WHAT IF?

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

Edited by Robert Cowley

Putnam. 395 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

A s the 20th century wanes, there is a growing consensus that it was, on the whole, a mistake -- a horror as centuries go. The result is a longing to revise the story according to more humane tastes; and surely Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is the great belwether of that trend. Ferguson's much-discussed reconsideration of World War I argues that it would have been better if Britain had stood aloof in 1914, ignoring the German violation of Belgian neutrality and acceding to German hegemony on the continent of Europe -- a lesser evil, certainly, than the train of evils that followed the ratcheting of a terrorist incident in the Balkans in June 1914 from the anticipated 19th-century-style clash of weeks' duration to the first "world" war lasting years.

The ensuing horrors hardly need enumeration: ancient monarchies destroyed, and with them decades of constitutional evolution; Leninist-Stalinist evil triumphant in Russia; Hitlerism in Germany; and, finally, the bloody sequel of 1939-45, the most destructive war in history, itself entailing two generations of cold war that turned the victors of 1945 into garrison states and blighted the economies and civil societies of central and eastern Europe.

The present volume, perhaps another symptom of the longing to rewind the reel and start over, consists of 23 essays by various hands, exploring military might-have-beens from the failed siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib's Assyrians in 701 B.C. to Chiang Kai-shek's fateful decision to challenge Mao's communists in Manchuria in 1946. The editor, Robert Cowley, has enlisted many big names in military history; and as usual in anthology writing the cream rises to the top.

It is the deft mastery of such craftsmen as John Keegan, David McCullough, Alistair Horne, Stephen Sears, James McPherson and Stephen Ambrose that justifies these otherwise rather idle speculations. Their tightly argued pieces, adhering to the basic facts, demonstrate the narrow limits of plausibility within which counterfactual history operates. By way of contrast, Harry Turtledove's entertaining "what if?" novel, The Guns of the South, has 20th-century South Africans, transported by a Wellsian time machine, approach Robert E. Lee on the eve of the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 and offer the Confederacy a decisive weapon -- the AK-47; whereupon, needless to say, the Rebs make short work of Grant and dictate gentlemanly terms to Mr. Lincoln.

In these essays, however, Turtledovian fantasy (and wishful thinking?) is strenuously avoided. The authors follow the known script of events; and the deviations are the more interesting for being plausible. Warfare is a ripe field for such speculations, since Waterloo was hardly the only encounter that was "the nearest run thing you ever saw," in the famous words of the Iron Duke. What if, David McCullough asks, a convenient fog on the night of Aug. 29, 1776, had not veiled the retreat of George Washington's green army across the East River from a British trap on Brooklyn Heights that might otherwise have aborted the infant revolution? What if, asks James McPherson, Lee's lost order 191 had not alerted the cautious George McClellan to Lee's trans-Potomac strategy in September 1862, and the Confederates had contrived to bring the Union army to a defensive battle from the very Gettysburg high ground that was to be their own undoing less than a year later? What if, asks Stephen Sears, the Democrats had given McClellan a strong platform to run on in 1864 and he had defeated Lincoln (as Lincoln, among others, expected)? What if, asks the distinguished English historian Alistair Horne, the said Duke of Wellington had been off leading the British armies in North America, as he was asked to do, when Napoleon bolted from Elba and initiated the hundred days?

The best of these essays explore familiar contigencies, where a single caprice of chance, where a single turn of fate (for instance, the Macedonian conqueror Alexander's narrow escape from battlefield death at 22, before he had become "the Great") might have made a world of difference. But usually it is a misconception to claim, as one writer does, that "the heaviest doors pivot on small hinges." True of doors, perhaps, and even occasionally of warfare, but rarely true of historical causation in general. Actual events are usually "overdetermined," multi-causal, as Freud said of neurosis. The right image is not a door on hinges but a tangled braid of interacting strands.

The mood of disillusionment with our century may stimulate more and more counterfactual what-iffing, as Niall Ferguson's book suggests. But while "what if?" history can be entertaining, even occasionally enlightening, it is a risky diversion from the task of assessing past folly. Better, perhaps, to study the real past and try, by its lights, to make the new century more representative than its predecessor of what the historian Barbara Tuchman once called "mankind's better moments."

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University and the author of "The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past."