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At the War Geek Round Table
Refighting the Pacific War with Jim Bresnahan
© 2013 James LaFond
According to the dust cover of this book Jim Bresnahan specializes in interrogating history geeks of various disciplines for the purpose of examining possible alternative histories. He did a book on baseball and the American Civil War. If those titles are anything like Refighting the Pacific War then they will be well worth the read.
As a science-fiction reader I have long been enamored of stories that offered an alternative course of events. As a writer I have tried my hand at some and find it a daunting prospect. As a war-gamer for most of my life you might say that I play table top historical simulations largely to be party to a miniature alternate history. To struggle against the tide of events like a war god looking down on the battlefield, as your counterpart tries to impose his own will on the same mortal forces, is the ultimately intoxicating geek experience. The current master of alternative history fiction is Harry Turtledove, whose books are offered in the Science Fiction Book Club and Military Book Club; a rare distinction.
On the surface of it the construction of an alternate history seems simple: change one specific outcome in order to generate an overall alternative outcome at a certain variance with the actual outcome. Once you delve into the process with the aid of argumentative geeks of various perspectives and opinions you find yourself in a tangle of cause and effect; and to your consternation, discover that what you thought was ditch-digging turned out to be engineering.
What the reader and writer of alternative histories should most appreciate is that history is not a set of interchangeable blocks, or a table of interlinked chutes and ladders, but an evolutionary process fueled by dynamic events, each one of which ‘weights’ the process. The next thing to keep in mind is that ‘history’, that cumulative chronologic beast, has a weight all its own. Like a big man, history can be mighty hard to nudge off course. But if that same big man’s heavy foot falls on a wet waxed tile he might never be the same again…
Refighting the Pacific War
An Alternative History of World War II
Edited by Jim Bresnahan
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 2011, 275 pages
Note: according to my system of rating books, a specialized nonfiction book can do no better than four stars. According to my way of thinking a five-star book is one that anyone could enjoy reading whether or not they had any interest in the subject. This book is a pure discussion, without the intrusion of a writer attempting to entertain as well as inform. Therefore, if you are a naval buff, WWII nerd, or war-gamer this book is a five-star effort.
For me the best part of Refighting the Pacific War is the essay-length introduction by Vice Admiral Yoji Koda of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, who enlightens the reader early on as to the political and doctrinal framework within which the Japanese military commanders of the 1930’s and 1940’s made their fateful decisions. Some of the other analysts polled for this project give similar insights into the command culture of the American Navy.
The editor walks the reader through each stage of the War in the Pacific beginning with causes and diplomacy and ending with war crime trials and occupation politics. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of war causes, diplomacy, the Axis Alliance, Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal. In most cases the various experts disagreed a lot, and not just along two opposing lines of argument.
The experts polled possessed a wealth of knowledge, and at least two had written extensively on the subject. In some cases, there was essentially no disagreement. As such, these points tended to demonstrate the factor known as ‘historical weight’ or ‘the weight of events’. The big lesson I took from this book was that the massive economic, industrial and demographic factors made the players on all sides of this conflict acutely subject to the tidal forces of history. For this reason a discussion of WWII in the Pacific in terms of ‘what ifs’ often comes down to a discussion of ‘why not’.
Mister Bresnahan’s book is a stimulating exercise of the intellect.
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