.There is no point to the study of history if each event, each action, each decision is seen in some mechanistic manner — as if what happened had to happen.
The reality is that whatever happened might have been different.
That’s why we study history. We learn from history by looking at the results of an event, an action, a decision, and by considering how those results might have been different.
What if George Washington had been shot in the fall of 1777? What if Captain Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had chosen to pull the trigger when he had Washington in his sights? If Ferguson had fatally shot the commander of United States forces at that particular moment, he would have changed the Revolutionary War in a drastic way.
The lesson, here, is that an individual’s action (or, in this case, inaction) can have huge ramifications.
Obviously, powerful people, such as queens and generals, make decisions that change the direction of the arrow of history, but, as the story of Ferguson shows, an Average Joe who is at the right spot at the right moment can also shift things.
Dozens of historical moments
The Ferguson-Washington encounter is described by historian Thomas Fleming in a chapter in the 1999 book What If? — The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley.
Fleming is one of 30 historians, military experts and writers of other sorts who take the title question — What if? — and apply it to dozens of historical moments when a variation of one sort or another might have resulted in great changes: a shot fired, an attack foregone, a plague avoided, a map lost (or not lost).
Those who ask the question include such luminaries as David McCullough, William H. McNeil, Alistair Horne, James M. McPherson, Steven W. Sears, John Keegan, Tom Wicker and Stephen E. Ambrose. Indeed, if you were to gather all the books written by the 30 writers, the works would constitute a sort of history of the world, from the earliest times to the present.
Taking up the “What if?” question for this book was nothing new for these writers.
Any time you write history, you look at the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken that shaped events — and you also have to consider the decisions and actions not taken.
Consider, for instance, the book’s opening chapter by McNeill, “Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”
The Assyrian king Sennacherib and his armies descended upon Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, and the result, McNeill asserts, was “the greatest might-have-been of all military history.”
McNeill notes that, according to the Bible, Sennacherib failed because God intervened and spread a lethal pestilence among his soldiers. But you don’t have to believe in divine intervention, he says. “Entirely mundane factors…may have provoked epidemic among the besieging Assyrians.”
For instance, it would have been difficult for Sennacherib to find enough water for his army to conduct an extended siege, in part because the Jewish king Hezekiah had ordered water sources outside the city walls destroyed.
As a result, the Assyrians may have been compelled “to drink contaminated water and thus expose themselves to widespread infections.”
In addition, Jerusalem was not all that important to the Assyrians, McNeill writes.
From Sennacherib’s point of view, the decision not to press the siege of Jerusalem to a conclusion did not matter very much. The kingdom of Judah was only a marginal player in the Near Eastern balance of power, being poorer and weaker than Sennacherib’s other foes.
If Sennacherib had continued with the siege until Jerusalem fell, the kingdom of Judah would have disappeared, McNeill asserts.
Two decades earlier, the kingdom of Israel had been invaded, and its inhabitants exiled. In captivity, they quickly lost their Jewish identity and became known as the Ten Lost Tribes. The same, McNeill argues, would have happened to the inhabitants of Judah.
And this is where the momentous “What if?” takes place — with the conquering of Jerusalem and the exiling of the people.
If so, Judaism would have disappeared from the face of the earth and the two daughter religions of Christianity and Islam could not possibly have come into existence. In short, our world would be profoundly different in ways we cannot really imagine.
This about it.
Think of how Judaism has influenced civilization over the past 2,700 years. Think of how Christianity has shaped civilization for two millenniums. Think of how Islam has fashioned the culture and way of life in great swaths of the world map.
Think of the vacuum without those three faiths.
There’s a complicating factor here, as McNeill notes.
Just a century after Sennacherib cut his losses and turned away from Jerusalem, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city, razed the Temple and sent its people into exile.
However, instead of being subsumed into the conqueror’s culture, as the Kingdom of Israel had been in 722 B.C., the Jews who were sent into Babylonian captivity in 605 B.C. retained their faith. Indeed, the exile, which ended seven decades later, seemed to focus and strengthen that faith.
During the century between the attacks of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews had come to fully embrace their belief in a one God. In 701 B.C, McNeill writes, the fall of Jerusalem would have signaled the weakness of that one God. But, by 605 B.C., the catastrophe was seen as a penalty for failing to listen to the all-powerful deity.
Long-standing prophetic denunciations of the sins of the Jewish people made it obvious that the Babylonian exile was God’s punishment for the failure of Judah’s rulers and people to observe his commandments to the full. For no matter how strenuous their effort at religious reform had been, even the most pious still fell short of obeying all of God’s prescriptions.
All of this is food for thought for anyone interested in human history.
McNeill’s chapter is closely argued, but he writes with humility. He builds his case brick by brick. And his argument lays open a world vastly different from what we know today.
Yet, McNeill acknowledges that his is not a widely held position.
It may seem paradoxical to argue that…Sennacherib’s withdrawal was critical for the emergence of unambiguous monotheism in the little Kingdom of Judah, whereas Nebuchadnezzar’s success in carrying through what Sennacherib had merely threatened, instead of discrediting that faith, had the effect of confirming Jewish monotheism, and permitting the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam to arise in later centuries.
But so it was, or so it seems to me, although most historians are so much shaped by the world’s subsequent religious history as to be unable or unwilling to recognize how fateful the Assyrian withdrawal in 701 B.C. turned out to be.
In a deep way, it doesn’t matter so much if McNeill is right (or, for that matter, whether the other writers in What If? are right in the scenarios they posit). What matters is that history can turn on a dime.
As McNeill writes, it may be inconceivable for many to think of history without Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but, in fact, it is conceivable.
OK, Judaism wasn’t snuffed out in 701 B.C., and one could argue that, even if it had been conquered, its people would still have retained their Jewishness.
But, really, the Judaism of that year was the result of the work and thought of many people — prophets, civic leaders, religious officials, artists, writers — who helped give the faith the form it had then, the form that was the basis of how it evolved.
At any point, any one of those people might have nudged it in a different direction or even given it a fatal blow.
(Similarly, in the Revolutionary War, Ferguson didn’t shoot Washington. But Washington had been a soldier in the earlier French and Indian War. A random shot during that conflict could have killed him, meaning that, when the rebellion began, someone else had to be put at the head of the armies.)
At each moment
History is contingent.
It is the result of not just one person’s decisions and actions, but of the decisions and actions of all of humanity.
That’s why What If? is such a refreshing, eye-opening delightful book.
Its writers take all those facts — the dates and names and events — that we were taught in school and that seemed to be history. And the writers present them in what might be called a cubist fashion — the facts seen from a multitude of perspectives, from a multitude of alternative universes, a multitude of possibilities.
Yes, when we look back, we see history as something that can’t be changed. It’s the past. It’s over. Yes.
But we stand at the present and should remember that, at each moment, we have a vast array of possible decisions we can make and actions we can take.
The past — our past and the past of humanity — will be shaped, in large or small part, but how we choose.
At each moment.
Patrick T. Reardon
NOTE: Back in 1999, I wrote a book review about What If? for the Chicago Tribune.