What if someone had praised Hitler's paintings?

What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been Edited by Robert Cowley G.P. Putnam's Sons

The Assyrian King Sennacherib besieges Jerusalem in 701 BC but his army is not decimated by a mysterious plague. What are the ramifications for coming centuries?

Or George Washington is deprived of the cover of fog to evacuate his forces after a disastrous defeat on Long Island. Would there be a United States of America?

Or the narrow weather opening for D-Day never opens. Would the Allies have tried to push ahead against the forces of nature as well as Hitler's defenders? Would an Allied debacle in the West have meant a communist sweep from the East, right to the shores of Normandy?

At every turn, historians can find fascinating possibilities, other than what actually occurred. "Counterfactual" speculation is irresistible, notes Robert Crowley, the editor of this provocative collection and of The Quarterly Journal of Military History. There are so many critical points at which a shift in the wind, a change in the mood of a general, or a little more care by a courier would have rewritten history.

Why is this exercise worth nearly 400 pages of sometimes intricate analysis - other than to amuse the historians who fill the pages? Because it makes one sit back and marvel at the course of history, right up to today.

Often, the historical happenings examined in these essays made possible enlightenment and progress for generations to follow - the Greek victory at Salamis in 480 BC, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the American triumph over the Japanese at Midway in 1942. But what about the series of benighted decisions that embroiled mankind in World War I? Humanity might be much further along the path of progress if that drawn-out, corrosive conflict had never occurred.

And it didn't have to happen. A little more clear-headedness in some world capitals could have prevented it. That's one lesson from this journey through history's roads not traveled. Human events are often (not always) shaped by human beings, and human beings have the ability to make inspired choices - or wretched ones. Look at the decisions being made before our eyes today. Let China into the World Trade Organization or keep it out? Push ahead with nuclear arms control or shelve it? Bolster the United Nations or let its influence deteriorate?

The list could go on, and it may include turning points just as critical as those dealt with in "What If?"

Along with engaging subject matter, this book brims with crisply written history by some of the best in the business. Lewis Lapham, for example, sketches the slaughter of Rome's drenched, poorly led legions in Germany's Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. A better general, and clearer weather, could have meant Roman dominance, civilization in central Europe, and - who knows? - a German history so revised that Nazism wouldn't have arisen 19 centuries later.

Other masters of history and the written word - David McCullough, James McPherson, and Stephen Ambrose among them - paint equally compelling portraits of other eras.

Clearly, these historians enjoy their forays into "what if" history. It's fun to tag along, with rewarding vistas of what did happen, as well as what might have.

*Keith Henderson is on the Monitor's staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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