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Book asks what might have been

'What If?' edited by Robert Cowley

February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 10:49 a.m. EST (1549 GMT)

Time to learn a new word. "Counterfactual" is a term historians use to describe a series of events that didn't happen. In fiction, a counterfactual is known as "alternate history." Apparently, historians don't want their scholarly speculations confused with the ruminations of the laity. So they invented their own word. So be it.

Counterfactuals gained currency in the 10th anniversary edition of "MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History." The founding editor of that publication, Robert Cowley, asked several imminent historians to consider what might have been had critical moments in the history of warfare taken a slightly different turn. The responses generated a lively discussion in historical circles, and led Cowley to expand the exercise. The result is "What If?," a collection of nearly three dozen examples of how our past might have turned out differently.

The essays all deal with military matters. While this might seem a rather narrow way to view history, Cowley argues that it is a particularly fertile field for counterfactuals. "Nothing is more suited to what if speculation than military history," he writes, "where chance and accident, human failings or strengths, can make all the difference." The historians who contributed to "What If?" seem to bear him out.

Their topics range from the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 701 BC to a little-known close call of the Cold War in 1983 AD. Along the way we meet generals and Emperors, master strategists and clumsy bureaucrats, foot soldiers and conquistadors. Each is placed in a pivotal role at a critical time in history. There's Themistocles, who rallied the contentious Greek city-states against the Persians, and Sabotai, the Mongol warlord who turned back at the moment of European conquest to attend a funeral. Had either chosen a different course, the historians argue, the history of Western civilization might never have been written.

The authors who contribute their speculations to "What If?" include some of our best-known historians, including Stephen E. Ambrose and David McCullough. Some non-historians also were allowed to play. Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of "Harper's Magazine," considers the possibilities had a confrontation in 9 AD between the Roman legions and the Germanic tribes at the Teutoburg Forest turned out differently. He sees a "Roman empire preserved from ruin, Christ dying intestate on an unremembered cross, the nonappearance of the English language, neither the need nor the occasion for a Protestant Reformation, Frederick the Great a circus dwarf, and Kaiser Wilhelm seized by an infatuation with stamps or water beetles instead of a passion for cavalry boots."

Most of the essays pose the central question of "What If?," then explore the possible answers. A few attempt to tell the history that never happened. Many are rife with ironies -- the Duke of Wellington's decision, for example, not to take command of British forces in the War of 1812, thus putting him in a position to face Napoleon at Waterloo.

Cowley offers another irony from 100 years later. On October 31, 1914, the German army was driving toward Dunkirk. They broke through the line of British defenders and seemed poised to march straight to the English Channel. Instead, they paused to wait for orders. A force of 1,200 Bavarian reserves took over a chateau outside Ypres. A British brigadier quickly rounded up about 370 men and marched on the chateau. The Brits scattered the Bavarians and stopped the advance. Cowley suggests the brigadier's swift attack not only changed the course of World War I, it had far deeper implications. He believes it's likely that one of the Bavarians routed that day was a private named Adolf Hitler. What, he asks, "if Hitler had been cut down in flight, or captured? History -- the real version -- would have been deprived of one of its true monsters. In this case, we hardly need elaborate on the calamities that a single bullet might have denied."

The essays collected in "What If?" are sober extrapolations from historical fact. Even so, they're a lot of fun. They remind us of the slender threads on which our past hangs. One small break -- at Poitiers or on Long Island, at Gettysburg or in Berlin -- might have unraveled the entire tapestry of modern history.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.


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