If you’re looking for a detailed description of how Pharaoh Amenhotep LXXVII might have responded to the attacks on the Twin Pyramids in New Memphis by fanatical followers of the jealous Judean war-god on September 11, 2001, the essays in “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley might seem a little unimaginative. The essayists, who include Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan, David McCullough, and James McPherson, are not fiction writers but serious historians.
The above writers’ names, which are featured on the cover, suggest that the book is mostly about American military history but it covers a good stretch of Western civilization. The first essay, about if an outbreak of plague had not caused the Assyrians to lift their siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, is a little lame. It suggests only that had Jerusalem capitulated, Christianity and Islam, and therefore Western civilization might not have happened. That seems pretty obvious but it illustrates the great difficulty in writing counterfactual history: the farther back in history you start the greater the changes that are wrought. It would be a long essay indeed if the writer had to imagine Assyrian chariots rolling ashore in North America 2,000 years later.
The essays focus mostly on identifying the precarious pivotal moments in history and what didn’t happen; like after the recall of the Mongol army from frontiers of central Europe upon the death of their emperor the Mongols didn’t snuff out the embryonic centers of commerce and learning in medieval Europe. The American Revolution gets a lot of attention, as it was loaded with accidents and near misses which, had they not happened, the War of Independence might have been lost several times over. And we’d be the serfs of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II instead of Goldman Sachs.
I might pick up “What If? 2” later, but there is also a book called “For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga” by Robert Sobel which I would like to get a hold of. And if you’re looking for an enjoyable fictional alternate history, try “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, about Nazi Germany in 1964.