Sunday, August 03, 2008

Notes on Human Smoke

What is the meaning of World War II? What does it mean to you? Is it proof that evil exists? That some enemies are simply intractable? That intervention is sometimes necessary? Was it a war of liberation? Does it stand in as an example, or perhaps the example, of the "just" or "good" war? If so, does it matter how the war was fought? Do the political aims of the Allies matter? Should we be in any way concerned with the ways in which these political aims determined the nature of the war, or its length? Does the unquestionably horrible nature of the Nazi regime render all such questions moot? Some of them? Was total war the only way to defeat Hitler's war machine? Did the Allies have any way of knowing either way? What was the role of big business in the build-up, on all sides? How much of a monster was Churchill anyway? What did FDR know in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor? What US actions led to the attack? Does the nature of the Japanese regime justify all subsequent actions taken against Japan?

These are just some of the questions that come to mind when I think about World War II. I'm pondering them today in connection with Nicholson Baker's book Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. I'm presenting them, not to answer them, or even address most of them, but because I think they are particularly salient to this book, which I think has been aggressively, if not intentionally, misunderstood by much of the major review press. Certainly the questions, as posed, are somewhat loaded. I have a point of view. Baker has one, though it seems clear to me that his point of view is not quite the one assumed by some of these reviewers. For example, I don't think it's at all obvious that Human Smoke argues the pacifist case against the war, even if it could be said that Baker himself is a pacifist and that he is sympathetic to the argument.

It's often said that war is politics by other means. This is a truism, but only true, really, in the sense of politics as the place of disagreement between and among ruling elites. But what are the main features of war? This is not a trick question. The answer is death, terror, destruction. Destruction, primarily, of ordinary people and their communities, ordinary people who have no say in any of the decisions leading to war. (I am thinking of war undertaken by states, against other states, or against the people of other states, which is usually the case. Revolution or insurrection from below are different, though obviously not without death, terror, or destruction.)

In this context, then, what is Human Smoke? As you've no doubt heard by now, it is an assemblage of hundreds of short items, dating from 1914 till December 1941 (with one outlier, from 1892), some as short as a line or two, some as long as two pages, describing, moment by moment it seems, the inexorable movement towards total war. Some samples, chosen not quite at random:
Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, SR., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. "It was decided," Roosevelt later explained, "that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%." It was about 1922. (p. 9)

Goebbels stood at a swastika-bedecked rostrum on the Unter den Linden, a wide, tree-lined street in Berlin running past the University and the State Opera House. He said: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended." He threw a book into a fire.

"It was like burning something alive," Lilian Mowrer said. "Then students followed with whole armfuls of books, while schoolboys screamed into the microphone their condemnation of this and that author, and as each name was mentioned the crowd booed and hissed." Lion Feuchtwanger's books, which had already been banned from stores, went into the flames, as did books by Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Zionviev, Heine, Emil Ludwig,, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. Bertha von Suttner's pacifist novel Lay Down Your Arms was condemned as "un-German" and burned. All Quiet on the Western Front got the most booing. Stefan Zweig's books were nailed to a pillory as well as burned. Pacifism masked a "seeping poison," one speaker said. It was May 10, 1933.

Goebbels said: "Brightened by these flames our vow shall be: the Reich and the Nation and our Führer: Adolf Hitler, Heil! Heil!" (pp. 37-38)

Major James Doolittle, the American flying ace, was in China demonstrating airplanes for Curtiss-Wright. It was summer 1933. Doolittle did stunts for the mayor of Shanghai and a crowd of seventy-five thousand in his Curtiss Hawk, and afterward the Nanking government ordered thirty-six Hawks, the company's biggest order that year. "We sold 24 Hawks to the Turkish Government last fall," said T. P. Wright, Curtiss-Wright's president, "and several are in service in South America." (p. 41)

H.C. Engelbrecht, author of Merchants of Death, a bestseller about arms dealers, spoke at a conference of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. "Armament is an industry that knows no politics, friends, right or wrong--but only customers," Engelbrecht said. "If you can pay, you can buy."

The French arms company Schneider had recently sold four hundred tanks to Hitler's Germany, Engelbrecht observed; the company disguised the sale by shipping the tanks via the Netherlands. The Germans had also ordered sixty airplanes from Vickers, the British maker of bombers.

"In every war," said Engelbrecht, "the armament maker who sells internationally is arming a potential enemy of his own country--and that, practically, if not legally, is treason."

It was April 14, 1934. (pp. 48-49)

There were more than 120,000 visa applications awaiting action the American consulate in Vienna. It was March 1939. (p.116)

Lockheed stopped selling airplanes to Japan, at the request of Secretary State Cordell Hull. Lockheed employees remained in Japan, however, assembling and testing the airplanes that were arriving in fulfillment of previous orders. It was May 1939. (p.124)

Churchill flew to Paris to talk with the French generals. It was May 31, 1940. Narvik was the first matter they took up--it had been retaken and held, at some cost, by the Allies. It must now be abandoned immediately, said Churchill. They also discussed what to do about Italy, if Italy were foolish enough to enter the war. "I proposed that we should strike by air-bombing at the northwestern industrial triangle enclosed by the three cities of Milan, Turin, and Genoa," Churchill said. "Many Italians were opposed to war, and all should be made to realise its severity."

Bombing was, to Churchill, a form of pedagogy--a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them. The French were not keen on it, however; they wanted to avoid reprisals. . . (p. 191)
(As I was flipping through the book, looking for passages to include here, I felt some pressure to give sufficiently diverse examples, to show the range of material covered in the book, the different voices heard from, and the various types of sources drawn from, and to do so in a manner that could convey the weight of each to the whole--and yet, to attempt to do so with any degree of accuracy is to write the book again.)

Before I read Human Smoke, I was under the impression that it indeed presents and defends the pacifist case against American involvement in WWII. Various reviewers seem to have responded to it as if this were the case; for example, there was Adam Kirsch's extremely stupid review in The New York Sun, Louis Menand's perfunctory review in The New Yorker, and William Grimes' simple-minded review in The New York Times (I've only just seen the Times review; link via Nigel Beale). To be fair to these reviewers, Baker’s final words in his Afterword seem to support this reading:
I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, free Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.
Kirsch asserts that the book is "dangerous"; Menand is a little more sympathetic to some of the themes he sees Baker as raising, but is at pains to point out the imperfect nature of the Allied states, and the fact of Appeasement and other attempts to bargain with Hitler; Grimes seems concerned primarily with Baker's tone, and what he perceives as a lack of a sense of proportion. All three see Human Smoke as manipulative and Baker himself as naïve and simplistic. They and others seem worried that readers won't understand the issues involved in the years leading to the war, in the unlikely event that this is the only book they ever read about the war.

Helpfully, Sam Anderson has just the right response to this kind of argument, in his review in New York Magazine (link via Mark Thwaite at Ready Steady Book):
To dismiss Baker's project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It's an auto-didact's record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ("What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none"), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker's work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war--the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes' lack of context--in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It's the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.
I think this is exactly right. World War II comes to us packaged as a certain kind of narrative, and by showing us elements that we see far too little of, Human Smoke makes that narrative look just a little different. And given the ways in which that standard narrative has been used to justify all manner of hero-worship and demonization, along with post-WWII policies and atrocities, it's worth considering how that narrative has been shaped and how a different approach to the available material might tell us something else we need to know.

About the pacifists, Baker writes: "They failed, but they were right". What does he mean? What does Baker think the pacifists were right about? Does he simply mean that the pacifists were right to oppose the war? Or were they right about war? They seem to be the only ones who are able to understand that war is destruction (except for those like Churchill, who rather seems to think that destruction is just grand). What does Baker mean by "the end of civilization" in his subtitle? He doesn't answer either question, but I think some possibilities present themselves. For example, was it necessary to resort to "total war" against civilians in order to defeat the Nazis? There is nothing in the book to suggest that the Nazi leaders were anything other than despicable. But there is a lot in the book suggesting that the Allied leaders were less concerned with the human toll of the war than with political maneuvering and glory. Human Smoke, more than anything, with its diversity of detail, drives home the truth that war is never fought for or on behalf of general populations. They are fought for elite political reasons. People have to be persuaded to fight, trained to hate. This is as true of ordinary 1930s Germans--who we'd often prefer to view as having been, as a population, atavistically anti-Semitic--as it is of anyone else. Human Smoke reminds us that our putative leaders do not have our interests at heart.

I've said that I don't think Human Smoke is or is intended to be a coherent argument against the war, that Nicholson Baker does not make the pacifist case, however sympathetic to it he may actually be. And yet, to borrow Sam Anderson's wording, I do believe the book is a powerful "message of peace". What is the difference? The difference is in what can we learn from history, and why we are reading it. Are we reading history merely to know what happened? Because it's an interesting, possibly moving set of stories? What is the point of that? Where does it stop? Instead, can we learn anything about ourselves, and our politics, by looking at, in this case, what was being said and done in the years prior to the worst war in human history? I think we can, though we often seem determined not to do so. By attending to the words, over the period of decades, of serious, committed pacifists; by noticing the indifference of political leaders to the possibilities or realities of human suffering--whether in the form of Jewish refugees, or the victims of bombing campaigns; by finally understanding the implications of the amoral dictates of capitalism ("If you can pay, you can buy"), perhaps then we can see how we are manipulated into each new military adventure. And we can ask ourselves what purposes, and whose interests, are served by the maintenance of the myth of "the good war".

1 comment:

TGGP said...

Haven't read it, but would like to go through it simultaneously with "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War". I engaged in some WW2 revisionism here.