Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nicholson Baker is Blowing “Human Smoke” Up Your ......

A Review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008)

If there is one common thread throughout Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, it is that Nicholson Baker is a pacifist. Baker is so pacifistic that he refuses to clearly state any thesis whatsoever, leaving the reader to wind their way through the chaotic and contradictory incidents he uses to make his point: simply, that “hurting people is bad.” Baker, and those who find Human Smoke moving or, in the case of atheist magician Penn Jillette, “devastating,” argue that this is a dramatic style, a way to engage the reader and provoke debate. I would argue that it seems to be a charlatan’s empty ploy to present their narrative as authentic, when it is actually a shallow and dishonest representation of complicated human events. In fact, the only stated argument found anywhere in the entire book is in the synopsis on the back, which claims Human Smoke is “a moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and ‘40s.” Alas, Baker never provides us with the myths he is seeking to refute; only the juxtaposition of events he thinks demonstrates moral equivalency between Axis and Atlantic Allies. By doing so he is dishonest by omission and anyone with even a basic understanding of WWII history cannot help but wonder whether Nicholson Baker did so out of staggering ignorance or for the insidious purpose of denigrating those who fought to save Western Civilization.


Because Human Smoke has no clear written arguments - only insinuated ones - I am forced to try and explain what Baker is trying to say, rather than appeal to his own well stated aims. The primary argument of the book seems to be that pacifism is moral perfection. Those who refused to commit themselves to the folly of collective security agreements, arms races, and building planes, such as the pacifist outliers of pre-WWII, are not the cowering, naïve, and anti-Semitic masses that Baker believes historians have accused them of being. Rather, they are the Cassandra’s who fought against a tide of capitalism, governmental folly, and suicidal national pride. To prove this, Baker quixotically appeals to organizations like the Nye Committee or individual examples like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Ghandi, who just so happen to have been naïve anti-Semites. Baker escapes this uncomfortable reality, in his own estimation, by pointing out that “warmongers” like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt also espoused their own brand of patrician anti-Semitism. According to Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt followed the same logic as the pacifists. The agreed, he contends, that Germany was only trying to do something about its “Jew problem,” because there actually were too many Jews. What Baker fails to appreciate is that the moral difference between the two groups became apparent when Hitler began killing people. The “warmongers,” Churchill and Roosevelt were prepared to do something about it, while Ghandi suggested that the Jews should publicly sacrifice themselves to the fire.


Baker is correct to show that not all pacifists went around claiming that Jewish banking interests, or Jewish communists depending on which party line they towed, were the source of international tension. Some, like the members of the Peace Pledge Union, were so committed to peace they even signed up for a membership card—a membership card being the internationally recognized declaration that I care about this enough to fill it out and buy a stamp. But alas, Baker’s continued emphasis on showing that the sale of armaments between nations was tantamount to treason and that global capitalistic enterprise played a role in the making of the war itself smacks of the same inane logic held by the likes of those on the Nye Committee and Lindbergh. I hate to burst Baker’s bubble, (no, wait, I don’t), but the Soviet Union, which he glaringly leaves out of the first 200 pages of the book save for a reference to starvation in the Ukraine, was selling armaments to Germany as well. They also invaded Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, all of their own volition, without the encouragement of bankers or airplane manufacturers. At no point does Baker even attempt to make a critical appraisal of the Soviet Union and its murderous campaign of purges. It is only spoken of as a looming menace that leads Winston Churchill into saying positive things about Benito Mussolini.


Ironically, none of this compares to Baker’s maniacal dishonesty and apologist nonsense as it pertains to his claims that the blame for the war lay with the Allies and Axis equally, and that neither held any moral high ground. Serious historians have argued that had the Allies been more committed to their collective security agreements, or if the United States had used more diplomatic savvy, war might have been averted. Baker, on the other hand, has decided that the keys to avoiding war were the very same arguments made by fascist apologists at the time and since. For the Germans it was the mystical attraction of Hitler. The German people, degraded by a savage blockade of Winston Churchill’s design, driven to desperation by punitive inflation, and seeking to restore a sense of pride in themselves, decided to embrace Nazism and, with it, the crazed plans of Adolf Hitler. Left out and forgotten is that millions and millions of German citizens joined the Nazi party of their own volition, chose repeatedly to do nothing about its excesses, that millions of others participated in the orgy of violence on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, and benefitted from racial subjugation and murder of their fellows.


The shear stupidity of moral equivocation between Germany and the Allies is only superseded by Baker’s malicious fraud as it pertains to the origins of the war in the Pacific. On this front, Baker repeatedly insinuates that the United States, by selling arms to China and displaying disrespect for the Japanese natural desire for security in their own sphere, invited Japanese aggression. While fanatical racists within the Japanese government have used this argument—claiming that the Naval Treaty between Britain, America, and Japan was a national insult—any secondary reading into the topic, outside of Japan, would reveal that this was merely propaganda meant to boil the blood of the fanatical Japanese officer corps. Were Baker not so obsessed with demonizing Winston Churchill for the naval blockade of Germany he might have mentioned that the Japanese had a history of attacking other countries in an effort to solve issues associated with their defective command economy and internal political problems. He might have mentioned the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 or perhaps the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, or their attack on the Soviet Union in 1939. Perhaps having some knowledge of these events might have offered perspective on the perceived need to prepare for further Japanese aggression by the United States. But this would require the sensible application of context, or the desire to mention it. As for selling planes to China up until the mid-1930s, the United States had been selling steel and oil to Japan at the very time they were massacring Chinese civilians. The Imperial Government only ever took issue when the materials stopped flowing, which did not occur until the United States government had had enough of supplying rampaging Japanese armies.


There is one positive aspect to the book, and that is Nicholson Baker’s frequent references to the tragedy of Jewish refugees as they struggled to extricate themselves from the clutches of the Nazis. He is right to portray the leaders of the Western world as craven and stupid for blocking the flight of people in mortal jeopardy. But, again, Baker contradicts himself by placing Ghandi and the pacifists as exemplars, all of whom argued that Herr Hitler could be reasoned with long after he had begun imprisoning and murdering his political and social enemies. Worse still is Baker’s suggestion that the Madagascar Plan was a reasonable thing the Germans considered for the nearly 4 Million Jews they held in the New Reich (Western Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia). There are no Holocaust historians who assert this was ever a realistic plan under any circumstance.


Baker’s primary, most inane, and asinine argument in Human Smoke is the notion that pacifism in the face of murderous Fascism, or Communism (there are very few differences), is something to be applauded. There is an apt poem that starts, “They first came for the Jews,” and ends with “then they came for me.” In the case of the Second World War, it is worth noting that while FDR might have let Hitler come for the Jews, he didn’t wait till the Fuhrer came around for the American people to start helping bomb Hitler’s sick regime out of existence, and for that he deserves at least some credit. But beyond Churchill and Roosevelt, Baker fails to realize that while Ghandi might laud the idea of men walking unarmed into bullets and gas chambers, he did so in the relative safety of waging a campaign for national rights against Churchill’s British Empire that would never even attempt exterminating India’s people. The Jews of Europe were struggling for their very lives against an enemy that sought to annihilate them.


In the end there is little that can be done to convince someone like Baker that it is better to kill than be subjugated, murdered, or suffer the murder of your loved ones and friends. All I can do is present an alternative stories to Baker’s bleak morally bankrupt universe. Although I find his style of hundreds of short snippets to be monotonous and boring, I think I can improve upon them and refute Baker with the right set of examples:

Marion Pritchard, a Dutch social work student who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis joined the Dutch Resistance. She spent several years of her life rescuing Jewish children from almost certain murder at the hands of the Nazis. While hiding Jewish children, a Dutch Nazi led the Germans to their hiding spot. During the first inspection the children weren’t found, but the Dutch Nazi returned later to discover the children. Marion Pritchard shot the man dead to protect the young souls that relied on her. It was 1942.[1]

*          *          *

Private Angelo Antonelli was born a peasant and found himself drafted into the Italian Army in WWI. He served in Libya, Italy’s colonial possession. His service was a miserable experience, where he was subjected to poor pay, draconian discipline, and insulting classism. Rather than join the popular Socialist and Fascist movements that plagued Italy in the wake of the First World War, Angelo moved to the United States to make a home for his wife, and new born son. In 1924 he suffered the loss of his entire life savings, then deposited in the Dresdener Bank. In the wake of a personal catastrophe that drove many middle class Germans to Nazism, Angelo continued to work tirelessly to bring his family to America. When the Great Depression hit, he worked harder, all the while emphasizing the promise of America, its culture of freedom, naming his second son Americo in 1930. He never made excuses and never demanded that his fellow men be subject to the whims of the state.

*          *          *

In 1945, Paul Tibbets flew the B-29 bomber Enola Gay for the express purpose of dropping the single largest explosive ordnance yet known to man, the Atomic bomb. After millions of man-hours of work, years of research, infrastructure construction, and the creation of new and unheard of technological advances, the scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, discovered how to split the atom, releasing unheard of amounts of heat, light, and energy upon the surface of the Earth. Tibbets was widely recognized as a hero already, having flown 25 missions during the early stages of WWII over Germany. There he saw hundreds of his fellow American bomber crewmen and fighter pilots killed trying to disrupt the sophisticated industrial machine being used by the Nazi empire to murder its neighbors.


On August 6, 1945, Tibbets found himself on a similar mission, but free of much of the danger he and his fellow bomber crewmen faced early in the war. His B-29 flew higher and faster than anything the Japanese employed. It was the uncontested master of the skies in the Pacific and had been for much of 1945.  The Japanese Army still controlled enormous swaths of land, still held millions of slave laborers in a state of starvation, and after weeks of unrelenting bombing by the B-29, still refused to surrender. That morning Paul Tibbets and the crew of the Enola Gay dropped a bomb that produced heat found only on the surface of the Sun on the people of Hiroshima, Japan. He did so not out of cruelty, nor some desire to benefit from the production of arms. Paul Tibbets dropped the bomb for the same reason he dropped every other bomb he had ever been ordered to, in the hope of bringing swift completion to a conflict that killed over 100 million people, a conflict started by gangs of murderers and thieves for the purpose of enslaving humanity.


Every day, a pacifist, believing that it is morally right to accept slavery, mass murder, and tyranny, calls Paul Tibbets a psychopath, a cog in a conspiracy of morally ambiguous violence, and a mass murderer. I would only tell that person that when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun, their family and friends subject to the whims of madmen, they should consider that were there more men like Paul Tibbets, madmen would find no quarry and far fewer victims. 

-- Daniel P. Roberts

[1] Deborah Dwork, Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 45

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