Have you guys seen the show Command Decisions on The Learning Channel? It’s a show with a cool premise: take a historical battle and give the viewer three options per point-in-time about how he or she would do it. The only problem with the show is that it takes the decision the commander made and makes it the right one. Sometimes this makes sense – lots of times the questions relate to technical issues. For example, the question might be “how should George Washington begin the attack?” and the “official” answer would be “because it’s raining, muskets won’t fire reliably. Sneak up on the British from behind and use bayonets”. OK, that makes sense. The last thing I’d want to hear while staring down thousands of British troops would be seven thousand “clicks” from the wet gunpowder in my troops’ muskets. But at other times, the questions and answers are far more ambiguous. Like: “George Washington gets to the end of a road. Both roads lead to the same town, are equally straight, have an equal incline and equal cover. The British are equidistant from both roads and face the same terrain no matter which way they pursue you. Which way do you turn?” Of course, the official answer is “left – because that’s the way George Washington did it!”
Of course, I’m throwing a lot of hyperbole around here, but you get the idea. I’m a student of history and know that things are usually more complicated than they appear. “How should Benedict Arnold attack the British troops?” Jim’s answer: “It really doesn’t freakin’ matter because Arnold was a genius at making do with what he had and his troops loved him and would have followed him to hell if the situation called for that. Arnold probably could have swam up the Thames, slapped King George across his ugly German face and live to tell about it if Washington asked him to.” Of course, this is a broadcast show and must be presented in a linear format. It’s not like those “choose your own ending” books where you turn to page 112 if you want Indy to shoot the Nazis or page 156 if you want Indy to sneak away and alert Sallah. But still, one thing I always hated about history as taught in school was that damn timeline. History isn’t linear. History, as James Burke said, is more like a sphere of timelines. A web if you will, with those timelines intersecting at different points. Teaching kids that things happened in this order “just because” doesn’t make history come alive. Showing them the million different events that led to Napoleon coming to power – and how his ego alone eventually put men on the moon and gave us canned food is far more interesting.