Thursday, December 11, 2014

On “Human Smoke” by Nicholson Baker *****

There are so many ways to approach this book that I’m not sure where to begin. Maddening, discouraging, intriguing--Baker’s book is a history of World War II, a collection of historical vignettes, and a careful selection of facts such that the war is viewed in ways that Americans are not used to seeing it in.

On one level, and this is really, I think, Baker’s main task, it is a history of passivism in the face of war. In this sense, it is a unique take on the Good War, since our usual view is on that of the supposed heroes. Here, the heroes are those who refused to go to war in the first place, and those who pushed for negotiation and compromise come off looking much more intelligent and kind than those who put up defenses and forced military action. As such, Britain’s prime minister Chamberlain, who famously signed away parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler seems somehow more heroic than Winston Churchill, who stood up to Hitler. And indeed, placed in chronological order, with a focus on avoiding war, Chamberlain does seem the more reasonable character. Churchill comes off perhaps worse than Hitler himself in Baker’s text--belligerent, petty, desirous of killing as many civilians (particularly Germans) as possible. As Baker brings out, it was Churchill who started the aerial bombing of Germany before Germany started bombing England. (That said, Germany's earlier bombing of Poland is virtually ignored. An interesting side note: bombing campaigns, thought to lower civilian morale, appear to have done just the opposite--the more people were bombed, the more citizens wanted revenge and thus for their own armies to bomb the other nation. Bombing of others actually "raised" morale. Vengeance begets more vengeance.)

Likewise here also, Roosevelt comes off as someone not quite so wonderful either. While milder than Churchill, Baker shows that Roosevelt wanted the war and was doing very much what he could to stir up the embers of hate with Germany and Japan: supplying war materials to Britain and Russia, building up a larger and larger peacetime army as 1941 neared, placing ships in Hawaii to keep them closer to Japan, exploring the possibility of bombing Japanese cities (even though the United States was not at war with Japan yet) from China and elsewhere, cutting off gasoline and other necessities to the Japanese. Several times, Roosevelt is noted as saying that he can’t fire the first shot (due to election pledges) but that he can try to force the other’s hand.

I suspect Germany and Russia come off in a slightly lighter light than usual because the main sources of material were in the English language (especially the New York Times). Russia’s treatment seems scant, given how many died there and how it treated its own people in addition to the Germans. Germany, because of its treatment of the Jewish people, obviously still looks like a horrible belligerent. And yet, over and over, the idea of moving Jews out of Germany (rather than killing them) is posited, but no one wants them (save for the Dominican Republic, looking to whiten its population)--not England, not the United States. Britain does its best to keep more Jews from moving to Israel, and Madagascar is proposed as a good locale, save that the British blockade keeps many a ship from getting out of European waters.

And while Baker’s point, that if everyone refused to fight, there would not be--could not be--a war, is clear, the kind of short shift that some of the causes of Britain’s belligerence get seems a bit unfair. Yes, history is written by the victors, and so we rarely see some of the causes of German and Japanese irritation in such detail as we see here, but the fact that Hitler repeatedly broke promises (to take over only part of Czechoslovakia, to not attack Russia, etc.), rather undermined the repeated efforts, once the war started, toward various peace accords, for peace in part depends on trust.

Still, one comes away from the whole with a sick feeling, knowing the utter devastation and the number of lives taken, many in utterly cruel forms, in the name of various national honors, of money, of politics. There is, one could posit, never enough reason to kill another human being.

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