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What If? the World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been Paperback – 1999

3.9 out of 5 stars 132 customer reviews
Book 1 of 3 in the What If Essays Series

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Paperback, 1999
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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Berkley/ Published By the Berkley Publishing Group/ A Division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.; 6th Printing edition (1999)
  • ISBN-10: 0425176428
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425176429
  • ASIN: B0027NADA0
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (132 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,232,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There have been some accusations that this book is "light" history, and I can see why the charge is made. But as a university professor, I in no way felt that the volume was too lowbrow.
It is true that at times the authors spend far more time summarizing the real-life events than exploring their alternate scenarios in sufficient detail. Although this was probably necessary for a general audience that may not already be aware of the details of Poitiers or the Golden Horde, it did often leave a hungry feeling in the pit of my stomach. In many cases, I wished there had been a much lengthier version of the scenario available.
I also agree that more consideration of "second-order counterfactuals" would have helped, but the general point of this work is well-taken, and should jolt the reader out of the lazy sense of historical determinacy into which we all tend to drift when we're not thinking very hard about the past. As must have happened with many readers, the book also caused me to run through the past 15 years of my own life in search of equally intriguing near-miss counterfactuals-- "what if I had moved to Rhode Island in 1996?", "what if I had married Ms. X after all?" I mention this anecdote because it is good evidence that the book can work its magic on the reader's mind despite the flaws that have been mentioned.
The bottom line is that I found this book hard to put down _despite_ reading it for the most part in a loud and seedy neighborhood bar.
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Format: Hardcover
History, like everything else, has fads that come and go. It seems that now counterfactual history is the fad of the day. Nevertheless, the exercise presented in What if? is, to say the least, very interesting. But is it useful? I believe it is, but not from the point of view of the historian, because history, no matter how you want to put it, is about things that happened not about things that didn't happen. What if? is useful from the point of view of the decision maker, and to be more specific, from the point of view of the decision making process. Some essays contained in the book base their assumptions on circumstance, or a chance, like the famous "lost orders" that influence the outcome of the US Civil War. Others essays, the ones that are really useful, explore the decisions behind the historical events. Only these essays serve a wider purpose, not only of entertainment, but of greater insight into things that truly could have been different.
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Format: Paperback
As you already know after considering the book, this is a series of counterfactuals - the "What Ifs" of historical events. The focus is on military events and run from 480 BC to the Chinese Communist revolution of the late 1940s. Roughly one-third of the writings focus on world history prior to 1830 (Greek warfare, Napoleon wins at Waterloo), one-third on American history (Revolution - Civil War) and one third 1900 World History (WWI - Cold War). Each counterfactual is authored by respected historians including Stephen Ambrose (whose contribution is surprisingly weak), James McPherson, Cecelia Holland and Stephen Sears. There is also a series of interesting, smaller, one to two page articles spread out through the book.
The authors take various approaches to the challenge. Some launch into intriguing 'what ifs' and their consequences. These include the impact of Alexander the Great's pre-mature death, ways the American Revolution could have easily failed and what if the Battle of Midway had been won by Japan. Other authors take a different approach of only reviewing how events could have been different or how variants were avoided, but they never discuss the impact of the alternative event. This is the only weakness of the book in my opinion. Most articles joyfully carry through on the full description of how events could have differed and how the world would be different if they had turned out this way. For example, would Lincoln have negotiated peace with the Confederacy if Lee's orders for Sharpsburg had not fallen into McClellan's hands allowing the South to win this battle?
Finally, the scenarios are relatively realistic. There are no discussions of 'what would have happened if the Americans had automatic weapons in 1776...
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Format: Paperback
A friend of mine with whom I always discuss history recommended this novel and I glad he did. It was an enthralling read and I finished its' 395 pages over three days. It was a hard book to put down.
One of the topics we often discuss is counterfactual history or "What-if" scenarios. It's just plain fun to imagine what might have been if Custer never had a last stand or the Spanish Conquistadors hadn't have conquered the New World. What if Hitler had won W.W.II? The book explores history from this perspective of imagining how things might have been different if our history didn't occur. Having twenty plus distinguished historians who really know their stuff guide you through "what-if" scenarios makes for a good read. By the way, "counterfactual" is the word that academics prefer to use for "what-if" scenarios.
The book's full title is "What of? The World's Foremost military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been." The title fully describes the book's contents and all of the twenty scenarios describe how history could have taken a different turn had factors as uncontrollable as the weather were different. The twenty scenarios range from ancient history and the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians to the final scenario supposing what if Mao and the Chinese Communists hadn't have defeated Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Nationalists. Every scenario was well written and discussed. The book has already provided my friend and I with great conversational fodder.
The book includes essays by: William H. McNeil, Victor Davis Hanson, Josiah Ober, Lewis H. Lapham, Barry S. Strauss, Cecilia Holland, Theodore K. Rabb, Ross Hassig, Geoffrey Parker, Thomas Fleming, David McCullough, Allistair Horne, James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Robert Cowley, John Keegan, Theodore F. Cook Jr.
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