HISTORY | WORLD WAR II

How Good a War?

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Reviewed by James J. Sheehan
Sunday, March 30, 2008

HUMAN SMOKE

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster. 566 pp. $30

Nicholson Baker is a prolific, consistently interesting writer who likes to take risks. Some pay off, some do not. Human Smoke, I am afraid, belongs in the latter category. The subject is familiar enough: the origins and early stages of World War II in Europe and Asia. But the way he tells the story is highly idiosyncratic. His 474 pages of text are divided into a series of separate segments, most no more than a few lines, none longer than two pages. There is no connecting narrative or unifying analysis. Instead, we have a historical mosaic composed of individual anecdotes, quotations and vignettes. They are drawn from a wide variety of sources, all of them in English, most of them about the United States, Britain and Germany.

The mosaic is shaped by a number of recurrent themes: the destructiveness of modern weapons, especially aerial bombardment (the book opens with a remark from Alfred Nobel, "manufacturer of explosives"); the intensity and ubiquity of anti-Semitism (Eleanor Roosevelt regrets having to attend a party where there will be "mostly Jews"); the irrationality of patriotism ("Every German woman and child killed is a contribution to the future safety and happiness of Europe," wrote Gerald Brenan in 1941); the ruthlessness of those in positions of power (Churchill, quoted more often than anyone else, comes off as a bloodthirsty thug); and the brave but futile efforts of the men and women who opposed the war (Baker's heroes are Quaker pacifists and others who struggled for peace).

In the two-page afterword, Baker finally speaks directly to the reader. "Was it a 'good war'? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those are the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing."

That he believes the answer to these questions is "No" becomes abundantly clear from the way Baker has selected and arranged his material. In the book's final lines, he makes this point explicitly: "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, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."

Let us set aside the question of whether World War II was a "good war." Only Americans, who suffered least and profited most from the conflict, could even imagine such a question. How could it have been a "good war" for the citizens of Poland or Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, where millions died and vast territories were laid waste? The question of whether the war was necessary also takes a different shape depending on where it is posed. Citizens of the United States and Britain might entertain the possibility that the war was "unnecessary," provided, of course, they were willing to cede Asia to Japan and Europe to Germany. For the other belligerents, war was unavoidable because they lay in the path of Japanese and German racial imperialism.

Baker's second question -- did the war help anyone who needed help? -- is the most complex because it requires us to compare the very real evils caused by the war -- extensively documented in Human Smoke -- with the evils that would have resulted had the Japanese and Germans been free to do what they wanted, as long as they wanted. Were the pacifists right to suppose that more harm was done resisting Hitler than in appeasing him?

I continue to believe that the pacifists were wrong and that Churchill was right, but I would be prepared to listen to an argument for the other side. There is, however, no argument in this book; at best, there are pieces from which an argument might be constructed. These pieces come without context and, unless one already knows the story, are often difficult to understand. For instance, as Baker presents it, Neville Chamberlain's speech promising support to Poland seems merely bellicose if one doesn't already know that it was a reaction to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia two weeks earlier, which had revealed the bankruptcy of the prime minister's policy of appeasement. In addition to its fragmentation, Baker's approach is curiously flat. Each piece seems more or less of equal interest and importance, each seems to have the same historical and moral weight. Among these pieces are some vivid and moving anecdotes, but their sum does not advance our ability either to understand or to evaluate the 20th century's most terrible and most significant events. *

James J. Sheehan teaches at Stanford University and is the author of "Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Europe."


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