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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “The Whole Alternate History Thing” • by Bruce Bethke

The temptation when writing alternate history is to assume that your one chosen detail of history has changed, but everything else—and everyone else—has remained roughly the same. Yes, in your timeline Lincoln lost the 1864 election and as a result the Union settled for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy—but a decade later, you’ve still got General Custer in command of the 7th Cavalry as it rides across the Dakotas, towards its fateful appointment with the Sioux on the Little Bighorn.

Wait a minute. General Custer? General George Armstrong Custer? Who rose through the ranks so rapidly because he was the hero of the Battle of Appomattox Court House? Which in our timeline took place on the morning of April 9, 1865, which means that in your timeline, it never happened?

You begin to see the problem?

History is Brownian motion expressed in human lives. We like to imagine that we see grand sweeping vistas and irresistible forces working to produce inevitable results, and those sorts of patterns are easy to discern (or at least imagine we discern) in hindsight. But to the people living in the moment, it's just a constantly swirling blizzard of tiny changes, which only later can be thought to have had a pattern. Case in point: as I was toying with the idea of an alternate timeline that might flow from one event, the tiny changes began to snowball with astonishing rapidity. The U.S. never got into the Spanish-American War—

Well, some claim this war was a historical inevitability. In the 1890s the United States was feeling its oats, and the State and War departments were full of younger men who’d missed the Civil War and were eager to prove themselves. If not Spain, then somewhere else: perhaps Mexico, or maybe China. We were a pugnacious young country then, and history as told now conveniently elides the fact that in 1895 we even went to the brink of a shooting war with England over the border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Luckily, trouble elsewhere in the British Empire pulled our chestnuts out of the fire, by motivating the British to accept a negotiated settlement so that they could turn their full attention to more important matters, and by the end of the Second Boer War the Brits had decided we might be more useful as allies than adversaries.

But let’s stick with our initial assumption: that the U.S. never got involved in the Spanish-American War, and the jingoistic faction in our government didn’t find another suitable war to take its place. What kind of snowflakes are in motion and perturbed by this change?

How about these? In 1892, as part of a modernization program, the U.S. Army replaced the post-Civil War single-shot Trapdoor Springfield rifle with the Krag-Jorgenson, a beautifully made bolt-action rifle whose .30-40 cartridge was perfectly suited to hunting whitetail deer. Likewise, in the same year they retired the venerable .45 caliber 1873 Colt Single-Action Army (a.k.a., the SAA, or “Peacemaker” of cowboy movie fame) and replaced it with the brand-spanking-new 1892 Colt Double-Action Army, in the then-new caliber of .38 Long. Similarly, in 1895, the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 6mm Lee, the rapid-firing high-velocity wonder weapon of its days, along with the Colt “potato digger” machine-gun in the same caliber and the M1892 Colt .38 revolver.

In the Spanish-American War, American casualties in combat were relatively light: for every American killed in battle, ten more succumbed to tropical diseases. This was largely due to the poor training, morale, leadership, marksmanship, and equipment of the Spanish soldiers, a fact which George Orwell would comment on at considerable length forty years later in Homage to Catalonia.

Once in a while, though, the Americans ran into Spanish soldiers who were well-trained, -led, and -equipped, and then it was a different story. The Battle of San Juan Hill, for example, would probably be considered a classic military clusterf### of the please-let’s-change-the-subject variety now, if not for the involvement of a certain future President. In this battle, a force of 15,000 American troops assaulted a hill held by about 750 Spanish troops—no, I did not drop a zero—who were adequately trained, led, dug-in, and armed with the latest Mauser rifles.

The Mauser came as a nasty shock to the Americans. It was more accurate, more powerful, and had longer range than the Krag. Worse, some of the American troops were still armed with Trapdoor Springfields, and when they fired their black-powder .45-70 cartridges they may as well have been lighting smoke grenades and waving flags saying (in Spanish), “WE’RE HERE! SHOOT AT US!” The Americans took 1,400 killed or wounded before they overran the Spanish positions, and probably wouldn’t have taken the hill at all without excellent use of supporting fire from their Gatling guns.

Nonetheless, take the hill they did, and in due time they won the war, thus gaining control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Whereupon a new problem arose: some Filipinos weren’t happy with the notion of trading one colonial master for another, and the Philippines promptly erupted in a bloody guerrilla war that lasted years.

If the .30-40 Krag-Jorgenson was a disappointment in Cuba, the .38 Colt proved to be a disaster in the Philippines. As many Americans learned to their profound but very short-lived dismay, you could shoot a charging Moro tribesman six times in the chest with the Colt .38, but if you weren’t lucky enough to hit his central nervous system, he could still decapitate you with his parang before he died or you finished reloading.

It was as a direct result of these two experiences, then, both related to America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War—the inadequacy of the Krag in Cuba and the failure of the Colt in the Philippines—and a third experience, that of the discovered folly of equipping the Army and Navy with completely incompatible rifles when soldiers and Marines might end up fighting side-by-side—that the War Department launched two crash development programs. The first was to find a rifle and cartridge that equaled the Mauser and met the needs of both the Army and the Marines, and the result was the legendary M1903 Springfield, with its entirely new .30-03 cartridge—which had some teething problems, and was quickly superseded by the .30-06. The second was to find a pistol and cartridge that would stop a charging Moro in his tracks, and the result of that was the equally legendary Colt 1911, and the all-new .45 ACP cartridge.

And to imagine a 20th Century without either .30-06 rifles or Colt .45 automatics...

Well, now you know why my alternate history prognostication process seized up shortly after 1900.



Mark Keigley said...

Hoo-boy.... I especially liked the development of the 1911 colt .45, and it's reason for being developed. And to think that it is still a go-to for a lot of folks for home protection because of its stopping power.

On another note, I'm sitting on an alternate earth / alternate Pearl Harbor timeline novella without a United States or Hawaiians, adding the fantasy elements of a Faërie Dragon Corps and magic-wielding Faërie.

All battling the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Yup, it's a happy mish-mash.... :)

LJS3 said...

Good article. It well illustrates my own issues with alternate history.