WSJ on Human Smoke

Tom Nagorski tackles Human Smoke in the Wall Street Journal:

They are among the uncomfortable truths of World War II: the anti-Semitism that infected certain Allied quarters; the failure of President Roosevelt to respond to the plight of European Jews; the civilian carnage inflicted by some Allied attacks with no obvious gains for the war effort. These and other counterweights to the notion of a “good war” — none new, all disturbing — are the building blocks for Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” a book that aims to answer a pair of questions. As the author poses them: “Was it a ‘good war’?” And: “Did waging it help anyone who needed help?”

Mr. Baker, a novelist, tells us that roughly a decade ago he realized how little he knew about World War II. “Didn’t understand the war itself — it made no sense,” he told an interviewer. So he began poring over archival newspapers, studying the period via the daily dispatches and absorbing the news as readers would have in the 1930s and 1940s. Having read the headlines for the bombings of Berlin and Tokyo, he began to wonder “how we got there.”

“Human Smoke” is Mr. Baker’s attempt to give an answer.

Nagorski seems to have found it an interesting thought experiment but one fundamentally off base:

The result is an often infuriating catalog of moral equivalency. Mr. Baker leaves the impression — one cannot say that he “believes,” since he is never quite explicit — that Roosevelt’s preparations for war with Japan were as bellicose in character as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and that the Allied failure to help Jews in the early years was as bad as the Nazis’ dispatching them to the gas chambers.

If Churchill and Roosevelt are Mr. Baker’s villains, his heroes are the pacifists who tried to stop war. Gandhi makes several appearances, certain in the belief that the German people would in time rebel against Hitler. “I want you to fight Nazism without arms,” he wrote in an open letter to the people of England. Aldous Huxley weighs in: “We have all seen how anger feeds upon answering anger but is disarmed by gentleness and patience.” Mr. Baker’s implied lament is that such calls for restraint went unheard.

But of course Huxley and Gandhi were wrong. One can excuse them; they were, after all, making their case at the war’s beginning. Many of Mr. Baker’s pacifists — Auden and Einstein, to take a famous pair — had abandoned restraint by 1941. Even Gandhi, who abhorred violence in any circumstance, acknowledged that “if ever there could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.” The difference for Mr. Baker, and the rest of us, is that we have the benefit of hindsight. We now know — indeed we have known for six decades — what effect “gentleness and patience” had on the enemy at hand.

Not sure I have the time or patience to wade through it based on the descriptions I have read despite its interesting subject matter and perspective.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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