Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker’s reputation was until now largely a product of his career as a novelist with a strong streak of sometimes salacious whimsy (one novel, The Mezzanine, was entirely devoted to recounting a ride on an escalator, another, Vox, to an episode of phone sex, a third, The Fermata, to episodes from the career of a man gifted with the ability to stop time, and a taste for indulging the resulting voyeuristic possibilities, etc). Baker has also published non-fiction, in one case a book (The Fold) about libraries’ poor stewardship of now-microfilmed newspaper archives, which was apparently fuelled by passionate indignation. I have not read it, but having worked with archived 18th and 19th century newspapers, Baker’s anger over the loss of the originals has my complete sympathy.
Again passionately indignant, he has now written Human Smoke, a very peculiar history of the first half of the Second World War. Baker is a pacifist, and his book’s chief villains include Churchill and Roosevelt. He is pretty clearly attempting to evenly divide his readers’ stock of loathing between the Nazis, where Baker implies uninstructed loathing has until now been too exclusively focused, and the leaders of the Western allies. Baker, whose works are sometimes described as exquisite miniatures by his admirers, and by less admiring readers regarded as examples of the Spirit of Twee on steroids, has written a book guaranteed to offend, which it has, but some reviews have been curiously charitable, and a few have even been flattering. This is strange, for the book’s implied arguments are often absurdly weak, and its moral posturing imperfectly persuasive. The very existence of so many reviews is odd: books insinuating that Churchill and FDR were quite as odious as Hitler have until recently been reviewed only in odd venues, chiefly in magazines catering to the political equivalent of what pornographers euphemise as specialized tastes.
Human Smoke sequentially recounts odd bits and bobs of the war’s history and background, generally in a would-be plangent tone, and the episodes are usually expected to speak for themselves. Baker recounts many different kinds of event, but spends a fair amount of time tracing the fate of Europe’s Jews the people whose flesh will become the human smoke of the title – while also charting the escalating campaign of Allied strategic bombing, which would eventually kill hundreds of thousands of Axis civilians, some of whom also became human smoke. In this reading the political leaders who brought on the two fates as equally repellant, although Baker has a particular loathing for Churchill. In his view, FDR was guilty of many things – inter alia, provoking Japan by arming the Chinese (Baker does not seem to care a whit that the Chinese were the victims of truly savage aggression, for example, the Rape of Nanking) – but Churchill was even worse. Churchill had a touch of his era’s and class’s anti-Semitism, as do Baker’s New Dealers, but Churchill is also pilloried as an unabashed imperialist, as a criminal who initiated a bombing campaign directed at civilians, and as a man who sometimes enjoyed war.
These charges are true, but for the most part peculiarly overstated. For example, Churchill was in fact one of the most philo-Semitic members of his class and age, and Baker makes what exists of his point with some very selective quotation already noted by Noel Malcolm in the Daily Telegraph. What of Baker’s tu quoque about imperialism? Churchill was, of course, an enthusiastic imperialist. The empire he defended had some ugly moments – the Raj’s authorities admitted killing 379 at Amritsar – but it is odd to implicitly damn British imperial methods during Churchill’s day as morally equivalent to the methods by which Hitler built and ruled the empire he constructed in, say, Poland, Russia and Serbia, and imply that the moral authority of both imperialists is in consequence roughly equivalent. Baker suggests the equivalency by making sly comparisons: for example, noting that Churchill once endorsed the use of poison gas as a method of imperial rule. Hitler, too, used poison gas in his imperial projects, and the incautious reader may assume a devastating point has been scored.
The case gives a good idea of Baker’s mode of argument, and of the evidence actually available to sustain his insinuations. Churchill did advocate the use of gas against Iraqi tribes in 1919, after pessimistic British field commanders had requested resort to such weapons. It is not clear that the British actually used any such gasses in Iraq, although Baker implies otherwise, and there is some evidence that they didn’t, but it is also clear that Churchill thought that the attraction of such methods was that they would kill very few people. Baker quotes a remark indicating that Churchill argued for gas without intending to inflict mass death, but in the same section implies that Churchill must have been lying, or engaging in gross and culpable self-deception. Here is Churchill writing something Baker does not quote, from the same source: “It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas… The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum… gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.” Hitler, by contrast, did not gas his imagined enemies because he thought the method would kill very few of them.
Some readers may suspect that the implied comparison has other difficulties. In Poland, German imperialism directly or indirectly caused the death of 6m over six years, in Russia of perhaps 26m in around half that time, and another million Yugoslavs over the same period. At Amritsar, of course, British officials may have understated the number of dead, but they are unlikely to have done so by scores of millions. You can throw in the British contribution to the horrific Bengal famine of 1943 to try to pump up the numbers, but even with the worst will in the world it is hard to depict either the toll or the motives of Churchill’s imperialism as plausibly comparable to the Nazi version. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is idiocy to try: as the Marxists used to observe, at some point a quantitative difference becomes qualitative.
What about Churchill’s RAF targeting civilians via strategic bombing? Baker’s focus on strategic bombing is in some respects disingenuous, of which more below, but for now, how strong is this part of his case if we assume that it is an argument put in good faith? Baker seems to share in the most common delusion about strategic bombing, thinking it did nothing to secure an Allied victory, so that it was simultaneously a vast crime and a fabulous blunder. Almost all professionally competent historical scholarship, however, holds precisely the contrary view, at least on the score of blunder: while the RAF may have failed miserably at undermining civilian morale, and even that is debatable, it nonetheless made an unintended but extremely effective contribution to winning the war. The German authorities deployed 2m people in defense against air attacks, committing 10,000 of their famously effective 88mm artillery pieces and perhaps 70 per cent of the Luftwaffe’s to home defense. The 88s were the same gun tubes used as tank and antitank weapons; every 88 deployed in Germany meant one less facing Allied soldiers. Every fighter plane and pilot used in home defense was one less helping to conquer the world, and both the Red Army’s counter-offensives and the Allied invasions of Western Europe would have been far more costly and hazardous if the Luftwaffe had been present in greater strength on those fronts. (On D-day there were only 300 Luftwaffe fighters to oppose the Allied landings in France, and only 500 on the Eastern Front). Strategic bombing thus saved an incalculable but vast number of lives, both Allied and Axis. There may have been an effective alternative approach, at least by early 1945, but for Baker the question of alternative military approaches cannot arise, because he is passionately opposed to any use of force at all.
For most of us the imperative of forestalling a Nazi victory or avoiding vastly increased Allied casualties enter into the moral calculus. For Baker, however, they do not. His implied argument against strategic bombing is disingenuous because Baker is not interested in distinguishing methods of war-making that avoid targeting civilians from tactics and strategies that do not, he is interested in condemning any decision to fight a war, explicitly including the Allied decision to fight the Second World War. In an interview, he noted that the worst possible outcome of not fighting – a long Nazi rule over Europe –would have been morally preferable to inflicting the horrors of war. Preferable for whom? For Slavs, gypsies and Jews? To ask this question is to answer it. And why assume that Hitler would have stopped with the Continent? Had the Baker Plan been adopted, what would have stopped him? As long as he had access to the naval technology of late fifteenth century Europe, Hitler would have soon ruled whatever portion of the globe remained outside the Japanese empire.
Baker wants to argue that resisting evil with force is always wrong, and has chosen the hardest case because he somehow thinks he can win the argument. Because Baker cannot suffer the fate he would bring about if he could somehow undo the Allied decision to fight, his moral posturing is at best unpersuasive, and often repellent. The posturing might be less repellent if Baker was choosing a fate for others in which he would himself share, but he isn’t, and he can’t: he lives in the apparently secure and comparatively just West Allied force made, while reviling the work of those who made it. When he mourns mass murder while insisting that any effort to oppose mass murder was as wicked as the killing itself, he means that he prefers a spotless conscience to any number of live Jews, or Poles, or Russians, or Serbs. And what is worse, Baker does not admit his preference. When concealing it he has a flair for a technique that might uncharitably be called suppressio veri, suggestio falsi. For example, he points out that in July of 1940 Eichmann considered shipping the Jews to Madagascar if but only if Britain made peace, with the implication that those who refused to make peace have the blood of the Jews on their hands. There are also implications that American belligerency sealed the fate of the Jews. There is no acknowledgement, however, of one of the commonplaces of modern historical work on the Final Solution: Germany began wholesale extermination in July of 1941 because with the apparent impending collapse of the Soviet Union, victory over Germany’s enemies now seemed inevitable. The Final Solution was the result of the spectre of victory, not of the fact of war; had the latter been true, the Final Solution would have presumably have commenced in the autumn of 1939. Baker wants to lay the Final Solution at the door of those whose use of force brought it to an end, to insist that it was the decision to use Allied force that killed the Jews, and not Allied forces that saved a remnant of them. This is a contemptible lie.
Novelists are normally celebrated for their imagination, but imagination is what Baker most lacks. I think Camus observed that we must have the courage to imagine the real. The real and dreadful evil that must be resisted with force is what Baker refuses to imagine. The ability to at least partially imagine the reality of National Socialism is pretty common, in that most people who loathe war think war was in that case justified. The tone of Human Smoke, which suggests the converse proposition, implies that its author is thus richly and even uniquely endowed with the courage to imagine the real, but Baker is instead indulging fantasy masquerading as Camus’ notion of imagination. A radical deficiency of courage is cowardice, which in Camus’ sense of the former word makes Baker a coward, and one who displays his moral cowardice while in effect boasting of his moral courage. The coward who boasts of his courage, and who is by some mistaken for a courageous man – the miles gloriosus – is normally a figure of comedy. Not, alas, this time.