Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Human Smoke": The Troubling Pacifism of Nicholson Baker

In March of 2008, Simon & Schuster published a new work of nonfiction by critically acclaimed author Nicholson Baker. The book is titled Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and it seeks to be nothing less than a pacifist revision of World War II history. As a work of responsible scholarship and serious historical inquiry, it fails miserably; as a work of polemic, it manages to be simultaneously tedious and infuriating.

As for the general tone, the construction of the text, and the tone of the prose, this review from the New York Times, or this one from the New York Sun. Both short reviews are worth reading for the quick summary of this loathsome book.

As noted in the cited reviews, the book consists of hundreds of short, clipped snippets of prose, often only a sentence or two in length and very rarely exceeding one page in length. Almost every single one of these paragraph "snapshots" includes the date, usually in the form of the mind-numbingly repeated format "It was [Month XX, 19XX]." I suppose this device was intended to give the book a sonorous, sobering tone of creeping death and destruction being brought on by the foolish and bloodthirsty actions of the leaders of the world, but especially Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Adolf Hitler, apparently, was mostly reacting to British and American provocation. The Imperial Japanese, for that matter, seemed to have been dragged into a war they wanted no part of. Baker's selective ability to take certain incidents and completely strip them of any context before presenting them to the reader would make Diana Johnstone proud if she were to ever read this book.

One of the most breathtakingly offensive aspects of this book, which NY Sun reporter Adam Kirsch comments on, is his willingness to take Axis leaders at their word while consistently highlighting every inconsistency and public lie Churchill and Roosevelt he seems to have come across in his "research". This is no exaggeration. Baker very rarely allows an overtly editorial tone to creep into his narrative (like Johnstone, he prefers to frame his warped narrative in a tone of faux objectivity); typical of the rare occasions when he does is this passage from page 214:

"An hour after the broadcast of Hitler's final appeal to reason, one of the BBC's German-language newsmen, Sefton Delmer, transmitted an unofficial response for German listeners: "Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense," Delmer said in German. "Herr Fuhrer and Reichskanzler, we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil-smelling teeth."

That's no typo, and nothing in the text up to this point suggests any irony on Baker's part--Hitler was the one making the appeal to reason; by this point in the book, it should be noted, Baker has fully rounded out his portrait of Churchill as a racist, bloodthirsty monster indifferent to human suffering. Such a bastard, he wouldn't even listen to reason--from Hitler.

Another recurring theme in the book--"theme" giving Baker a little too much credit for this muddled mess of incident and contemporary reportage divorced from historical context or analysis--is the suggestion that the Holocaust was the unfortunate result of Allied stubbornness. The refusal of Allied and neutral nations to accept Jewish refugees is a well-documented historical fact, and rightly a source of shame for the United States and many other nations. And there is no doubt that the food shortages resulting from the British blockade weighed more heavily on Jews and other "undesirables" than on German civilians. But Baker is not content with such obvious observations--as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that he blames the Allies for the Holocaust, since they wouldn't take the Jews, and the blockade made the Nazi plan of deportation to Palestine or Madagascar impossible. The "final solution," as it turns out, was the only option the Nazis had for ridding Europe of Jews once the Allies didn't give them anywhere to send them.

Logistically, of course, this is idiotic--there were several million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe at the time, far too many for any sort of emergency evacuation and relocation efforts. Morally, this is appalling. Baker, by focusing purely on the evolution of Nazi treatment of the Jews from ghettos and slave labor to comprehensive annihilation, has accepted the logic of Nazi racism. Much like apologists for Serb nationalists in Bosnia, Baker treats the Nazis as being purely reactive, simply guided by outside stimuli. Sure, they killed millions of Jews, Baker concedes, but the Allies knew how the Nazi leadership viewed them; the Holocaust is here presented as an inevitable outcome not of Nazi propaganda and state power, not of the ideology of genocide developed over the course of more than a decade by a totalitarian state, but by callous Allied war-mongering.

The examples of Baker's moral relativism-gone-amok are legion. I marked many examples in the text, but now that I have finished this book I realize it would be unfair of me to inflict the dreary monotony of this book on my readers. While his horrific attempts to blame the Allies for the Holocaust will rightly most outrage readers, there are other aspects of the book which should raise eyebrows. Baker is obsessed with the carnage and military ineffectiveness of the strategic bombing tactics of the war, but rather than conclude that the strategy itself was flawed and a massive, tragic mistake by the Allies, he uses the horrors of a particular strategy and a particular technology as a blanket indictment of all war. There is no suggestion in the book that different tactics or different weaponry would meet with any more authorial approval.

I read this book because I knew it was a pacifist revision of the standard narrative of World War II--a necessary war, it must be remembered. Baker holds the Allies responsible for most of the deaths in that war because they refused to negotiate with Hitler after the fall of France and because they refused to cooperate with his efforts to removed the Jews from Europe. The Japanese leadership gets treated with even kinder treatment; one would never know that the war in China was a war of aggression by the Japanese military, or that the Japanese Empire had imperial designs on much of Southeast Asia from reading this book. One does learn that the civilian deaths at Pearl Harbor were caused by misfiring American anti-aircraft shells; I shudder to think what point Baker feels the inclusion of this detail makes. Being an interventionist and a believer that pacifism is, as a political and ideological belief, fundamentally immoral, I wanted to see how Baker would spin events like the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking. The answers were troubling, and validate my convictions that pacifism in the real world is simply not a moral or responsible position.

What makes this book especially relevant to this blog, however, is how similar Baker's methods are to Balkan revisionists, particularly Diana Johnstone. Like her, Baker begins his narrative of particular events at certain moments without giving prior context, so that Japanese defensiveness is reported without noting that Japan was trying to consolidate its military gains in Manchuria. He presents incidents and conversations completely devoid of context or nuance. He accepts the words of Nazi leaders at face value while insinuating the basest and darkest of motives to the Allied leaders, just as Johnstone is willing to believe reports from Serb state media while dismissing firsthand accounts of rape from ordinary women. And like her, he presents the argument that the inclusive, secular, democratic values of our civilization are simply not worth fighting for.

Baker would have had the Allies make peace with Hitler; this way, he argues, the Jews would have been spared the Holocaust. But he has nothing to say of allowing a regime which would be capable of killing millions of people for the crime of being Jewish to reap the rewards for its conquests and violence. Like Jimmy Carter, Baker, seems to believe that being able to convince the bullies to stop shooting just for a little while, so that some of their victims have time to crawl away, is the best that we can do. Like Johnstone, Baker sees the hypocrisies of our own leaders more clearly than he does the gross moral failings of our enemies. Or perhaps I should not say "our." Perhaps the fact that Nicholson Baker, Diana Johnstone, and I all live "in" the West is merely incidental.

The subtitle of "Human Smoke" is, as noted above, "The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilization." On one level, this is merely absurd--civilization survived the end of World War II and in many ways is better off today. In 1939, most of the "Third World" was still in colonial bondage; today, nearly all of the former colonial world has achieved independence. And so on; yet, the absurdity of this pretentious subtitle is the least of it. I wonder what sort of "civilization" Baker thinks we would have had the Allies made peace and fascism had been allowed to rule over much of Europe and its population of several million Jews. If Nicholson Baker cares so damn much about "civilization" it would behoove him to at least define it since he does not care to see anyone take up arms to defend it.


Anonymous said...

appalling indeed:

""like her, he presents the argument that the inclusive, secular, democratic values of our civilization are simply not worth fighting for.""

in the 20s and 30s fascism rose in Europe because, among other things, many intellectuals had come to believe that democracy was flawed, that as a system it was a failure, because of the fact that it was not being able to solve the economic crisis. then when the fascists appeared, these intelectuals were mostly seduced by the promise of a new system and ready to tolerate some "temporary" measures that had some costs (but not for themselves, of course, it was for others to bear the costs).

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book, but what Baker implies seems to be justification of Holocaust (please correct me if I am wrong). While we can debate whether specific crimes amounted to genocide (e.g. Armenian-Turkish conflict), there is absolutely no argument that can change the fact that Holocaust of Jews happened.

I would like to remind Baker that the Holocaust of Jews, plus genocides in both Rwanda and Srebrenica are JUDICIAL FACTS.

Claiming that crimes are purely reactionary is a joke argument. According to Baker, we should all punch each other in the face any time we don't agree with each other. Come on Baker, don't insult our intelligence. Holocaust and genocides in both Rwanda and Srebrenica are not a matter of anybody's opinion.

Shaina said...

I haven't read the book, but from your review it sounds somewhat similar to the WWII revisionist book (and least in overall theme) by Pat Buchanan (and apparently promoted on a neo-nazi radio station); except coming from a different ideological framework.

Of course, I actually haven't read either book, so I could be WAY off about this.

Anthony said...

I am a member of the Churchill Centre. On the Churchill Centre's e-mail list, this book (and Buchanan's new book on Churchill) has been a major topic of discussion.

Baker is a pacifist and looks at the issues somewhat different that Buchanan (who is a paleoconservative). Someone recently writing about the controversy the books cause said about pacifist that "they can only survive in free countries with a large fleet." (That sounds like Christopher Hitchens, though it may have been his brother Peter, but I am not really sure who said it).