History is, as I never tire of saying, a floating referent. It's never entirely clear where to start, and, in the case of a counterfactual, it is even harder. Hypothetical questions about historical counterfactuals are happening right now, over on Quora.Com, so they are very much questions of 2017. (Just to remind you, the framing counterfactual for this occasional series is, "What if the Commonwealth armed forces of 1940 were armed like the 21st Army Group on 11 May 1945?") (Also.)
On the other hand, the response is very much to Correlli Barnett's Audit of War, a book that came out in March of 1986, per Paul Addison's review, much linked to from here as an explanation of that book, which the reader may have forgotten about, or never known. On the other hand again, Audit signifies around here as a programmatic manifesto of Thatcherism, and Dame Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, seven years before Audit was published. On the other hand again, Thatcher was famously "a research chemist before she became a barrister," while Barnett had been a military historian/media pundit since the 1960s. Although you'll have to take my word for this, since I am not going to engage the ideas behind Audit in any more detail than is necessary to trace its impact, Audit was exactly what an English research-chemist-turned-barrister born in 1924 in the Midlands would have produced had she turned into an ancestral voice prophesying war, as opposed to, say, a Prime Minister.
Finally, just to throw on one more guiding metaphor onto an already unwieldy mass, I have talked about the idea of "Technology Levels," as used in the classic 1977 tabletop roleplaying game, Traveller. I'll come back to "Tech Levels" at the end of this discussion. For now, suffice it to say that they were originally intended to be descriptive. Your party lands on a planet; do the natives, who know you Pappenheimers, shoot back with bows and arrows, or hand-carried fusion blasters? A single number in the planet's descriptor tells you! However, they tend to become prescriptive. A blender from a Tech Level 9 world will be 1/16th (don't ask) more effective at blending than one from a Tech Level 8 world.
|The Zhodani are alien humans (don't ask some more) who are very advanced and psionic and stuff; but they're assholes, for RPG balance. Anyway, they invade the Imperium with their high tech ships, which are just better on account of being higher tech level than Imperium ships.|
Traveller comes before Audit, but Barnett's treatment of World War II is a lot like this. Brits used to say (I take Barnett as saying) that they fought World War II at Tech Level, oh, say, 6.5, compared to Germany's 6. In reality, it was 5.5 versus 6.5, Barnett says. He then adds that, had WWII been fought in 1850, instead, it would have been Britain at Tech Level 5 versus Germany at Tech Level 4, and Britain would have won the war even more than it did.
So, Britain has gone from a Tech Level advantage of 1, to a disadvantage of 0.5 --in my interpretation, of course. Audit purports to show that this is actually the case, while at the same time fingering the culprits. It's a very ambitious book --far too ambitious, in fact. But it does give us a way to think about technological change. My 1940 counterfactual seems, at least to me, like an elegant way to test this idea about technological change.
And by "test," I mean, stuff the demolition chamber with enough RDX to blow up a planet. (Which, by a wacky coincidence, is more-or-less what we're doing.)