Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What If?

What If?: The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been

Robert Cowley, editor

Date: 12 September, 2000   —   $10.47   —   Book

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Nonfiction, History

The scenario of What If? is well known to fans of science fiction as "alternate history." What if Hitler had won WWII, or if a time traveler were to accidentally delay someone important on a trip? In history, these sorts of imaginings are known as "counterfactuals," and this collection examines such possibilities from as long as three thousand years ago.

Of course, in order to examine how these scenarios would be changed, the historian has to first explain the significance of his choice. The first selection, which deals with the failed siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (a pestilence decimated the troops, and the military leadership decided that Jerusalem was an unimportant target in the grand scheme of things), seems at first of little consequence, especially as the city fell little more than two decades later. But those two decades and change enabled some enduring changes to be made to the Jewish faith, changes that enabled it to survive the loss of city in a way that the faith of the tribes of Israel - the "Ten Lost Tribes" - had not. Various historians examine the effects of small changes in history, such as Alexander dying in battle long before he became "the Great" (if a warrior had been thirty seconds late, Alexander would be dead) or the critical plans of Robert E. Lee kept secure instead of being carelessly lost where Union soldiers would find them.

My only gripe with this compilation is that the historians spend very little time on the counterfactuals themselves; they mostly speculate on why a moment in history is a turning point. While this is wonderful history, I was hoping for a little bit of flights of fancy.

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