The Utility of Counterfactual History

Counterfactual history can be split into two distinct types of genre, both of which have a different type of audience due to their nature. The first genre of counterfactual history is that of the alternate history. This type of pseudo-historical study, more akin to historical fiction than serious scholarly study, tends to take a simple event and extrapolate a widely fantastic change in our history.  The cause of change tends to be either something simple, and quite unnecessary, or something futuristic. For example, in a chapter to do with the collapse of the Red Army in the 1980’s the agent of change was a Vodka bomb that halted its advance and eventually led to the fall of Communism and a change of regime in the region.[i] A scenario that is a little farfetched.  Perhaps one of the key problems with this genre is the fact that is marketed as history and not historical fiction. Many of the stories deserve to be placed on the fiction shelves alongside alternate historical fiction such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland, a work that does not pretend to be scholarly or historical.[ii]

Perhaps the most vociferous objection to counterfactual history came from E P Thompson who described the field as Geschichtswissenschlopff or unhistorical shit.[iii] Many objections describe it as an area for Hollywood and, as mentioned above, the fiction shelves. However, the second genre of counterfactual history has become more scholarly acceptable in the past few years. The so-called school of Virtual History is a more scholarly rigorous genre that is steeped in historical methodology. Perhaps it biggest difference is that unlike alternate history it does not assume that the changes that occur will have long-lasting impact upon the historical timeline. The key work for this genre is Niall Fergusson’s Virtual History, which has an excellent introduction to the methodology involved in this form of study.[iv] The most interesting aspect of Fergusson’s introduction is his well executed discussion of the development of philosophical thought. In particular he deals with the debate over determinism and predestination; therefore, can counterfactuals be anything more than just an interesting side subject.[v]

Of inherent interest to historians is the question of causation and what happens and why. This is the key importance of Virtual History and its utility to the historians. For me, as someone who is interested in the development of systems and decision-making process the question of change is important. The ability to examine an event and consider changes to the event illustrate why certain event s were as successful as they were. For example, consider Operation OVERLORD and think about how the Germans could have beaten back the invasion. How would this be possible? What factors would need to be changed? Paramount for me would be the issue of allied air superiority. To me this is a key reason for success so the question is what would happen had this not existed. By understanding the factors that would explain a German victory we can further understand the reasons for Allied success and decisions that were taken to reach that point. Another area where this has utility in the military where one form of exercise is the TEWT, the Tactical Exercise without Troops. This form of exercise is often used on battlefield tours where small unit actions are being examined. I remember going on a tour to Normandy and visiting the area of Operation GOODWOOD and one of the tasks we did was to run a TEWT in an area where 11th Armoured Division attacked and plan a German defensive position with a given number of troops and vehicles using the position we were at. This forced us to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the position and weapons we had at our disposal. Of course, involved in the TEWT was a debriefing session to consider each groups plan of action. This illustrates the applicability of considering different actions and the outcomes they may have had even at the tactical level of operations and in the end you are able to consider the right course of action for a given event.

Another area where counterfactual history has impacted upon military history is in the realm of Operational Research. The use of OR became more and more prevalent in the inter-war period and by the end of the Second World War it was an important element in analysing operations and weapons systems.[vi] By the 1950’s OR specialists were using counterfactuals in order to assess the impact of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Recently Maurice Kirby and Matthew Godwin have explored this interesting research. They noted that:

The study formed the first major attempt by OR analysts to assess the use of nuclear weapons at the tactical level. In deriving lessons from 1940, OR analysts focused on several battlefronts where nuclear weapons could have provided relief to defending forces.[vii]

However, as Kirby and Godwin point out the work done by the Army OR Group did not consider the impact of using tactical battlefield nuclear weapons and the possible escalation that would almost certainly ensue from their use.[viii] This raise a useful point over the utility of counterfactuals, in that for them to be useful they must be based in fact and consider numerable variables that will impact on the changes applied and their impact. Thus, while of the AORG study argued that tactical nuclear weapons could be used to prevent a ‘Blitzkrieg’ style operation as seen in 1940 it failed to comprehend the wider geo-political impact of using these weapons, though this was possibly outside of the remit of their study.

I suspect this leads to question of whether or not counterfactual are a useful historical tool. They certainly have their limits as seen above; however, this is not enough to dismiss them. Of course the more fantastical alternative scenarios are not a useful tool but accounts that are based on fact and based on probably contingency are useful to the historians in enabling us to understand what might have been. They are a useful tool in understanding decision making processes and in understanding the choices that are taken at certain times and their inherent importance. Of course their biggest importance lies in the fact that they are fun as seen by the posts written here, here and here.


[i] Peter Tsouras, ‘Red Lightning: The Collapse of the Red Army’ in Peter Tsouras (Ed.) Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Cold War (Greenhill Books, 2003) pp. 233-256

[ii] Robert Harris, Fatherland (Hutchinson, 1992)

[iii] E P Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (Merlin Press, 1978) p. 300

[iv] Niall Fergusson (Ed.) Virtual History: Alternatives and counterfactual (Macmillan, 1998)

[v] Niall Fergusson, ‘Introduction: Virtual History – Towards a ‘Chaotic’ Theory of the Past’ in Niall Fergusson (Ed.) Virtual History, pp. 1-90

[vi] See for example, Maurice Kirby, Operational Research in War and Peace: The British Experience from the 1930s to 1970 (London: Imperial College Press 2003) and Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-45 (Frank Cass, 1998)

[vii] Maurice Kirby and Matthew Godwin ‘Operational Research as Counterfactual History: A Retrospective Analysis of the Use of Battlefield Nuclear Weapons in the German Invasion of France and Flanders, May- June 1940’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2008) p. 633

[viii] Kirby and Godwin ‘Operational Research’ pp. 659-660

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