It is a legitimate question, quite frankly, and among a select breed of academic historians, something of a hot one. The example that lit the fire was a question thrown to Jeb Bush: "if, given what we know, the opportunity arose to kill baby Hitler, would you?"
"Hell, yes," said Jeb (!), who lost his exclamation point about the same time as his oompah. His answer struck most listeners as vainglorious, but it lit up a controversy on the legitimacy of what academic historians call "counterfactuals," ideas about what might have happened if. . .
What might have happened if Custer determined that taking on the thousands of Native people along the Little Big Horn would require more firepower, if he'd not said, "Hurrah, boys. Let's finish them up and go home"?
"What ifs" are great fun. They test our knowledge of history, the breadth of our imagination, our understanding of human nature, the worldview we stand on.
"Hell, yes," Jeb said. He'd blow out baby Hitler's brains.
It's a silly question, really. It goes nowhere and reveals nothing but a candidacy in trouble. "Hell, yes," he said like Wayne LaPierre or Donald himself.
Counterfactuals are silly, period. What if the greatest Native victory in the Great Sioux Wars hadn't happened? What if Sitting Bull hadn't seen bluecoats falling from the sky? If some hot-blooded Mormon in a covered wagon hadn't lost it about a cow to some Minneconjou warrior in 1854, would there ever have been a battle at the Little Big Horn some 22 years later?
It's downright silly to speculate--or so say historians, who think of those who practice such historial treachery as "counterfactionalists" and the game they play as "counterfactionalism."
You can't do history via "what ifs?" because no history is there to be done. I get that.
What if my aunt hadn't been killed in a freakish auto accident? Would my grandpa not have cried when my father told him that he wanted to take Grandpa's only daughter and our family to Michigan? If Grandpa hadn't cried, would dad have moved across the lake to the job he'd always dreamed of?
What if I'd grown up somewhere other than the western shore of Lake Michigan? What if I'd have gone to Michigan State rather than Dordt College? Would I be someone else?
You can't do history via "what ifs?" because no history is there to be done.
But you can do fiction. You can put every last synapse of your imagination to work. You can dream. You can create, concoct, fantasize. You can fancy and idealize.
You certainly can do fiction via "what-ifs." In fact, it's unlikely you can create a story without them.
The novel I'd love to finish this week was hatched by a what-if. "What if a tragedy happened to a someone with a complex family history, a young woman maybe who had a birth mother, an adoptive mother, and a divorced step-mother, as well as a series of fathers, all of whom cared for her? Who would attend her in emergency care? and in the waiting room outside how would they speak to each other?
What if a sea captain loses a leg to whale he remembers as white? What if that loss creates an obsession? How far would he got to find the white demon? What would he risk?
What if your mother had married the guy she went with before dating your father? What if your great-grandparents decided to make peace with the church they believed to be too liberal and simply stayed on the island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, rather than immigrated to America? Would you be the person you are right now?
The legitimacy of counterfactualism is a conundrum only for historians.
I'm way over the hill when it comes to "what-ifs." I am their victim.
What if my father had been a mechanic? a truck driver? my mother a blues' singer?
Think about it.