Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization"

The newest Nicholson Baker book is not a novel, but a book on World War II featuring "a series of excerpted primary sources from people and places as diverse as Goebbels, Stefan Zweig, the Völkischer Beobachter, Time, Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt."

Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
was published back in March of this year, and I would have expected more controversy than it generated. Somehow, the book remained confined to the world of reviews.

Baker was on Charlie Rose last night, which is how I discovered this book.

Essentially, Baker asserts that World War II (The Good War) is far from the ideal justification of war most people consider it to be. Rather, it did more to harm those it proposed to help than a more peaceful and diplomatic approach would have achieved. He supports this stance with the meticulous use of details one has grown accustomed to in his novels.

This is a large portion of the review in the New York Times Book Review, from March:
Baker is adept at managing the reader’s emotion. His vignettes about the treatment of the Jewish population, the deportations and the planned mass murders, are just as carefully chosen, with the same amount of barely contained anger in them as his pieces about what was done to the civilians of Germany and to the civilians of Britain by bombers. It seems that he wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one. In his afterword he says of the pacifists: “They failed, but they were right.” It is an aspect of the subtlety of his book that the reader is entitled to wonder if it’s true.

Churchill emerges here as a most fascinating figure — impetuous, childish, bloodthirsty, fearless, insomniac, bookish, bullying, determined, to name just some of his characteristics. Baker writes: “He wasn’t an alcoholic, someone said later — no alcoholic could drink that much.” The prime minister of Australia noted of Churchill: “In every conversation he ultimately reaches a point where he positively enjoys the war.” After the bombing of British cities Baker quotes him: “This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain.”

“One of our great aims,” Churchill wrote in July 1941, “is the delivery on German towns of the largest possible quantity of bombs per night.” Soon afterward, he said publicly: “It is time that the Germans should be made to suffer in their own homeland and cities something of the torments they have let loose upon their neighbors and upon the world.” Baker quotes large numbers of people who seemed to feel in these years that the entire German population, including women and children, were to blame for the Nazis and should be punished accordingly. For example, the writer Gerald Brenan: “Every German woman and child killed is a contribution to the future safety and happiness of Europe.” Or David Garnett (the author of the novel “Aspects of Love,” on which the musical is based), who wrote in 1941: “By butchering the German population indiscriminately it might be possible to goad them into a desperate rising in which every member of the Nazi Party would have his throat cut.”

The problem, as Baker makes clear, was that the bombing served to kill and maim the civilian population, yet the survivors did not blame the Nazi leaders, who used the bombing as a further excuse to inflict suffering on the Jewish population, claiming, for example, that evictions of Jews were “justified on the grounds that Aryans whose houses were destroyed by bombing needed a place to live.” As early as 1941 a member of Churchill’s cabinet could write: “Bombing does NOT affect German morale: let’s get that into our heads and not waste our bombers on these raids.” Churchill’s rationale for the bombing, Baker writes, arose from his belief that it was “a form of pedagogy — a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.”

In April 1941 certain German cities were identified as good targets because they were “congested industrial towns, where the psychological effect will be greatest”; the same report recommended the use of delayed-action bombs “so as to prevent or seriously interfere with fire fighting, repair and general traffic organization.” The following month Lord Trenchard, who had been instrumental in establishing the Royal Air Force, admitted that “the percentage of bombs which hit the military target at which they are aimed is not more than 1 percent.” And when Baker turns his attention to Washington, which he does regularly, he offers vignettes to suggest that Roosevelt was busy goading the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor so that America could enter the war.

Baker knows he is preaching to readers who already believe that the Nazis were evil, and that the German war machine, including the blitz, was, to say the least, conducted with ruthless carelessness for human life, and that many ordinary Germans were implicated in the Holocaust. It is possible that “Human Smoke” will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war. “Human Smoke” will not be admired by those who argue that methods used to win a war may seem, especially to novelists writing more than 60 years later, impossible to justify. Nonetheless, the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.

This is fairly positive review.

The LA Times pretty much agrees that this was an important book.
The Nation interviewed Baker in April.

Not everyone felt so kindly toward Baker and his book.

Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, is one such non-fan:
Baker’s book is eccentric because it paints a dozen mostly unrelated phenomena with a single moral brush. It is true that the United States and other anti-Fascist nations should have assisted European Jews fleeing from Hitler, and they did not. It does not follow that those countries had no moral standing to oppose the Nazis. Churchill was a late-Victorian sabre-rattler and Roosevelt seems to have once made a prejudicial comment about Jews. This did not disqualify them from leading their nations in a war against Hitler and Mussolini.

You feel that Baker cannot have wondered whether the Second World War was worth fighting, and then searched through the record. He seems to have decided that no war is worth fighting and then picked the most justifiable war he could find to try to make his case. That case is made by stringing together material paraphrased from news clips and anecdotes, offered in a bald, just-the-facts manner—bombs drop, civilians die, Churchill sips a glass of port.

It’s an interesting experiment: Baker is trying to eliminate the historian’s interpretive gloss in the interests of respecting the rawness of the primary experience. He seems to think that the facts speak for themselves. But facts never speak for themselves. We speak for them. The historian’s gloss matters (not to mention all the facts that are left out): it provides the reader with intellectual traction, an ability to weigh the claims being put forward to justify the selection of facts. Baker’s presentation may seem empirical—these things happened, you can look them up, no varnish has been applied—but the effect is entirely emotional, because there is no nesting argument, no narrative, to give events a context. It’s a tabloid technique: a six-word quotation or a single image is all you need to understand any issue. The pretense of no manipulation is completely manipulative. One would not want to say that “Human Smoke” reproduces the rhetorical strategy that Baker deplores when he sees it used to generate a public frenzy for war. That would be a tendentious exercise in moral equivalence. So I won’t say it.
Digital Survivors doesn't examine the book's implicit argument so much as it quibbles with a few of the facts Baker cites.

Commentary Magazine
offers the expected rebuttal of Baker's arguments:
For Baker, the concept of a just war does not exist. Although his extracts do not deny that Hitler and the Japanese were aggressors, with ambitions to re-order as much of the globe as possible, they are marshaled so as to suggest that aggression should have been met with kindness and thereby turned aside. Thus, Baker digs out of obscurity a crew of Western loners and egoists, often rather innocent churchmen, who preached pacifism. Among them were Clarence Pickett, Professor Rufus Jones and the Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee, the Reverend Harry Fosdick, and Muriel Lester. Space is likewise allotted to a man named John Haynes Holmes, the author of an antiwar play in which an American President counters a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet by flying to Japan and touching the emotions of the Japanese people so deeply that they revolt against their native militarism, and “everything turns out fine.”

Individuals who went to prison rather than be conscripted into the armed forces of the democracies are especially highlighted. In England, they included members of the Peace Pledge Union and Bloomsburyites around Frances Partridge. But none carried wartime pacifism to a higher extreme than Mohandas Gandhi in India, who is quoted often and admiringly in Human Smoke. His advice to the British was to fight Nazism without arms, even if the results were to prove suicidal.

Other public figures similarly advocated appeasement and accommodation, although not out of pacifist beliefs. They included Charles Lindbergh, Sir Oswald Mosley, General Antonescu in Romania, Pierre Laval in France—and Joseph Stalin. A single extract of eight lines offered by Baker makes Stalin out to be Hitler’s passive victim. This is to falsify the entire Nazi-Soviet relationship of the period. In historical fact, the pact Stalin so gladly signed with Hitler in 1939 put paid not only to any possibility of peace but almost to Western democracy and the Soviet Union alike.

The article goes on (referring to the book as a "fictionalization of World War II"), so if you want to see the other side of the issue, this is probably the best argument against the book that I have seen.

The review in The Independent (UK) is also not to thrilled with this book:
On the strength of his ruminations and some basic, if voluminous, research, Baker has decided that he knows why the Second World War happened. He has then selected the most powerful, emotive and, yes, entertaining bits of history and pasted them into a sort of scrapbook that pretends to be a narrative. In fact, it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history.
Overall, I'm intrigued, and will likely read this book when I get the chance.

I tend to agree with some of what Baker asserts (or rather doesn't assert so much as offers up for consideration). The bombing of civilian targets is terrorism, plain and simple. And the blockade starved more Jews (and other targets of the Nazis) than it did Axis military personnel.

As Nicholson reveals in the book, the Nazis repeatedly referred to the Jews as hostages, but when the US entered the war, the hostages became expendable and the death rate subsequently increased dramatically.

Was the war justified? Is war EVER justified? As a Buddhist I would argue not. But I suspect that with Hitler and the Nazi leadership, war was the only option. The question then is what we could have done differently to reduce the loss of innocent life. And what can we do now, where we have killed as many as 300,000 civilians in Iraq, to ease the suffer of those we intend to help?

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