Nicholson Baker’s ‘Human Smoke’

   Nicholson Baker is a respected novelist, best known for examining the minutiae of his characters’ lives in books such as “The Mezzanine,” “Vox” and “Room Temperature.” To give you an idea, “Vox” consists entirely of a long conversation between a man and a woman on a sex chat line.
  Of late, however, Baker has focused largely on nonfiction, starting with “Double Fold,” a wonderful bit of investigative journalism in which he exposed the rampant destruction of rare newspaper archives by libraries and other institutions around the world.
  His latest work of nonfiction is “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.” First published in 2008, it was issued last month in trade paperback. Ostensibly, it’s a history of the run-up to World War II, but no conventional historian would have done anything like it. Baker’s research is solid but his presentation is unorthodox, to say the least.
  Chronologically from 1892 through 1941, he delivers a series of historical vignettes — brief news reports, more or less — documenting what a politician said in a speech, what somebody wrote in a diary, what transpired between military foes.
  This makes for fascinating reading. Baker’s selection of news items and anecdotes is rich in irony and exposes many cases of rank hypocrisy. What he is doing is building a case that perhaps, if the world’s political leaders had thought and acted differently, the epic death and destruction of World War II could have been prevented.
  Baker is a pacifist, and he attempts to show — successfully, for the most part — that political leaders on both sides ignored opportunities to prevent the war, or at least to minimize its scope. Instead, he reveals, they engaged in provocative activities they well knew would lead their countries into the conflict.
  It is clear from the evidence presented that Winston Churchill was an ass of global proportions. He was an egomaniac and a warmonger. At the time, Gandhi said that Churchill wasn’t much different from Hitler. After all, Churchill bombed Germany mercilessly — killing thousands of civilians — long before Hitler bombed England.
  Baker also makes a good case that lingering anti-Semitism in the West prevented millions of Jews from fleeing Germany and other nations under Nazi control. We wouldn’t let them migrate here, leaving them to either starve to death, thanks largely to the British food blockade, or eventually to be slaughtered in the Holocaust.
  While Baker’s research is extensive, it’s important to note that it is not balanced. He is not giving us the full story. He cherry-picks the anecdotes, comments and facts that best serve his case.
  But that’s all right. Baker never promised anybody that he’d write a balanced history of the causes of World War II. He’s not a historian per se, and, frankly, it’s already been done.
  My complaint is that “Human Smoke” is only half a book. That might seem like an odd thing to say about a book that’s 474 pages long, but it’s true. Baker does not make the case for pacifism. He occasionally mentions prominent pacifists and anti-war groups who were punished for their opinions. But these minor tidbits do more harm than good if Baker hopes to engender support for the cause.
  I was hoping Baker would try to outline how the principles of nonviolence might have been employed to stop Hitler, or at least reduce the war’s massive carnage. Alas, we don’t get that in “Human Smoke.”
  The problem, perhaps, is that pacifism simply was not a realistic answer to the maniacal mission of the Nazis. Yes, the Allies were war-like in their own right. Yes, Roosevelt intentionally provoked the Japanese. Yes, random bombing of civilians was immoral. But in the end, Hitler wore the blackest hat. He was a crazed aggressor who threatened democracies across Europe. If pacifism had been the prevailing policy in the West, Hitler would have walked in, taken over everything and made life miserable for everybody.
  As Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. showed, nonviolence can be an effective weapon against injustice when those doing wrong are capable of recognizing the error of their ways. But Hitler would not have been receptive to appeals to his better nature. In light of Hitler’s actions, how could the West have refused to fight?
  Baker does not offer an answer.
  Still, “Human Smoke” is an engrossing work. Most importantly, it blows a lot of received notions about World War II out of the water. It wasn’t really the “good war” that so many members of that generation like to say it was. The foes cannot be easily summed up as good on one side and evil on the other. Tens of millions of men, women and children — mostly innocent civilians — died for no good reason. Entire cities were razed by relentless firebombing. It was a nasty and brutal deal all the way around.

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