There is nothing like getting everyone mad at you simultaneously, is there? Personally, I take it as something of a challenge. And so, for the past few years I've been sitting on this book proposal for a highly commercial alternate history/time travel novel, fixed firmly in that sub-genre whereby $CONTEMPORARY_WARFIGHTING_UNIT is magically teleported back in time.
You probably remember the movie The Final Countdown (USS Nimitz magically teleported back to 1941, on the eve of the Pearl Harbour attack), or John Birmingham's highly successful "Axis of Time" trilogy (NATO carrier battle group, circa 2020, teleported back to 1941 ...) or the cultural variant novel "Island in the Sea of Time" by S. M. Stirling (Nantucket Island circa 1990 is teleported back in time, complete with inhabitants, to the era of the Trojan war) or "1632" by Eric Flint (mining town in Appalachia is teleported back in time to ...)
I have a shit-stirring variation ...
Let us contemplate the state of Israel, as it existed at 6pm on the evening of October 5th, 1973.
Today, more than a third of a century after the Yom Kippur War, Israel's military pre-eminence in the middle east is taken for granted; this is by no means an obviously vulnerable nation. Today, Israel's neighbours are effectively neutralized (lest we forget, Iran is roughly a thousand miles away: anti-Israeli rhetoric is cheap currency in Iranian politics) and for the past twenty years we've been treated to a very different picture of Israel as regional military hegemon.
In 1948 it was very easy to perceive Israel as a small, put-upon, embattled lifeboat, a last chance at safety for Jews at large in a hostile world that wanted them dead. By 2008, well ... not so much. TV news footage of soldiers shooting at stone-throwing kids, bulldozers demolishing houses; Arab leaders wringing their hands and making excuses for their own inability to do anything. When did things change? And how, and why?
1973 was very much a pivotal moment in the history of the middle east. And so, as a thought experiment, it makes a lot of sense to look at the political dynamics of Israel plunged into a different context: without explanation, transported back in time to June 20th, 1940.
In 1973, things were very different strategically. Israeli GDP has grown enormously since the lost decade of the 1970s and early 1980s, and Israel's population has more than doubled since then. Back in 1973, Israel had on the order of 3 million people and about a quarter to a third the per-capita GDP of the USA (at the same time). The IDF was highly effective, but the post-1967 arms embargo threatened to strangle their modernization program. Large numbers of WW2-era Sherman Firefly tanks and barely more modern Centurions made up the backbone of the armoured corps; the Air Force relied heavily on French Mirage III and V fighters (and indeed the arms embargo led directly to the Israeli theft of the blueprints for the Mirage V, resulting in the design of the Nesher and later Kfir). While it is believed the IDF possessed atomic weapons by 1973, their actual numbers and effectiveness would have been tiny — on the order of four to six Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, delivered as free-fall bombs by F4 Phantoms or A4 Skyhawks. Finally, there's the huge issue of the occupation: post-1967, Israeli forces occupied not only Gaza and the West Bank, but the strategically important Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, with defensive fortifications (the Bar Lev line) drawn up on the north bank of the Suez canal.
But I'm in danger of succumbing to techno-wank at this point, a besetting disease of wargamers past and present. And that's not my intention.
Let's take a look at this preposterous scenario and contemplate the consequences ...
It's 6pm. All the international phone and telegraph lines go dead; all FM radio traffic from outside the country dies: lights across the border go out. It's going to be glaringly obvious to the soldiers on duty on the Israeli border that something is wrong.
In Cairo, word is received that the railway line to Haifa is blocked and the phone lines to Palestine have been cut. Then very disturbing news will come in from the Suez canal; soldiers in foreign uniforms are seen on the north bank. Egypt and Palestine are both under British rule at this point, and there's a war on: it's highly likely that British soldiers, sent north to find out what's going on, will assume it's a Jewish or Arab uprising and an exchange of fire will take place, with devastating medium-term consequences. The situation in June 1940 is confused, panicky, with word of the French collapse feeding a perception of crisis throughout the British Empire. A hostile uprising that threatens the Suez canal — the lifeline linking India and the east African possessions (not to mention Australia and NZ) to the Mediterranean — is a nightmare scenario for Britain.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Israeli government and military are fresh from meetings to establish whether a multi-nation Arab attack is imminent. Both sides are extremely jittery; the only question is who pulls the trigger first.
Immediate consequence: a sharp border war between Great Britain and Israel.
Longer term ...
The sudden eruption of 1973 Israel into 1940 isn't going to end the war. Despite having a nuclear stockpile, Israel isn't in a position to end hostilities in Europe. Firstly, the strike radius of those weapons is comparable to the one-way flight range of a late-1950s jet fighter. They can hit Moscow, or Berlin, on a suicide mission. But six atom bombs won't stop the Third Reich in its tracks. Nor would they stop Stalin's Soviet Union. (The Israeli nuclear arsenal of 1983 or 1993 would be a whole different matter — but make for a much less interesting story.)
There is some prospect, in 1940, of a temporary treaty of convenience with the Axis powers — with Italy, at least. While the chances of Moshe Dayan sitting down in a smoke-filled room with Joachim von Ribbentrop are tiny (but what a tense scene that would be!), Golda Meier's government is trapped between a rock and a hard place — they're now under an effectively 100% impermeable blockade, and confronting a hostile British army to the south. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the Jews of Europe, a significant political consideration for Israel in ~1973 (many of whose citizens are either refugees from the Holocaust, or first generation descendants of refugees). There are going to be negotiations (in bad faith, on both sides) leading to the exchange of refugees for resources such as oil. Followed, of course, by the inevitable double-cross.
Going forward, there are a couple of other scenes I wanted to write.
In 1973, El Al had taken delivery of its first Boeing 747-200. (And the IAF was receiving early C-130 Hercules transporters, but wasn't yet in a position to contemplate long-range operations such as the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue.) Threatened by the British in Egypt to the south, by the Axis powers to the west, and potentially by the USSR to the north-east, there's one possible place for the Israeli government to look for help — Washington DC. And if there's one thing that's definitely going to yank Roosevelt's attention away from the deteriorating situation in the Pacific, it's going to be the sight of a gigantic airliner roaring over the White House, to land (probably wrecking its undercarriage in the process) at DC's airport with a diplomatic and military delegation on board, bearing an urgent plea for help and offering design blueprints for super-weapons.
And then, two years down the line, with the messy misunderstanding with the British more or less sorted out, there's a climactic sequence I really wanted to put on paper. It's an account of the First Battle of El-Alamein — the one in which General Rommel's Afrika Corps runs up against General Ariel Sharon's First Armoured Division, with messy consequences ... as witnessed from a dug-out by an absolutely terrified Gunner Spike Milligan.
(There are copious additional background notes. The Israelis, circa 1973, would not have been aware of the ENIGMA rotor machines or the Polish/British success at cracking the German military cyphers — this was only declassified in the UK in 1974-75. There was no computer internetworking outside the US (and a research environment in the UK) in 1973. Israel had on the order of a thousand computers by 1973, mostly mainframes and minicomputers; however, they'd likely have been able to manufacture transistors and possibly simple integrated circuits without too much difficulty. The nuclear establishment at Dimona is believe to have possessed some hundreds of tons of uranium ore, to have working military reactors, and a small plutonium stockpile. The blueprints of the Mirage V would have been available, albeit not yet in factory form — and they may well have been able to reverse-engineer the originally British-built Centurion tanks owned by the Israeli Army. And so on.)
But alas, this is another of those novels that isn't going to get written.
The research workload for doing an alternate history of this kind is murderous, as I think I implied in the first essay in this series. Moreover, this particular scenario ... let's just say, it's a great way to generate controversy! Death threats too, most likely. (In a scenario of desperation such as this, combining the darkest days of the second world war with a national battle for survival, nobody is going to come out covered in roses. In fact, it's going to resemble a cage match in a sewage farm. With alligators. Rabid alligators.)
I kicked the idea of doing this as a collaboration around with Steve Stirling; after all, if you're going to dip a toe in a sub-genre you're inexperienced in, why not look for a writing partner who's been there before? Unfortunately, the trouble with collaborations is that they're not a simple matter of each writer doing half the work; it's more like 66% each. We concluded that we simply wouldn't be able to get a big enough advance out of a publisher to make it worth our while. I'm almost relieved ...