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Posted on Jun 15, 2010 in Books and Movies

Outnumbered – Book Review

By Neal West

Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets. Cormac O’Brien. Fair Winds Press, 2010. Trade Paperback. 263 pages. $19.99 USD.

O’Brien also has the ability to turn a phrase that really livens up his prose and causes Outnumbered to stand apart

Outnumbered is the latest anthology from Cormac O’Brien, author of a popular series of books on the "Secret Lives" of famous Americans. Presidents, first ladies, and Civil War personalities have, so far, been the subject of O’Brien’s witty and laidback style of historical study. In Outnumbered, O’Brien turns toward the subject of military history and asks the question: "How does an army, facing outrageous odds, manage to beat those odds and emerge the winner?"


To answer the question, Outnumbered examines 14 battles, from Salamis in 480 BCE to Singapore in 1942, and guides the reader painlessly through a thorough battle analysis toward a set of general conclusions on why the battle turned as it did. The analysis and conclusions are not presented as a far-reaching search for a set of "principles of war," but simply "an enthralling survey that captures the excitement and terrors of battle, while highlighting the unpredictable nature of warfare and the courage and ingenuity of inspired, and inspiring, military leaders."

While I can’t find any information about O’Brien’s professional or educational background, his battle analyses are well informed and are presented in an extremely clear and enjoyable manner. He has an uncanny ability to distill a complex mash of geopolitical and military factors into a brew that goes down smooth and easy. For example, his prologue to the Battle of Salamis, the period between 498 and 480 BCE that led to war between the Greek city-states and Persia, spans only five pages-less if you take the illustrations into account. Nevertheless, each chapter lays out everything you need to know in order to gain a good introductory-level understanding of each battle.

Like most popular non-fiction, O’Brien keeps the mood light but still manages to leave nothing really important out of the narrative. Each battle is laid out in a similar manner: the strategic situation, the tactical setting, other factors in play (weather, weapons, training, etc.), and ends with a couple "lessons learned" paragraphs.

O’Brien also has the ability to turn a phrase that really livens up his prose and causes Outnumbered to stand apart from the forest of many other military history books. In the chapter on the Battle of Issus (333 BCE), O’Brien writes that Alexander the Great’s innovative tinkering with his father’s phalanx formations turned them into "a mobile mill for the grinding of lives." In another example, O’Brien writes that Peter the Great wanted to compete with other European states by modernizing the Russian army. Although Russian numbers compensated somewhat for subpar training and leadership, "Peter wasn’t satisfied with shoveling his peasantry at the enemy like sand on a fire." That’s good stuff.

Fair Winds Press has done a wonderful job presenting this book. Full and half-page paintings, engravings, photographs and maps are lavishly tossed onto almost every card-stock page. Formatting is perfect, printing is clear and no typos have been noted. Purists may fault Outnumbered for a lack of supporting documentation; there is a bibliography, but no sources accredited. Despite this, if there are any minor errors they’re irrelevant.

With Outnumbered, Cormac O’Brien has written a lively and enjoyable book, spanning centuries of military history, about superior leadership overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds-and he’s written it with flair that I envy.

About the Author

Neal West is a retired USAF E-7 and continues to serve as a USAF civilian. He has a BA in American Military History and will shortly begin a MA program in MH with a concentration on the Civil War. He has written about maritime history for, is a National Park volunteer and can be found during the summer months as a cannoneer on Manassas National Battlefield’s 10 lbr. Parrott gun.

1 Comment

  1. I am trying to find the email address of Cormac O’Brien.