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Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

September 15, 2021

Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker, is like a literary documentary film, in that it gives us scene after scene that is presumably accurate but highly curated to project a particular point of view. In that sense it is true, but not, perhaps, anything approaching objective.

Not that I intend to bring up a discussion about the role or possibility of objectivity in history or journalism. I’m just saying that, like with many documentaries, Baker’s interpretation of the facts comes through quite clearly and unapologetically.

I’m interested in military history. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly an expert, but I’ve read and watched a lot about World War 2. I love war movies, I’ve read several books about that time, and I find myself intrigued by YouTube videos every so often about the war. Even so, I learned several surprising things from Human Smoke.

The book’s biggest target is undoubtedly Winston Churchill. My somewhat-informed impression of Churchill is, I think, the common one. He was tough, resolute, and just what the British and the world needed to stay strong in the face of Hitler’s Nazi war machine. Sure, he engaged in the nasty business of prosecuting the war, but it was war–to win we need someone with a strong stomach for the unpleasant parts. Baker wants us to face those unpleasant parts. He shows us how Churchill leaned into them and even seemed to enjoy it all more than maybe he should have. Churchill had a track record of attacking civilians from the air to crush the motivation of an enemy. He supported it in Britain’s colonies before the war, and his direct aim against Germany was to cause enough general suffering that the German people lost their will to keep fighting. He actively pursued a program of poison gas just in case, even though there was little indication Germany was going to use any. Churchill also rejected multiple peace offers from Hitler. He was set on unconditional surrender–and propounded the myth that Germany was dead set on conquering the world, which it wasn’t. Churchill was usually first to escalate bombing into civilian areas, using incendiary bombs, and so on; Germany’s attacks were often retribution. Churchill’s associates regularly commented on how much he seemed to love the war and all the killing.

Baker wants us to confront the fact that Churchill was not what we could call good. Sure, he was maybe the third-worst world leader in a war that included Hitler and Stalin, but not being as bad as the two biggest butchers of the 20th century isn’t exactly high praise. Baker’s pacifist mission is to get us to rethink the idea that it’s possible to be on the “good side” in war at all anymore, if it ever was.

I didn’t realize how much the US was actively selling planes and tanks to China and England before entering the war. There was quite a bit of American training that went on too–especially for Chinese pilots during their fight with Japan before the US officially got into the war. I also get the impression that probably the majority of English bombers in use were American made in the year before Pearl Harbor. I was already familiar with the concept of lend-lease, obviously, but in all the material I’d been exposed to before now, it was mostly just an afterthought or a footnote. Baker makes a stronger case that Japan and Germany had every right to be upset with the large amount of support their enemies got from the US.

Franklin Roosevelt had ostentatiously promised not to enter the war unless the US was attacked. Behind closed doors, though, the image we get is of a president doing everything he could to fine provoking an attack. More even than just the large degree of material support, we’re given documentation that the US knew its provocations were working and moved to mitigate damage from the impending Pearl Harbor attack.

Gandhi, of all people, is a recurring character in the book. In my mind he seems almost from a different time and place, and this book helped contextualize him for me as contemporary with WWII. He obviously had a lot of pacifist-sounding things to say to the combatants, reinforcing Baker’s argument.

Hitler obviously treated German Jews quite poorly from the beginning. The holocaust wasn’t known before the war, though. This isn’t a huge revelation. As one example among many, the HBO series Band of Brothers has a scene where US soldiers happen upon a concentration camp and are surprised at the severity. Still, the holocaust seems to come out as justification for the war in public conversation. As a post-hoc argument, there is something to that, but if the world didn’t know about it then it can’t be used as support for the decision to join the fight against Hitler at the time. Especially, as Baker points out, when the US and UK were not at all eager to accept Jews fleeing Germany. Churchill even rounded German refugees–including Jews–into his own version of a concentration camp on the Isle of Man to prevent any potential spying or sabotage activities. Based on contemporaneous knowledge, Hitler was maybe dialed up a few clicks on the poor treatment of German Jews, but it would have been a difference of degree and not of kind. Again, Baker doesn’t defend or absolve Hitler in any way; he just wants us to know that the Allies were also bad.

Human Smoke does feel a little propagandistic. Baker’s bias is towards pacifism, it is quite clear. But I learned a few things even though this is far from my first book on World War 2. I’m not sure I’d call myself a pacifist, though I’m no fan of going to war if avoidable (and far more wars than we actually avoid are in fact avoidable). If my perspective has been shifted somewhat, though, it now accounts for the fact that the Allies may not have been the worst participants in the war, but they (we) weren’t exactly what I’d call the good guys either.

From → Books

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