- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Edited by Robert Cowley
Putnam, $28.95, 427 pages, illus.

As a mental exercise or from simple curiosity, it is not uncommon to wonder what might have happened if an event had ended other than as history records. As an instance, several thick volumes would be needed to contain the essays over the decades that have explored how Gettysburg might have ended had Stonewall Jackson been on the field with Robert E. Lee instead of in his grave. This "counterfactual" itch can be trifling or it can produce insights or at least inslights into why particular actions concluded as they did.
The "alternate history" or "what if" mode, plausibly and imaginatively executed, can also be entertaining as well as instructive, of course as was demonstrated in the first volume of this subgenre, also edited by Robert Cowley, founding editor of the respected MHQ Quarterly Journal of Military History. The initial volume dealt with military history, not surprisingly. This second has a broader historical range, with as notable a series of contributors of these 25 original essays.
In his introduction, Mr. Cowley worries that history today is burdened by excessive "solemnity … like an exigent dose of milk of magnesia." In the current representation of the past, he observes, "Everyone must be included, no one can be offended. This surrender to special interests is not just distorting but boring. History involving great people or pivotal events is out of fashion. Broad trends, those waves that swell, break, and recede, are everything these days" race and gender highest on the marquee.
"Counterfactual history has a way of making the stakes of a confrontation stand out in relief. It can point out the turning point or the moment when the shading of an event edges from unfortunate to tragic," Mr. Cowley writes. It obviously can be most engaging when most provocative.
The fore and the aft of the 25 essays in the book indicate the range and flavor of the collection.
One particular casualty in "an accidental battle in a failed campaign in a backwater theater of the Peloponnesian War" conceivably would have changed the nature of Western thought, writes Victor Davis Hanson in the first article, had a 45-year-old hoplite (heavy infantryman) named Socrates been returned to Athens upon his shield. The philosopher was part of a rag-tag Athenian contingent that was devastated at Delium in 424 B.C. by a Theban force allied with Sparta. Few Athenians escaped in the bloody rout. One was Socrates, "the father of Western ethical philosophy." A savvy veteran of two previous campaigns, he took to the bush, so to speak, evaded the Thebans and survived.
Plato, the explicator of Socrates' profoundly influential teachings, was a child of about five when the Delium debacle occurred. If Socrates had suffered the fate of hundreds of his comrades, Plato obviously would never have been a student of Socrates and therefore the Platonic dialogues could not have been written and commanded the intense weight they have in the centuries since.
Mr. Hanson, professor of classics at the Fresno campus of the University of California and whose most recent book, "Courage and Carnage," was reviewed in these pages on Sept. 16, wryly notes that had the philosopher not escaped, about the only knowledge we today would have of Socrates would be from Aristophanes. The comic playwright knew Socrates before Delium, and in his play "Clouds" portrays him as a "middle-aged huckster" and a "windbag."
As Mr. Hanson notes, Plato's "Apology" is one of the most affecting texts in literature the account of Socrates' rebuttal to the Athenian democrats who sentenced him to death for corrupting the city-state's youth by urging them to question authority.
Two major traditions persist in Western thought as a result, Mr. Davis contends: Society is harsh with those who question its rules of the road; and Socrates' condemnation and death by a democratic polity severely tarnished the idea of democracy including the skepticism of the founders of the American republic.
Indeed, through the neo-Platonists' influence on early Christian apologists of late antiquity, writes Mr. Hanson, "our present ideas about both Christianity and democracy would be radically different" had an enemy horseman ridden down Socrates in the frantic retreat at Delium.
The concluding essay is by the respected historian William H. McNeill who wonders what might have happened had Francisco Pizarro not found potatoes in Peru. Sounds whimsical at first glance. Mr. McNeill, however, builds a persuasive case that much might have been different had the conquistador and "the ruffians he led" not been reduced to relying on the Incan staple during the Spaniards' ferocious campaign in 1531-32.
Native to the Andes, the starchy tuber that has a high caloric yield, could be stored for years; in the severe climate of the altiplano, the Incan civilization could not have been accomplished without it. What the Spaniards called chuno "played a larger part in shaping the subsequent history of the world than did all the gold and silver that so delighted Pizarro and his successors," argues Mr. McNeill.
Transferred to Europe, the hardy and nourishing potato allowed the Irish to survive the English government's efforts to settle Oliver Cromwell's disbanded soldiers on confiscated land there; the spreading culture of the potato rescued Prussian peasants from the rages of maurading armies during the Seven Years War during the repeated invasion by Russian, Austrian and French armies as great a factor, writes Mr. McNeill, as Frederick the Great's battlefield victories, British subsidies and Russia's change of sides. In 1774, in France's official effort to make the potato an acceptable foodstuff, Marien Antoinette "advertised the plant's virtues by appearing at a court ball wearing a coiffeur of potato flowers."
The availability of potatoes during the 19th century, "an expanded supply of calories" from potato fields (producing two to four times the caloric yield per acre as grain), sustained Europe's demographic and imperial expansion by assuring ample labor for factories and other urban occupations. Provocative, indeed, and Mr. McNeill does not even address the pervasive influence of french fries in modern American culture.
A sampling of the rich offerings on this menu includes: Cecelia Holland's "Repulse at Hastings, October 14, 1066," William fails to conquer England; Alistair Horne's "France Turns the Other Cheek, July 1870," on the "needless war" with Prussia; John Lukacs on "The Election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912," and "brokering an earlier end" to World War I; Richard B. Frank, "No Bomb; No End," the Operation Olympic "disaster," Japan 1945 Operation Olympic was the name of the plan for the U.S. invasion of Japan.
To note one other of the essays with an especially tantalizing, or alarming, thesis, James Chace's piece is titled, "The Presidency of Henry Wallace: If F.D.R. had not dumped his vice-president in 1944." That would have meant, of course, that Harry Truman would not have succeeded to the presidency, and it is hard to imagine two more disparate characters and philosophies than Wallace and Truman.
Exploring this "what if," Mr. Chace writes, "goes to the very heart of Cold War history" with the very intelligent Wallace both a mystic and a believer in political collectivism, and enamored of Joseph Stalin during World War II, and Truman the quintessential Midwestern patriot and pragmatist.
Nothing new about "what if" history, to be sure, notably in a number of books supposing Adolph Hitler as the victor in World War II. There does, however, seem a greater appetite now for the counterfactual. This might suggest that the category is attractive when climactic events are less immediately threatening or evident in our lives.
The essays in "What If? 2" should not be gulped down at a sitting, or even a couple.
When effectively presented, and that is consistently the case in this collection, the individual essays conduce to a reflective mood that can shade into an especially ironic perspective of the past.
That's fine, but the dosage should be regulated.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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