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What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (1999)

by Robert Cowley (Editor)

Other authors: Stephen E. Ambrose (Contributor), Caleb Carr (Contributor), James Chace (Contributor), Theodore F. Cook, Jr. (Contributor), Thomas J. Fleming (Contributor)27 more, David Fromkin (Contributor), Ira D. Gruber (Contributor), Victor Davis Hanson (Contributor), Ross Hassig (Contributor), Cecelia Holland (Contributor), Alistair Horne (Contributor), Alistair Horne (Contributor), John Keegan (Contributor), Lewis H. Lapham (Contributor), David Clay Large (Contributor), David McCullough (Contributor), William H. McNeill (Contributor), James M. McPherson (Contributor), Ted Morgan (Contributor), Williamson Murray (Contributor), Robert L. O'Connell (Contributor), Josiah Ober (Contributor), Geoffrey Parker (Contributor), Peter Pierson (Contributor), Barbara N. Porter (Contributor), Theodore K. Rabb (Contributor), Elihu Rose (Contributor), Stephen W. Sears (Contributor), Dennis E. Showalter (Contributor), Barry S. Strauss (Contributor), Arthur Waldron (Contributor), Tom Wicker (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: What if (1)

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1,720259,485 (3.52)11
With its in-depth reflections on the monumental events of the past, this amazing book of essays ponders what might have been if things had gone differently in history. Featuring Stephen J. Ambrose, John Keegan, and many others.

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English (22)  Dutch (2)  All languages (24)
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Some ”What If”s are 5/5s, some 4/5s for being too on the light side or, on the contrary, close to typical academic ramble, and some are fascinating (the best is the WW1 scenario written by Cowley himself, the editor of the book). The total is somewhere between 4 and 5, but closer to 4 for me (I am European) because it is too American-centered: way too much about the Independence War and Civil War, which gets really boring. ( )
  milosdumbraci | May 5, 2023 |
The path untrodden, counterfactual reality, or simply alternate history. Twenty of the late 20th Century’s eminent historians look might have been in the essay anthology What If? edited by contributor Robert Cowley.

The twenty essays range from 701 B.C. Assyrian siege of Jerusalem to Berlin and China early in the Cold War in the middle of the 20th Century, some deal with one event but some deal with several scenarios (i.e., the American Revolution, American Civil War, the beginning of World War I, and the early Cold War in/around Berlin). In addition to the essays were 14 sidebars from other contributors. Of the single scenario essays among the best was Ross Hassig’s “The Immolation of Hernan Cortes” and James M. McPherson’s “If the Lost Order Hadn’t Been Lost” while the two worst were Victor Davis Hanson’s “No Glory That Was Greece” and close second was Lewis H. Lapham “Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9”.

What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been is an good collection of counterfactual historical events and what the alternate history would have been for the world. ( )
  mattries37315 | Dec 29, 2021 |
the old old stories are not that interesting because I know nothing about them.
it is interesting how luck is involved so much. ( )
  mahallett | Sep 4, 2020 |
Good short bursts of reading that give perspective ( )
  Brightman | May 8, 2019 |
A compelling collection of articles from some of our finest military historians, speculating on how the course of history might have changed had certain events turned out differently. Far from indulging in "idle parlour games" – which, as the introduction notes, was the phrase used by E. H. Carr to dismiss counterfactual history – What If? is intellectually rigorous and often chillingly plausible. Outcomes of some of the various speculations include: a world in which the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam never emerged; a Europe ravaged by the Mongols, killing off all potential of an Enlightenment; a colonial USA still beholden to the British Empire; a separate Confederate States of America after Robert E. Lee's victory in the American Civil War; a Japanese invasion of Hawaii in World War Two after a crushing American defeat at Midway; and the atomic destruction of Berlin after a failed D-Day invasion.

As editor Robert Cowley suggests in his introduction, these are about more than just historians and anoraks indulging in their hobbies; What If? throws into sharp relief just how much of the historical course of events – which often seems so inevitable in retrospect – actually rests on a knife edge. Above all, we are reminded of the importance of the element of chance and luck: if Ogadai Khan had not died and the Mongol invasion of Europe had continued under his leadership; if the British officer who had George Washington in his gunsights had pulled the trigger; if the American dive-bombers at Midway had stumbled across the Japanese carriers just a few minutes too late. It is particularly remarkable to note just how close and how often the American War of Independence came to disaster (those jammy Yanks). To further underline this, a persistent theme in the articles comprising What If? is the fickleness of the weather: preventing Cornwallis from retreating at Yorktown; saving Washington at Brooklyn Heights; allowing a 36-hour window of storm-free weather for the D-Day landings to take place. As Cowley notes in one introduction: "Often, in military history, the dominoes fall where the wind blows them." (pg. 341).

I did have one of two minor qualms about the book – with a keen emphasis on 'minor'. There were a few more spelling mistakes than I would have expected; not a great deal but enough for me to remark on it. I found Cowley's habitual use of the word 'us' – meaning the Americans – in his introductions to the articles a bit irritating, and I found Thomas Fleming's article on the American Revolution a bit jingoistic at times. Speculating on a British victory, for example, he says: "Within a year or two at most, Americans would have been on their way to becoming replicas of the Canadians, tame, humble colonials in the triumphant British empire, without an iota of the independent spirit that has been the heart of the nation's identity." (pg. 166). I found this to be a little bit silly and a somewhat provincial view of American exceptionalism; in reality, the Canadians have as much a claim to be 'the land of the free' as their rebellious neighbours.

Overall, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the book; I don't indulge my passion for military history as much as I used to and What If? really got the juices flowing again. I picked it up expecting to only enjoy the later articles about modern history (which is more my area) but the ones that have stuck in my mind are the ones on ancient history. Here, there is more wiggle-room for speculations and tangents, for the sole reason that they took place so long ago, and consequently they allow us to imagine a world fundamentally different from the one we live in now. To give just one thought-provoking example: the close-fought naval battle at Salamis. Previously, Ancient Greek democracy had judged citizenship based on ownership of land. Victory at Salamis was won by landless oarsmen and sailors, leading to a more universal interpretation of citizenship (pg. 33). How different would our inheritance of Greek democracy have been if this battle had not been won? What would be our Western principles of governance, law and society? It is incredible to speculate on the world we might be living in if a certain storm hadn't subsided, a certain bullet hadn't missed, or a certain man hadn't been in the right place at the right time. What If? shows, to quote the Duke of Wellington, just how 'near-run a thing' a lot of crucial historical turning points have been. In this respect the book provides a valuable – and entertaining – service. It helps us understand the dynamics of history: its ebbs and flows, its twists and turns that make it such an enduringly fascinating subject. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Mar 28, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cowley, RobertEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ambrose, Stephen E.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carr, CalebContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chace, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cook, Theodore F., Jr.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fleming, Thomas J.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fromkin, DavidContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gruber, Ira D.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hanson, Victor DavisContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hassig, RossContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Holland, CeceliaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Horne, AlistairContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Horne, AlistairContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Keegan, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lapham, Lewis H.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Large, David ClayContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McCullough, DavidContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McNeill, William H.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McPherson, James M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Morgan, TedContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Murray, WilliamsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Connell, Robert L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ober, JosiahContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parker, GeoffreyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pierson, PeterContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, Barbara N.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rabb, Theodore K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rose, ElihuContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sears, Stephen W.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Showalter, Dennis E.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Strauss, Barry S.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Waldron, ArthurContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wicker, TomContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Amoroso, LisaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bolte, CarlaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ward, Jeffrey L.Cartographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It has been said that "what if?" (or the counterfactual, to use the vogue word in academic circles) is the historian's favorite secret question.
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With its in-depth reflections on the monumental events of the past, this amazing book of essays ponders what might have been if things had gone differently in history. Featuring Stephen J. Ambrose, John Keegan, and many others.

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