Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker

Human Smoke

Let’s start with the style or format of this book, which is unconventional. It consists of several hundred pages of discrete passages, an average of maybe a half page each. I won’t say “factoids,” because I think that term is usually used in a derogatory way, but brief facts. They are simply stated, one after another, in chronological order—this happened, this person said this, this appeared in this newspaper, this law was passed, this correspondence was sent from this person to this person, etc.—with no commentary or connective material. If you want to know what the author thinks of all this, what his point was in assembling all this material, there is only an afterword, barely a page long. Beyond that, you have to infer as much as you can on that score by considering which of the practically infinite number of available facts he chose to include and how he worded them.

The subject matter of Human Smoke, broadly speaking, is World War II. Well, really broadly speaking, I suppose it’s humanity’s proclivity for the mutual slaughter that is war. But mostly it covers the run-up to World War II and the early years of the war. It begins with a lone passage from 1892 (about Alfred Nobel), followed by a smattering of passages from World War I and through the ’20s, then an increasing number of passages as we move through the ’30s—as Hitler comes to power and such—and then continues through to where much of the world finds itself at war. It ends at the close of 1941, less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war.

It’s not a straightforward history, certainly. That is, it’s not a compilation of the facts you’d most need to know to do well on a standardized public high school test on World War II.

It’s an antiwar book. More than that, it’s a book that is sympathetic toward, if not advocates, pacifism. And no, that’s not the same thing. Everyone is antiwar, but 99% of the time that means, “I’m against war except when it’s necessary.” World War II, in fact, is the extreme case most often used to argue against pacifism. “War is a terrible thing, everyone knows that. And it’s all well and good to condemn it. But when a Hitler comes along you have no choice.”

The choice of subject matter of the book, then, seems to be Baker’s laudable effort to address the classic “hard case” for pacifism. “Laudable,” because of course it’s far more common for advocates to try to keep the focus on whatever cases are easiest for their side. (Those in favor of criminalizing abortion would much prefer to talk about late term, or “partial birth,” abortions where the fetus looks most like a baby; those in favor of legalized abortion would much prefer to talk about pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest.)

So if I had to summarize the case Baker is making in this book, I think it would go something like this: World War II is the war that most people would single out as the clearest case of good guys versus bad guys, of the need to go to war as a last resort when dealing with a particularly bestial foe who can be stopped in no other way. But in fact, even that war was a lot more morally complex and ambiguous than it is remembered, with the “good guys” doing plenty of the sorts of things we’re inclined to attribute to only “bad guys.” Instead of lionizing our side and condemning the “enemy,” we need to see that the true enemy is war itself, or, more broadly, violence and cruelty in general, and oppose that.

The facts included in the book, then, tend to emphasize how awful war and state violence are, and how the way those we’ve been accustomed to side with conducted themselves throughout this period was far, far worse than we’ve been led to believe. “We” not so much meaning history scholars—who have access to all the arguments from revisionist historians and such—but more the general public who have obtained their impressions of the war from conventional history textbooks, the mainstream media, etc.

Not that I kept count, but I’d say the country that gets the most attention (with the attention being almost all condemnatory, focusing on particularly despicable things that were said and done) is Great Britain, followed closely by Germany, then the United States, then a considerable gap back to Japan, and then perhaps the Soviet Union next, with no others getting more than a very occasional mention. So Hitler’s ghastly regime is featured far more than Stalin’s, while the flaws of the Allies, especially Britain and the U.S., are scrutinized far more than the vast majority of readers would be used to.

Meanwhile, scattered throughout are passages about various pacifists—Gandhi most notably—speaking out against war, and passages relating the experiences of those, like the European Jews, victimized most severely by all the violence unleashed during these years.

Next let me mention a few of the points that happened to stand out to me as I read—generally not a specific event or quote, but broader points supported by many of Baker’s passages.

If there’s one person who comes across as far, far worse than his reputation, it would have to be Churchill. I mean, you know Hitler and whatever other Nazi figures happen to be mentioned are going to seem like horrible folks—because they were horrible folks—but Churchill has much farther to fall from his pedestal, and Baker sends him for a tumble.

He—and the British—were certainly ruthless toward the people in their colonies, especially anyone non-white. Not all the British of course, but those more toward the political right tended to take a particularly hard line in dealing with the colonies, and Churchill was a right winger.

He was obsessed with guns and violence and the military, and fancied himself quite the military strategic genius, when in fact he was something of a bumbler in military affairs. The Allies won the war in spite of rather than because of his contributions as a military decisionmaker.

That doesn’t mean that his leadership was a net negative to the British and Allied cause. It may well be that his rhetorical skills in rallying the nation and bucking up their spirit and such more than offset his rash military decisions. He was valuable as a figurehead, as a symbol, but apparently the more he meddled in the actual nuts and bolts stuff the more damage he did.

As far as the tactics used to pursue the war, again as you’d expect the Axis forces’ viciousness is indefensible. But the Allies were pretty awful too. Churchill and the Allies contemplated, discussed, and prepared for the use of chemical and other “weapons of mass destruction” just as the Axis did, and certainly would have used them if they’d needed to in order to win. And of course only one side used atomic weapons.

Once the British were driven from the continent, there were two main tactics used against the Axis, both of which caused tremendous civilian suffering and casualties. One was massive bombing and the other was economic blockade.

A common defense of such tactics—when “we” use them—is that the bombing of military targets specifically, and blockades or embargos that are designed to keep food, metals, textiles, etc. from the military, only cause civilian casualties as an unfortunate, unintended byproduct, whereas when the “bad guys” (the Axis or any other enemy during any war, “terrorists,” etc.) harm and kill civilians it’s by intent.

Certainly there’s something to this distinction—the Allies (well, excluding the Soviet Union) never were guilty of anything remotely like the organized mass slaughter of innocents of the Holocaust—but not much. There was really no such thing as precision bombing in that era, so even when civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian targets by British and other Allied bombers was not literally intentional, it was absolutely foreseeable and considered acceptable.

And to some extent the civilian bombing damage was intentional. The civilian suffering the economic blockade caused was even more explicitly intentional. I mean, that was the whole point of it: Let’s starve the Germans and the people in all the occupied countries to where they become so desperate that they’ll rise up even against the powerful and ruthless German military, and the continent will be thrown into chaos, making Germany easier to defeat.

By the way, not only is that a blatantly inhumane policy, but arguably a pretty stupid one. When it came to the distribution of the waning supplies, the Germans made sure that the military and the elite were well fed for as long as possible, and the common Germans next longest, and were more than happy to see their most powerless enemies starve. I mean, a lot of them—Jews, Soviet POWs, etc.—they intended to kill anyway, so they were hardly upset by not having enough food for them.

And even insofar as there was a certain amount of civilian suffering caused to the general population in Germany by the bombing and blockade, that’s not the kind of thing that tends to make a civilian population switch sides. After all, think about it from the other side. When the Nazis were dropping all the bombs they could on Britain, did some massive number of British seek to overthrow their government and help the Nazis win the war? Of course not. It just made them hate the country bombing them all the more.

Human Smoke contains many passages showing that even if the British and Americans and all didn’t have the same genocidal designs on the Jews that the Nazis did, they weren’t particularly fond of them either. From FDR on down they made statements betraying blatantly anti-Semitic attitudes, and were negligent at best when it came to doing anything for the Jews desperate to escape from Nazi-controlled Europe.

What I’d read in the past about the entry of the United States into World War II indicated that because FDR and others felt war was likely to come eventually regardless, and because they were inclined to come to the aid of Britain and the Allies sooner rather than later, they were willing to take a hard line with Japan and risk provoking them into starting a war. That is, if the pressure brought Japan to heel without war then great—everybody loves getting your way while keeping the peace—whereas if it triggered a war, well, that was acceptable too.

But judging by the passages Baker compiled, I think that understates the desire of the U.S. (that is, FDR and those calling the shots) to get into the war. They actively assisted Britain in ways that made a mockery of any notion of neutrality—so in a sense they were participants in the war well before they formally entered it—and their actions toward Japan were blatantly provocative. They didn’t behave as if risking provoking a war with Japan was a cost they were willing to bear, but like provoking a war with Japan is what they wanted.

Finally, since I read Baker as being sympathetic to World War II pacifists—an impression confirmed in the very brief afterward, it’s worth saying something about this pacifism.

I’m a pacifist myself, but I’m always pessimistic that any more than a tiny number of people are persuadable on this topic. When I read pro-pacifist material, I rarely react like, “Yeah! If we could just get more people to read this, it would wake a lot of them up. This is what they need to hear.” Instead, I find myself typically wincing, because I expect any mainstream person reading such material to reject it out of hand, and probably to be angered by it.

So what would I expect a non-pacifist to say in response to Human Smoke, in defense of active participation in World War II and other “just” wars? Well, many things obviously, but two things in particular come to mind.

First, whatever criticisms one can level against those who opposed Hitler militarily—about their anti-Semitism, their dishonesty, their using or being open to using the most horrific weapons such as atomic bombs and chemical weapons, their brutal colonial oppression, whatever—they were still a heck of a lot better than Hitler and the Axis. The evidence assembled by Baker doesn’t establish any kind of moral equivalence between the two main sides in World War II. (By the way, I never interpreted him as trying to, though I would guess some readers would assume he was, and would be outraged by it. But regardless of whether he was trying to do so or not, I think it’s obvious he did not, in fact, do so. Hitler’s still worse than Churchill.)

So I would think most people would say that when the alternative is something like Nazism, then it’s justified not only to tolerate whichever “lesser of the evils” entities are combatting such a moral monstrosity, but to actively support them and join them, including militarily.

Second, let’s hypothesize instead that there really was a sort of moral equivalence between the two main sides in World War II. In that case, there would still be reasons of self-interest to root for, and actively support, one’s own side. Maybe both sides are equally vicious warmongers, equally dishonest, and equally unwilling to be bound by any moral principles or laws that would in any way limit their opportunity to destroy, enslave, or exploit anyone they consider their enemy. In that case, I expect most people, if they’re being honest, would want the side they’re on to prevail in any such unjust war, and likely they would be willing to participate in the war to help try to bring about that desired outcome. Even if you don’t like knowing that your country is bombing some other country back to the Stone Age, you probably like it better than if your country was the one that was Stone Age bound.

I had a conversation with a friend a while back, wherein he acknowledged that there is much injustice in the American system of capitalism. But he said that given that there was nothing he could do to change that, really his only choices were to participate in it fully and do whatever he needed to do, however loathsome, to succeed, or instead let himself be exploited by other capitalists. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize that all else being equal it’s a good thing to be nice and to live by the golden rule and such, but in a society where there are only victims and victimizers, he can handle the guilt of being a victimizer more easily than he can handle having the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short life of a victim.

Or imagine being pitted against another gladiator in the Colosseum. If you are morally enlightened enough that you don’t regard your opponent as somehow inferior to you and deserving of death, that’s great, but chances are you’re still going to try to run him through with your sword, just as a matter of self-preservation.

It can come down to that same thing with war: If both sides—us and them—are equally shitty, then the moral considerations cancel themselves out and as a matter of self-interest I’m better off being on the winning side.

And I don’t know what the best response to that is. Whether the Allies were seriously flawed but still considerably better than the Axis (which pretty clearly was the case), or were equally bad but you lived in the country of one of the Allies, I totally understand why you would insist on “standing up to Hitler” by any means necessary to prevail, including military means. It seems the pacifist is asking people instead to accept martyrdom, to let Hitler and his minions roll over them, their loved ones, and their country.

Certainly one thing I’d want to say is that, following Gandhi, the best course of action is neither to fight a war against Hitler, nor to not stand up to him, but instead to stand up to him nonviolently. But the problem with that is that active, practical nonviolence as a means to achieving one’s ends cleanly, without resorting to immoral means, is very much in its infancy when it comes to something as extreme as war. Gandhi spent virtually his whole adult life experimenting with opposing state violence through nonviolent means, and he made progress, but there’s still an enormous distance to go. For the foreseeable future, using active, creative nonviolence against some brutal, Nazi-style entity courts martyrdom just like laying down and letting the Nazis win would.

For my values, martyrdom really is less awful than being willing to drop bombs on, and otherwise kill and maim, other human beings. I feel like I can adopt that principle and try to live by it as a personal philosophy, but I don’t feel much inclination to urge it on others—as I might have when I was younger—or at least I don’t have any optimism of being able to do so with any success. They’ll come to it in their own way, in their own time (the few who do at all).

Human Smoke is an eye-opening book that will fill some gaps for the average person who is familiar only with conventional histories of World War II. It’s unlikely to be enough to drive many people to pacifism, but I certainly hope it would make them hate war even more than they already do, and maybe to develop a little more cynicism regarding the alleged nobility and pure motives of their “team.”


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