Thursday, August 23, 2007

What If? -- Considering Alternative Outcomes to Some of History's Most Significant Military Events

They call it “counterfactual history” nowadays, but it is nothing more than the age-old game of asking “What If” enjoyed by historians and a whole lot of other ponderers. However, the 1999 publication from G.P. Putnam’s Sons entitled What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been have most definitely set the standards for this tantalizing game for a long time to come. The primary reason for this is the team of scholars assembled for the project – fair-minded, talented and well-informed writers like John Keegan, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, Victor Davis Hanson, Thomas Fleming, James M. McPherson, Robert Cowley and more.

But also making What If? a splendidly tantalizing read are the specific questions explored, several of which are at the top of the list whenever historians (of any stripe) play the possibilities. Thus, Hanson wonders how the world would have been different had the Persians won at Salamis in 480 B.C. (illustration at left); Fleming describes thirteen very plausible ways the British could have thwarted the American colonies’ desperate revolution; McPherson argues (convincingly) that had Robert E. Lee’s infamous “Lost Order” not been lost before Gettysburg that Lee would have forced the North to sue for a peaceful settlement of the Civil War; and Ambrose looks at how a slight weather change would have made the D-Day landing at Normandy a disaster…followed by his fascinating “counterfactual construction” of how the Allies still would have defeated the Nazis.

Of course, in any compilation of this size and variety of writers (19 primary essays and 14 mini-essays), the reader will not find uniform delight, or even approval. For instance, I found the book’s opening essay by the University of Chicago’s William McNeill exploring the “what if” questions of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem flat and, to be honest, actually offensive. But this low point was soon over and I thoroughly enjoyed almost all of the rest. And, if you enjoy history – indeed, even if you enjoy such literary genres as mystery, science fiction, politics or other "speculative adventures," I think you will enjoy What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been as well.