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Rights + Justice

'Human Smoke'

Who gassed Iraqi insurgents? Churchill. Author Nicholson Baker sets fire to revered icons of the WWII era.

Crawford Kilian 31 Jul

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Baker: new way of telling history.

This is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, and it's disturbing in several ways.

First, it offers a new way of telling history, a kind of "print bite" -- news clips going back as far as 1892, about events that meant little at the time. But in the light of hindsight, those clips create a sense of impending disaster. The traditional history we've read provides the backdrop and narrative, while Baker's print bites radically (and unfairly) change our perspective on that history.

In irony, we know more about the characters' predicament than they themselves do. Baker makes us wiser than the people we meet in his book, because we know what their decisions will lead to.

But our wisdom tempts us to despise Baker's characters -- Churchill, Roosevelt, and others -- for failing to be as wise as we are. This is the historian's sin of "presentism": judging the past by our own values. The brilliance of Baker's storytelling device only deepens the sin.

Hitler equals Churchill?

Second, Human Smoke presents a seriously revisionist history of the causes of World War II, in which Mohandas Gandhi says, "Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing. The difference is only one of degree."

Baker supports this by showing hallowed figures like Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt exposing their anti-Semitism. Worse yet, it seems to be a trivial bigotry, a fashion statement pretending to be an informed political view. But because it is a widespread fashion, the few Jews who escape Germany are turned back by British, American, and Canadian officials citing "quotas." We begin to understand Gandhi's judgment.

But the print-bite narrative relies on emotional impact to make Baker's case, rather than building a detailed and logical argument.

Third, Baker offers us only two options: The genocidal politics of both fascism and democracy, and the sweetly stupid pacifism of Gandhi and the conscientious objectors.

Baker's print bites tend to back up Gandhi's view of Churchill and Hitler as variants of a fascist imperialism. We see Churchill endorsing the bombing and gassing of Iraqi insurgents in the 1920s. Hitler admires the British for the courage and enterprise that built their empire. He just wants to do in Poland and Russia what the Brits have done in India.

Genocide as strategy

When war breaks out in 1939, Baker tells us, the western democracies have known for a decade what kind of war they would fight. A conflict of vast armies would have to wait. First would come an air and naval war against civilians, on the premise that a hungry and bomb-shattered population would rise up against its overlords.

So Britain creates a naval blockade that will starve millions across the continent, including Germany's new slave states. The Germans' war plans are similar: the Nazis in Poland deliberately starve the Jews to death until they can figure out more efficient forms of mass murder.

Baker's print bites argue a long-held view of the American right: That Roosevelt wanted and planned for war with Japan. In 1940, FDR was selling bombers to Chiang Kai-Shek, hoping the Chinese would attack Japan. Supposedly he also knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, and let it happen to give himself a pretext for entering the war.

Baker shows that almost every evil technique of modern terrorism was on the agenda of World War II, on both sides. An American professor proposes poisoning German crops with hormones that became Agent Orange in Vietnam. British scientists suggest killing German cattle with air-dropped anthrax. The Germans work on new poison gases.

Fools and saints

Opposed to this state terrorism are a handful of fools and saints. Aviator Charles Lindbergh and Republican isolationists urge the US to stay out a European squabble. Gandhi sends Hitler some fatuous advice on nonviolence, and then goes to jail. So do a few conscientious objectors in Britain and the US.

Given what Baker shows us about the plans of the Nazis, the Russians, the French, and the Germans, pacifist sanctimony in the war's early years looks worse than idiotic. But to choose violence against the Nazis was literally to choose the lesser of two evils, the milder of two fascisms.

By the book's end, just after Pearl Harbor, we might wonder what Baker's real point is. He asserts that the pacifists were right, even while documenting the folly of their position. Should the allies have followed Gandhi's advice and simply allowed themselves to be conquered and slaughtered?

While it's useful to gain new perspectives after sixty years of triumphal propaganda, Baker's revisionism misses one key point: the allies sold the war as a struggle for democracy and equality. Eventually, grudgingly, they had to deliver on their promises. Churchillism may not have been different in kind from Hitlerism, but the difference in degree was absolutely crucial.

Human Smoke deserves attention for the light it throws on the war and for the author's powerful storytelling techniques. But it also deserves cautious skepticism.  [Tyee]

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