Thursday, October 12, 2006

What If? 2

What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been

Robert Cowley, editor

Date: 01 October, 2002   —   $10.47   —   Book

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Nonfiction, History

This is more like it. As with the previous compilation, historians take a moment in history and explore its importance by use of "counterfactuals" - that is, they speculate on how history could have been different. Unlike the previous compilations, however, these moments are not all military, and, more to the point, the historians actually explore the resulting scenarios quite thoroughly.

As an example, there is one article on Pontius Pilate that uses the conventions of the novel to set up a storylike explanation of what would have happened had Pilate refused to crucify Jesus. We get a peek into Pilate's thought processes as he reasons through his unwillingness to put the man to death; he finally settles on the fact that he'd rather have a riot than deal with his angry wife! Another historian writes as though he were a historian looking back on the second World War - here a Franco-Prussian conflict - in the wake of the election of Lord Halifax, not Winston Churchill, to the Prime Ministership during the war. One historian even imagines the consequences of Napoleon III's being cured of a bladder stone and not declaring war on Bismarck.

Even the stories that don't engage in counterfactuals are interesting. "The Boys Who Saved Australia" is a story of the Kokoda Trail, a horrible jungle trail that ill-equipped, under-trained, and understaffed Australian militia were sent to defend - a critical trail that was the back route to capturing New Guinea, and eventually to blocking off Australia. These "boys" were dressed in smooth-soled boots and khaki-colored uniforms, and were sent against well-trained, jungled dressed Japanese commandos. The Australians didn't win; they stalled as they battled altitude sickness, jungle rot, rust, rotting clothes, broken bones, and breaking weapons. They were vilified by MacArthur and his aides, who had no idea how horrible the so-called "trail" really was. They fell back continually, and yet they held the Japanese off long enough for the element of surprise to be entirely gone and the Japanese themselves to abandon their backdoor plan. One doesn't have to delve too deep into the counterfactual to understand how different history would be without these men (now rightfully lauded in Australia.)

This is more interesting a compilation than the first book, though it does dwell overmuch on the twentieth century and World War II. Still, as people are less likely to understand the consequences of actions beyond the last century (television as the most important invention of the last 1000 years? Gaaaaahhhhh) it's probably just as well.

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