By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Nicholson Baker, a supremely talented novelist, has written a surprising book of nonfiction titled "Human Smoke." It is composed primarily of snippets taken from contemporary newspapers in the run-up to World War II and makes the daring argument that the war -- our supposedly "good" war -- was not good at all. We shouldn't have fought it.
To my mind, the book is dead wrong and very odd. This, though, has not stopped it from getting a respectable front-page review in the Los Angeles Times Book Review -- "It may be one of the most important books you will ever read," wrote Mark Kurlansky -- or from grabbing the bottom perch (No. 15) on the New York Times's important bestseller list. Baker's a hit.
It takes a fair amount of audacity to challenge the conventional wisdom about World War II. This is especially the case since the war has become conflated with the Holocaust, the evil of which cannot possibly be argued. If you throw in the atrocities committed by the Japanese -- everything from massacres to the conscription of local women in conquered territories as sex slaves -- then World War II not only seemed right and urgent at the time but right and a bit too late now. Hitler could have been stopped earlier.
Baker, though, is a pacifist. He dedicated his book to the memory of "American and British pacifists" who, he writes, never really got 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."
No, they were not. But that, for the moment, is beside the point. A contemporary context for Baker's book may not be World War II but the war in Iraq. The former, of course, is the good war, and the latter is the bad one, but in Baker's view they undoubtedly are both wars that made things worse, not better. To make a further connection, countless neocons cited the pre-World War II Munich agreement -- appeasement! -- to suggest what would happen if Saddam Hussein and his regime were not confronted and brought down. Iraq was going to be yet another good war.
The parallels, strained though they may be, do not end there. Not only was the retro term "fascist" applied to Hussein, but it is now lathered on vast numbers of militant and anti-American Islamists: Islamofascists, they are called. It says something about the durability and plasticity of the term -- fascismo -- coined by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the early 20th century that it can be used to describe a goat herder in Afghanistan in the 21st.
The question, of course, is whether there is anything worth fighting for. Initially, I thought bringing down Saddam Hussein was a good cause. I was wrong -- not about the cause, but about its practicality. I still feel that anytime we can stop someone from killing someone else, we ought to try. I think, too, that such attempts help establish the expectation that the wholesale abuse of human rights will not be tolerated.
What's worrisome about the Baker book is that the attention it has gotten -- much of it critical -- is not just a testament to his reputation as a writer but also to the questions he has raised about war itself. Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not -- that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic. (Gandhi, in a quote I got from another source, suggested in 1938 that Germany's Jews should commit mass suicide. That "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence.")
One casualty of a bad war such as that in Iraq is the growing feeling that no war is worth the cost. This was an important sentiment in Europe after the horrors of World War I, and it produced the supine response to Hitler and the celebrated 1933 declaration by the young debaters of the Oxford Union "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." In the end, of course, they did. In the end, they had to.
The most horrible weapon in any arsenal is the madness of men. We see this time and time again, and sometimes the only way to stop them is by war. "War is an ugly thing," John Stuart Mill wrote, "but not the ugliest of things." Far uglier, he wrote, is the feeling that nothing in life is worth fighting for. World War II was fought for several reasons but above all -- and proudly -- because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.