I recently finished Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), with the give-it-all-away subtitle How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think. Generalizing a bit, not just wars but many major events and some small, unnoticed ones send ripples into the future, silently influencing future generations. Could the present, our present, have turned out differently?
First, a bit about the book. For such a detailed and informative book, it was an easy read. The book recounts three battles — Okinawa, Shiloh, and Delium — and shows how events that played out in a matter of days or even hours produced long-lasting consequences that are still with us. The kamikazi pilots and fight-to-the-death soldiers at Okinawa are suddenly echoed by today’s suicide bombers. At Shiloh, the Union’s General Sherman emerged from heavy fire with bullet holes in his uniform but only slight wounds, while the Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston (of Utah War fame) died in a mid-day charge on a Union position — how differently future battles might have gone had a rifle ball or two been two inches this way or that and the outcomes been reversed. At Delium, the rustic Boeotians displayed clever tactics (later picked up by Philip and Alexander) and routed the sophisticated Athenians, slaughtering thousands of fleeing hoplites. But they didn’t get Socrates, or philosophy might have taken a much different path. You wouldn’t have read The Republic in college, for instance.
There are several interesting extensions from this basic theme. One which the author pursues in his conclusion is our contemporary event of 9-11, which promises to send large ripples forward for a century or more. Hanson notes, “If our understanding of Greek tragedy, art, philosophy, politics, and war were changed by a relatively obscure battle at Delium, why would not the destruction of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Pentagon not similarly alter American culture?”
We might ask related questions about Mormon history rather than military history. What if the door to the upper room at Carthage Jail had been stronger with a solid lock, and Joseph not perished there? What if Governor Ford had heeded Joseph’s plea and taken Joseph and Hyrum to Nauvoo with his party? Or earlier, what if young Joseph had been welcomed by his local Methodist congregation rather than snubbed? What if Mount Tambora had not erupted in 1815, causing crop failures across the world in 1816, including New England? It was the last straw for the Smith family, who moved from Vermont to Palmyra in upstate New York late that summer.
Somehow it is easier to play counterfactual history with Sherman and Johnston at Shiloh (there are always extra generals around to carry on the fight) than with Joseph at Carthage. But both raise a deep philosophical question: Could the present have turned out differently? Can we change the future? Our LDS emphasis on what used to be called free agency suggests we have the power to choose and consequently to change the course of the future. But our emphasis on prophecy and God’s foreknowledge suggests that power to alter the course of future events is illusory. Then there is this enigmatic passage canonized in verses 14 and 15 of Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants, described in the heading as items of instruction given by Joseph Smith in 1843.
I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.
I don’t know if this means that if the jailer had put a strong lock on the door at Carthage Jail, we’d be a hundred years into the Millennium right now. But that passage does seem to imply the future is open, not determined. Past and present events, even our own personal actions, will ripple though the future. Good deeds pay future dividends. And that is an encouraging thought.