Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker’s latest offering, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization traces the devolution of humanity and human nature as weaponry and tactics evolve. War has never been civilized business, but Baker shows the dizzying speed at which it took on ever more barbaric aspects in the first half of the last century.

There is the same attention to detail in evidence that’s characterized such earlier works as Vox, A Box of Matches, and The Size of Thoughts. Individuals are captured at very specific moments in time, their words and actions rendered in miniature, the better to illuminate the larger picture. Just as important, Baker is not content to simply rehash the same arguments, or perpetuate the same myths, that now pass for received wisdom. Much of the book’s impact derives from the fact that it thrusts generally ignored or forgotten figures like Stefan Zweig or Henry Fosdick into the spotlight, while also not shirking the faults of the narrative’s traditional “heroes,” like FDR and Winston Churchill.

The protagonists and antagonists here are as likely to be ideas as people. Pacifism is presented, more or less unquestioningly, as an a priori good, as are its proponents, among them Zweig, Charles Lindbergh, A.J. Muste, Jeanette Rankin (who has the distinction of being the only person to cast a dissenting vote against both World Wars), Christopher Isherwood, Muriel Lester, and Gandhi.

Alongside pacifism, the other of Human Smoke’s central points is the rise of anti-Semitism, and how it evolved from crackpot ideology to lethal practice. Inasmuch as Baker is unsparing in describing the dehumanization that results as much for the victimizers as the victims, he also shows the small but meaningful (not to mention dangerous) acts of courage and humanity by which everyday people on both sides sought to help Jews and others under the Nazi yoke.

On the opposing side, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill come off at least as badly as does Hitler; the former is a barely closeted anti-Semite, while the latter shows a mix of petulance and cruelty. This is where Baker is at his strongest, giving his antagonists plenty of rope—in the form of their own, published, words—with which to hang themselves. Both seem to view the period between wars as a sort of ellipsis, after which the experiments interrupted by the peace of Versailles may be resumed. Roosevelt, in particular, speaks of peace while slowly acting to draw the United States into a war that much of its population opposes.

Some of the most damning evidence is presented against the American armament industry, which will ply its trade with anyone who’s willing to pay for the product. Planes and guns go to China, Japan, Germany, Great Britain and elsewhere, with no consideration given as to whether the transactions are in the country’s best interests (c’est plus change…).

However, the book is not without its flaws. The very first quotation we encounter comes from explosives manufacturer Alfred Nobel. In August, 1892, he tells his pacifist friend, the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses. On the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops.” This spirit of hope, and of (I would argue) misguided optimism, informs much of the book.

Additionally, some aspects of the narrative get short shrift. For instance, the preacher Harry Fosdick is transformed from militant to pacifist in two brief episodes, spaced only a few pages apart. No explanation is given, as though the reason is somehow self-evident. Also largely overlooked are the faults in some of the book’s pacifist mainstays. Gandhi’s shortcomings, both personal and intellectual, aren’t even given a surface gloss. Lindbergh is also given easier treatment than the historical record would seem to warrant; the pacifists, even when their motives are as suspect as Lindbergh’s, are treated with a light hand.

Also, the Ludlow Amendment is given much credibility. This would have been a Constitutional amendment requiring a referendum for declaration of war unless the United States was attacked directly. The tactical paralysis of Anarchist regiments in the Spanish Civil War, and the misinformation that led the United States into its present misadventure in Iraq, illuminate the problem with that argument.

Then, too, there are the peace overtures from both sides. What’s left virtually unsaid, or at least unheeded, is the result of negotiation, especially in the years leading to the war. Hitler negotiated his way to the Chancellorship on false promises; Austria was ceded without a whimper; at Munich, Czechoslovakia was dismembered. At each step, a war-weary continent, having averted bloodshed only temporarily, breathed a sigh of relief as it signed its own death warrant.

One problem with this book (and not one that I’d lay entirely in its author’s lap) is that we can’t read the book as if it’s self-contained, ignoring what we know of what went on in the world. This is arguably the single largest hole in the pacifist argument, at least as presented by the author. Gandhi, for one, seemed quite content, if not eager, that the Jews should die in vast numbers, perhaps even in their entirety. At that point, he was confident the world would be so repulsed that the mere weight of public opinion would bring an end to the horror. And besides, he thought, Hitler, his descendants, and their descendants, couldn’t possibly go on like that forever. Sooner or later, regardless of the cost, this too would pass.

There’s ample evidence here to suggest that negotiation and nonviolence are the preferred options. But what is one to do if, on the evidence, these options are not working, or if they are for some reason not viable options? That is to say, are there not situations in which warfare may be a necessary evil? In modern warfare, wholesale destruction is wrought by both sides—in this instance, the systematic slaughter of “undesirable” populations, the decimation of Coventry, Rotterdam, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the razing of crops and forests, the Japanese use of biological weapons—ensuring an unjust war. In that climate—against a leader and population, on one hand, who have exercised brutality and to closed their hearts to pity, and on the other hand, leaders and a populace equally driven to demonize and exterminate their enemies, albeit in the service of ostensibly high-minded goals—it’s hard to argue how pacifism stands even a small hope of working.

As an aside, but by no means a peripheral argument, it should be noted that most religions allow for warfare as a means of self-defense. The Christian ideal of a Just War is perhaps the best-known example, but what’s more frequently overlooked is that Hinduism and Buddhism (the religions just as likely to be held up as exemplars by current pacifists, and even some in the 1930’s and ‘40’s) also allow for armed defense.

This raises the issue as to what the pacifist’s ultimate goal should be, especially once having failed to prevent a war. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the suffering can be kept to a minimum. The guiding principle, in either the Eastern or Western traditions, isn’t a blind, or blinkered, form of nonviolence, so much as the insistence that the means, duration, and consequences of defense should be appropriate to the attack. It’s appropriate, in other words, to strike someone who’s punched you in the nose; one ought not to willfully dismember that same person. A principle along the lines of Aikido, where a person seeks to defend himself while simultaneously being mindful of his attacker’s well-being, may be applicable here.

This is a significant book, and for all its shortcomings, it deserves to be read. Not as an end, but rather as a means to an end. Read it, in other words, as the start, or midpoint, of an overdue conversation. If Baker hopes to spark a debate, he’s found just the means by which to do it; Human Smoke is timely and certainly worth debating. paradoxicallyBut the type of pacifism that comprises the core of the book, its central premise, and the claims made in support of that premise, ought not to be taken at face value, since the same writing that vindicates the pacifist spirit and its practitioners also shows its tragic failings. Ultimately, the arguments don’t hold up under their own weight, much less that of history.

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