with the use of tightly integrated air and ground forces instead of fighting the weak Iraqi opponent on terms that favored the parochial interests of the services. {Page 163}

      “… In the euphoria that spread through the media and the American public, none of these points influenced the popular narrative. The myth of the bloodless victory was born, and with it, the seductive promise of silver bullet technology that encourages arrogance and fosters the illusion of victory with zero casualties was made. {Page 165}

    2. Again, they’re looking the wrong way. It’s not better AGI (Air-Ground Integration).

      Napoleon learned this after his initial Thunder Run into Egypt.

  2. For what it is worth, I agree with Mike, except I would have #5 be a tie between the battle for Fallujah and the battle for Tikrit earlier this year.

    The first featured massive US firepower attacking hundreds of AQI fighters and the second featured thousands of Iraqi Shiites with Iranian advisors and equipment attacking a couple of hundred ISIS fighters. In both cases the cost of attack was so hideously greater than the cost of to defend that the attackers reconsidered their strategy of punitive and direct assaults.

    The old argument that the attack would have been cheaper if there hadn’t been all those pesky journalists cannot be made in either case. The journalists were firmly on the US side in Fallujah and the Iranians kept the journalists away from Tikrit. In both cases the town was physically destroyed in order to save it from the insurgents.

    It appears that insurgents, heavily aided by the local population and given enough time and material, can make attacks by superpowers, major regional powers, and determined but corrupt national governments too expensive to contemplate.

    This is hardly a new concept but I submit that the only effective counter to insurgents capturing ground is good and fair government, which strips the insurgents of their best weapon, the willing cooperation of the local citizens. The Anbar Awakening, when the Americans finally tried soft power rather than firepower seems to at least partly vindicate this line of reasoning.

    1. Pluto,

      “I would have #5 be a tie between the battle for Fallujah and the battle for Tikrit earlier this year”

      The cost of Fallujah to the US was large, as modern COIN battles go; the strategic impact was trivial imo. I don’t know what the cost of Tikrit was to either side, but suspect it will be quickly forgotten.

      Battles in 4GW tend to be of little significance, except to the headlines of the day. Which is why Mike’s list is almost entirely terrorist attacks. Those are the 4GW equivalent of 1GW – 3GW battles.

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