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Monday, February 24, 2014

“What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been”, edited by Robert Cowley

415 pages, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0399145766

Did you know the Kaiser volunteered to be shot at by Annie Oakley? What if she had shot him instead of what she did hit? Or how about a New York Taxi-Driver than came within inches of fundamentally altering the 20th Century? Or how one blow of a battle-axe caused disorientation of he who was hit, but the second blow, having been prevented by a bodyguard changed history. Big events do alter History, and this book demonstrates how totally unforeseen events, individual action, or the smallest detail or mistake can have the same impact as an event thought to be a major turning point.

History, like everything else, has fads that come and go, but one fad that never fades away is counterfactual history, the endless game of “what if this happened” or “what if that never happened” that occupies students and teachers of history the world over. This is just the sort of exercise presented in What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. Interesting, informative, and thought provoking, but is it useful? I believe it is, but not from the point of view of the historian, because history, no matter how you want to put it, is about things that happened not about things that didn't happen.

What if? is useful from the point of view of the decision maker, and to be more specific, from the point of view of the decision making process. Some essays contained in the book base their assumptions on circumstance, or a chance, like the famous “lost orders” that influence the outcome of the US Civil War. Other essays – the ones that are really useful – explore the decisions behind the historical events. Only these essays serve a wider purpose, not only of entertainment, but of greater insight into things that truly could have been different. There are events described that are familiar, but there are many that unless a good deal of prior knowledge is brought by the reader, the full benefit of a given essay is missed. On balance this is a great read.

One note of caution: there are authors who make value judgments about a given Culture/People that may clash with a belief a reader may hold dear, but these are the exception and not the rule. It did seem at times inappropriate to make value judgments about History even if an alternate one is proposed: as it was still being treated as an History if not the History, should not the same objectivity be maintained? An alternative outcome of events does not require a value judgment or an editorial to be admitted or even needed. I am not advocating a view, rather stating that no personal views by the Author are needed. Tell us your theory, not who or what you may not like about who is involved.

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