Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Constructing Alternative Histories

Guest post by Bill Weber.

Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga was the first alternative history that I read.  As a history major in college, I was impressed with the breadth and depth of his imaginative story line of a failed American Revolution that begets a British Confederation of North America and a Jeffersonian United States of Mexico.

Perhaps inspired by this tale, I penned a short historical “what if” in a term paper for an international relations course.  I wondered how World War II might have ended if the US had launched its RANKIN and ECLIPSE contingency plans to drive deep into Germany and possibly seize Berlin if the Nazi regime suddenly collapsed, and how that would have reshaped postwar Europe.

As my interest in military history grew, I came to realize the importance of key factors in assessing and imagining battles and campaigns. Sun Tzu’s five major (national leadership, geography, weather, generalship, and terrain) and minor factors (quantity of troops, quality of troops, discipline, administration, and training) can be analyzed when assessing historical conflicts, and altered to produced alternative outcomes.  In "1814: How Washington Was Saved",  I substituted the more capable General Moses Porter for the inexperienced William Winder, and changed the battlefield to the more defensible Lowdnes Hill northeast of Bladensburg from the gradually rising ground southeast of the town.

In constructing this scenario, I also looked to the modern principles of war: objective, offense, mass,  economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise and simplicity. In this re-imagining of the battle, Porter digs his force in on Lowdnes Hill, whereas in history, General William Winder allowed his subordinates to fight three separate engagements, allowing a smaller unified British force to prevail.

Future analysis” techniques  can also be used to create imagined historical events. Neither Victor Nor Vanquished, America in the War of 1812, presents four alternative outcomes that alternately juxtapose a short and long war with American and British advantages in generalship.  The book also explored a worst case scenario for the US, and a counterfactual “what if the War of 1812 never occurred."

The bottom line is that it’s useful to have a method to your madness when writing alternate history. Using these techniques and insights—and those from other disciplines: economics, for example—will keep your imaginings internally consistent and attached to, if not grounded in, past events and trends. Readers undoubtedly appreciate carefully constructed scenarios and story lines that are not too fanciful and in being detached from the past. Moreover, such alternate histories can generate interest in and appreciation for the actual key events and trends in history: what happened and why, as well as their significance and lessons learned.

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William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013) and The Long Century: The Congress of New Niagara, 1920.

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