BOOK REVIEW: How they beat the military odds

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OUTNUMBERED: INCREDIBLE STORIES OF HISTORY’S MOST SURPRISING BATTLEFIELD UPSETS
By Cormac O’Brien
Fair Winds Press, $19.99, 304 pages

 

Fighting outnumbered and winning has been part of American military doctrine since the Cold War when we realized that we could never match the numbers that the Soviet military could put in the field. Our military philosophy became one of stressing quality over quantity. In training programs such as the Navy’s “Top Gun” combat air maneuvering course and the Army’s National Training Center, we emphasized superb individual and unit combat skills. In our professional military schools, our officers learned how the great masters beat numerically superior foes.

In “Outnumbered,” Cormac O’Brien makes an effort at a reexamination of how some of the military greats overcame all odds to win. The result is a beautifully illustrated and entertainingly written coffee table book. It will not become a text in American military schools. That is too bad; it could have been a much better book. It is an entertaining read and holds some superb insights. It is popular history at its best; perhaps some of the chapters will find their way to the History or the Military television channels.

Caesar and Alexander the Great make appearances with their victories at Issus and Alesia, respectively. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson get due homage with the author describing their classic coup at Chancellorsville. Mr. O’Brien does a particularly good job of explaining how Frederick the Great bested most of the rest of Europe in a major upset at Leuthen.

Mr. O’Brien does do a service by highlighting one of history’s best commanders in Belisarius and his great victory over the Vandals at Tricamarum. Because he fought for the often despised Byzantine Empire, Belisarius has received scant attention from Western military historians. He was a great practitioner of what the Marine Corps calls “operational maneuver from the sea.”

Mr. O’Brien is a talented storyteller with several popular books to his credit and is a frequent and entertaining guest on National Public Radio; with a little more effort, he could have turned this into a much more useful book. There is always a need for well-written text materials for military history in entry level military professional education courses at the service academies, and in ROTC.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper speaks of reading history as the best way to teach tactics. According to Lt. Gen. Van Riper, if a prospective commander reads enough accounts of battles in advance, when a real world tactical situation arises that he has not already seen in person, he will be able to recognize a similar pattern and use it as a template to build a solution to the tactical problem at hand.

Mr. O’Brien does a great job of describing the various battles in “Outnumbered,” but a lack of maps makes the kind of recognition that Lt. Gen. Van Riper describes hard to envision from the descriptions. The book’s few maps are usually extracted from contemporary sources and are hard to use for educational purposes.

Mr. O’Brien could have also tried analysis to give us some sort of context about common threads in the ability to fight outnumbered and win. If there is a common theme, it is not identified. My reading would indicate that all of the commanders in the book were decisive and audacious. However, so were Charles the Bold, who lost nearly every battle he ever fought, and George Armstrong Custer, who was certainly outnumbered at Little Big Horn; boldness and daring alone did him little good.

Almost all of the winning commanders in the book were students of military history, but that alone does not explain success. George McClellan was a notable student of history but was relieved of command for lack of audacity in the American Civil War’s Peninsula and Antietam campaigns.

Perhaps the most interesting, but unanalyzed common thread of the battles that the author has selected is their lack of strategic decisiveness. The notable exceptions are Salamis, which decided that Europe’s culture would be based on Greek rather than oriental traditions, and Leuthen, which made Prussia a great power; the rest achieved nothing permanent. The gains that Henry V made at Agincourt and Charles XII achieved at Narva died with them. Chancellorsville probably caused Lee to become overconfident and led to the Confederate disaster at Gettysburg.

My disappointment stems from the fact that in the introduction, the author seems to promise more in the way of analysis than he delivers. If he set out to spin good yarns, he succeeds admirably. If so, he should have said so up front.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who teaches at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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