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Books: Roads Not Taken

3 minute read
Jesse Birnbaum

Military history is a gallimaufry of choices and chance, of opportunities taken, of roads forsaken.

It is this truism that drives What If? (Putnam; 305 pages; $27.95), a collection of essays by 34 military historians, journalists and novelists, all indulging in “counterfactual” conjecture.

In 334 B.C., for example, the 22-year-old Macedonian King Alexander charged with his cavalry into the ranks of Persian forces at the Granicus River in what is now Turkey. A Persian soldier clubbed Alexander with an ax, but before he could deal a second and fatal blow, the King’s bodyguard killed him.

What if Alexander had died at Granicus? Goodbye to all the conquests of Alexander the Great, says Princeton historian Josiah Ober. The Persian Empire would have overtaken the known world. The great promise of Hellenism would have lost its way; the growing Roman Empire would have atrophied; Judea would have remained a backwater, Jesus merely “a local religious figure,” and Christianity and Judaism insignificant provincial oddities. There would have been no need for a Martin Luther, no Reformation, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Western culture.

In 1944 General Dwight Eisenhower was prepared to invade Normandy on June 5, but when his weather officer predicted storms over the English Channel, Ike postponed D-day for 24 hours.

What if the Channel weather had not abated on June 6? World War II chronicler and Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose argues that without air cover and paratrooper support, the first waves of Allied troops would have been incapable of fighting. Eisenhower could not have withdrawn them. Hitler could have held his positions, and Operation Overlord, the master plan for reconquering Europe, would have disintegrated. Ike would have lost his job, the Churchill government could have fallen, and President Franklin Roosevelt might have failed in his bid for a fourth term.

Even so, Hitler could not have triumphed, says Ambrose. With Britain and the U.S. in disarray, the Soviets might have overrun Germany, Italy and France. The European continent would have fallen to the communists, and the Red Army would have been poised at the English Channel. By this time, the Allies’ only recourse would have been the atom bomb.

And so on, with ever more counterfactual supposes, would-haves, might-haves, could-haves, possiblys, perhapses, probablys and maybes, in all their dizzying permutations–from Jerusalem in 701 B.C. to China in 1946. What If? editor Robert Cowley, who also edits MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, says this exercise is no mere parlor game but makes history “come alive.” Others might call it pointless, if mildly interesting. The bloody “factuals” of history are vivid enough without foraging into further imaginings.

–By Jesse Birnbaum

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