Rewriting History

What If?by Robert Cowley (ed.)Putnam. 395p $27.95

In 1852 Sir Edward Creasy’s famous classic, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, indicated how certain major military engagements determined the social, cultural, religious and political nature of subsequent history. In What If? Robert Cowley, founding editor of the award-winning MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, has gathered 20 essays by well-known historians to present a "counterfactual history." As Creasy noted how the battle determined future history, these authors speculate on what would have happened if at pivotal points the decision had gone the other way.

Some events the authors consider are well known. If Alexander had died prematurely, before creating his empire, Hellenistic culture would never have existed. If the Persians had conquered the Greeks, Eastern despotism would have become the norm in the West, and there would have been no glory that was Greece—no private property, free enterprise, unfettered scientific inquiry, rationalism or empiricism. If the Arab raiding party had carried the day at Tours/Poitiers in 733, Moslem armies, their appetite whetted by this victory, would have gone on to establish Islam in Western Europe. If the Spanish Armada had not been hit by the "Protestant wind," England would have been conquered, and the Habsburgs would have been supreme in Europe. A victorious Spain would have intervened decisively in eliminating Protestantism from Europe and would have expanded without a serious rival in the New World so that "all Americans would now speak Spanish, and the whole world might celebrate August 8 as a national holiday."


Thomas Fleming, Ida Gruber and David McCullough suggest more than a dozen "what ifs," each of which would have ended the American efforts for independence and resulted in Americans becoming "tame, humble colonials in the triumphant British Empire." Again, if the South had won at Gettysburg, the Union capital would have fallen, European nations would have recognized the Confederacy and the demoralized North might well have let its erring sister depart. If at Midway the Japanese trap had snapped shut, Hawaii would have lain open to easy isolation and invasion.

There are also less well-known events considered in these essays. If the plague that saved Jerusalem in 701 B.C. had not happened, the Jews advocating monotheism would not have had their proof that their God was supreme. If Annie Oakley had missed Kaiser Wilhelm’s cigar, she would have eliminated one of Europe’s most ambitious and volatile rulers, who became a key player in the outbreak of World War I. If the Kremlin in 1983 had acted on their belief that Western military maneuvers were preliminary to a preemptive nuclear strike, millions would have been incinerated.

What is common to all these essays is the closeness of the call: how some minor change would have produced a radically different outcome. One day’s weather was a decisive factor for the Greeks at Salamis, for the English with the Spanish Armada and for Washington in the fog that favored escape from the British trap in New York. A 36-hour break in storms in the English Channel averted a catastrophe on D-Day. The book also relates how one person’s death turned history, how lost maps were decisive for Lee and the Germans in World War I and how the arrogance of Napoleon and Hitler could blind them to the easy, logical path to victory.

The cliché most frequently applied to collections of essays is "uneven." Although most of these pieces are thought-provoking and combine historical mastery with intriguing surmises, they also provide an insight into why some historians stand out from the group. John Keegan, today’s most prominent military historian, explained it very simply when asked why military history is now undergoing a renaissance. "It’s the excitement, that’s all.... Good writers pass on that excitement to their readers." The essays by John Keegan, Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough and James McPherson give vivid confirmation to Keegan’s view.

Another example of the reversal of standard histories’ chronicling of successes and victories is provided by Michael Coffey’s Days of Infamy: Military Blunders of the 20th Century. Coffey, journalist and currently editor of Publishers Weekly, has produced a companion volume to the History Channel’s 26-part documentary. This book, which covers the period from World War I to present-day conflicts in the Middle East, provides interesting tales of blunders, mistakes and miscalculations so egregious that one wonders how either side in these conflicts ever won. As in What If?, most of Coffey’s examples are well known. The follies following Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, the bloody stupidity at Gallipoli, the European death wish in the treaty of Versailles, the short-ranged vision of Stalin’s purging of his army leaders, the blunders of Goering’s Luftwaffe, Hitler’s senseless declaration of war on the United States to which he was not legally or politically obligated, the Japanese bungling at Midway, the Führer’s suicidal stubbornness at Stalingrad, the miscalculations of the Bay of Pigs invasion—all are clearly and simply presented. Among the less well-known incidents related are the fatal arrogance of the commander of the Graf Spee, the German pilot’s tragic accidental bombing of London that broke the combatants’ agreement not to attack civilian targets, the refueling blunder that caused the crash of the H-bomb laden B-52 over Spain and the failed Gorbachev coup.

As a companion piece to the History Channel documentaries, the book of necessity follows the story lines and draft scripts of the various television episodes. Coffey’s personal research centered on a few major texts that provided him with the facts, analysis and insight into the episodes. Despite such limitations, Days of Infamy provides well written, "reader friendly" vignettes of fascinating mistakes, miscalculations and blunders—supplied against the background of each event. A section of photographs aids the readers’ visualization of these historical events. Many like myself might wonder, however, why there are so few examples of American ineptitude presented. Both Coffey and the History Channel seem to gloss over them, taking only passing notice of Pearl Harbor miscalculations, the Korean War’s ill-advised advance to the Chinese border and the multiple mistakes in Vietnam. Also, the author leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness because he provides no conclusion, no summation. Even if he had only suggested similarities and dissimilarities in his many examples, the reader might better have gleaned what is to be learned from others’ mistakes and blunders.

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