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Book review: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker

Book review: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker

Upbeat Message from Ingrid -

It is true that since mid-December, there have been no postings on the Zundelsite, and only a few attempts to send missives to my list. But I am not dead, as the German version of Wikipedia reported - nor am I even sick. I am not getting a divorce from my illustrious husband - are you kidding? I am as determined and energetic as ever to match Ernst's boundless confidence that our troubles will dissolve like snowflakes in the sun and that our enemies' nefarious shenanigans will cause a blowback that will surprise the world and teach them a lesson to last.

There are some explanations for my silence, none of them dramatic - the main one being that I live in an area where it is impossible to get high speed connection of the kind that I can handle technically all by myself, and both my computer and my server seem to be clogged to the point where all communication attempts turn into molasses.

Also, there are other political and artistic interests that have taken hold of my heart and my mind, and I feel that the Zundelsite, as it existed up to now, has served its function and is now largely obsolete. Revisionism is thriving all over the world - there are very few intelligent, Internet-literate people who still react like Pavlovian dogs to the "Six Million gassed" fable. Those who still do should not be our concern - some people are slow learners. For my part, I shall walk around them from now on and attend to more urgent and pro-active business.

Which does not mean the Zundelsite is history. My strategy right now is to revise the Zundelsite from top to bottom and make it - as it was in the beginning, "lean and mean" - a repository of the essential arguments for those dense stragglers still in the kindergarten mode. But from now on, I want to put my energies elsewhere - into a serious effort to focus our kith and kin and help them out of that pitiful paperbag over their heads behind which they hide in order not to be called nasty names.

But more about that later - just bear with me for now!

Below is a book review you may or may not have read. The author of this essay is an H-Religionist who cannot jump over his shadow - but there are a handful of nuggets still worth picking out, and I am simply sending it to test if my missives are still getting through:

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Source:  Times online
From The Sunday Times, May 4, 2008
The Sunday Times review by Max Hastings

Few ideas are more deeply embedded in our culture than that of the second world war as a "good war", which pitted virtue against evil. But what if the forces of virtue were so profoundly morally compromised as to invalidate their purposes? What if this conflict called upon the democracies to fight under false colours, using such terrible means that nothing worthy could come of it? These are the ideas pursued by the American novelist Nicholson Baker in a venture into nonfiction. It is subtitled The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilisation, to which might be added "A Pacifist's Take".

Baker is a student and collector of old newspaper archives, on which he draws heavily. Rather than a continuous narrative, his work is a chronological assembly of quotations and anecdotes running from 1914 to the end of 1941. He catches Churchill enthusing about the merits of starving the German people through blockade; Churchill and many airmen applauding the bombing of dissident tribesmen; Nazis embarking upon their abominations against the Jews; President Roosevelt pursuing aggressive policies towards Japan, while purporting to seek accommodation. "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," wrote Churchill in 1920, the same year in which Baker quotes him denouncing a "sinister confederacy" of international Jews. Here also is America resisting admission of Jewish refugees, and British troops in Palestine firing upon Jews as they attempt to scramble ashore at Tel Aviv on September 2, 1939. Baker devotes much attention to the iniquities of bombing civilians, for which he finds the British at least as blameworthy as the Germans. "Bombing was to Churchill," he writes, "a form of pedagogy - a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them." On March 1, 1941, Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, recorded of Churchill at Chequers: "The light of battle was in his eyes. In every conversation he ultimately reaches a point where he positively enjoys the war." One of Baker's heroines, Montana congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, told an isolationist meeting in New York on April 6, 1941: "You cannot have war and democracy; you cannot have war and liberty."

Baker quotes a Gallup poll in America on December 10 of that year. Some 67% of respondents favoured bombing Japan's cities in the wake of Pearl Harbor; others remained unsure; 10% were opposed. The author applauds the minority: "Twelve million people stlll held to Franklin Roosevelt's principle of civilisation: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D Roosevelt was not one of them."

Some people on both sides of the Atlantic have responded angrily to Baker's book. Yet anger seems misplaced, when the author declares from the outset where he is coming from. This does not purport to be a history. It is an intensely partisan cherrypick at the past. "I dedicate this book," says Baker, "to the memory of...American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."

Baker is by no means the first aesthete to recoil from Churchill's attitude towards war. Some of the prime minister's government colleagues were affronted by his joy in the fray. More than a few contemporary writers and artists expressed distaste for Britain's leader. Baker is on well-trodden ground when he suggests that wartime allied bombing policy was a muddle of strategy and hypocrisy - he might also have mentioned brute necessity.

Few historians will find the author's arguments persuasive. If a nation discovers itself engaged in a war, it seems only sensible to place its leadership in the hands of a warrior such as Churchill, who relished the responsibility, rather than in those of fastidious souls such as Chamberlain or Halifax, who wanted no part of it. However much Churchill enjoyed war on his own account, unlike Hitler he never wished it for mankind. His purpose was to restore peace and freedom. Only through victory, he believed, could the supreme wickedness of Nazism be overcome. Some of us are amazed by his generosity of spirit towards the German people, once they were no longer capable of menacing Britain. Of this, Baker provides no hint.

The author's belief that America could have achieved a peaceful reconciliation with Japan flies in the face of a mountain of evidence about persistent, ruthless, unimaginably brutal Japanese imperialism in China and elsewhere. Militarist aggression enjoyed much more popular support in Japan than did Hitler's invasion of Poland in Germany. It is certainly true that Roosevelt employed duplicity to coax his nation towards war, and Baker tells us nothing fresh by detailing examples. Most historians acquit the president, because his artifices pursued an overwhelming good. He recognised the dictators must be beaten, which was impossible without American belligerence.

Baker resurrects some old myths, such as that Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed. The charge has been exhaustively explored by generations of students, and no heavyweight historian supposes it to be valid. Baker, however, cites it as if proven.

The author is entitled to assert that Britain, like America later, behaved with clumsy cruelty and lack of discrimination in its round-up of aliens in the first weeks of war. Yet it seems mistaken, even by implication, to use this to support a vision of moral equivalence. Internment on the Isle of Man was most unpleasant, but there were no gas chambers.

He walks on thin ice in suggesting that America in 1941 sought to menace Japan by deploying 35 B-17 bombers in the Philippines. Rather, this represented an absurdly feeble gesture, designed to deter imminent Japanese aggression. He invests the August 1941 meeting of Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay with unwonted sinister implications by calling it "secret". Common prudence made it essential to conceal their rendezvous until it was ended, when, of course, it was trumpeted to the world.

Baker's text, composed of brief gobbets of information, is easily digestible. But it contributes little to historical understanding, because he makes no attempt to set his fragments in context, which is indispensable to scrutiny of the past. All belligerents in all conflicts are morally compromised, but this does not render all causes equally worthless. Nowhere does he address the question: what would the world have been like, if Hitler's Germany or Tojo's Japan had prevailed?

To me, Baker's book fits into the same oddballs showcase as the defiance of William Douglas-Home in late 1944. As a young British tank officer, Douglas-Home was court-martialled and imprisoned for refusing to take part in an attack on Le Havre, because he believed it would cost civilian lives for no good purpose. His action was footling. Yet one feels a perverse gratitude that a few lonely spirits made such gestures, keeping alive in wartime Britain the pluralism of democracy.

I shall not keep Baker's book on my own shelves, because it told me nothing that seems both new and valid. But it is welcome that he has advanced a rickety pacifist case, if only to stimulate us into marshalling the reasons for rejecting it.

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