I just read through Nicholson Baker‘s Human Smoke. It’s an unlikely page-turner, but it is a page-turner. It is, as its subtitle claims, an account of the beginnings of World War II and, Baker feels, the end of civilization. Many writers have assumed that civilization ended at some point in the twentieth century, and each has advanced his or her candidate moment or event. In Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (or one of his characters) suggests the beginning of World War I. But Baker seems to mean something specific by the phrase “the end of civilization.” What he draws attention to over and over again throughout the book is the way in which World War II was significantly, perhaps even primarily, fought by armed forces against civilians, starting with Great Britain’s blockade of much of continental Europe and terror bombing of German cities, continuing through Germany’s Blitz of British cities and, of course, the Holocaust, and culminating in the United States’ firebombing of Tokyo and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Baker clearly means this book to be a provocation, and he arranges his material to make his point, yet he manages to maintain an even, almost flat tone while marshaling his ultimately persuasive argument. His method is a sort of factual pointillism, stringing together short entries (most about a paragraph long, with none more than two pages) in strict chronological order, starting at the end of the nineteenth century and ending at the end of 1941. It proves addictive, pulling the reader along entry after entry. And as dry as it might sound, it conveys a disconcerting sense of immediacy and intimacy. On finishing the book, I felt sort of like I’d lived through that time (admittedly at some remove) and knew many of the central players as people I’d met, rather than as icons or historical figures. And by and large, they’re not the historical figures I expected. This is a deliberately, patiently, and persistently revisionist book. Herbert Hoover is a tireless, faintly heroic advocate for the welfare of the starving masses of Europe; Franklin Roosevelt is a Machiavellian anti-Semite; Winston Churchill is a dangerously charismatic sociopath; and Hitler, well, Hitler is still Hitler, but somehow more plausible. Having recently finished Dante‘s Inferno, I couldn’t help but picture Churchill and Hitler below us now in the ninth circle, in the ice up to their necks next to Ugolino and Ruggieri, with Churchill gnawing Hitler’s head for all eternity.
This book also suggests a different perspective from which to view our current misadventure in Iraq. From this perspective, the machinations that the Bush and Blair governments went through to get us into it, as ham-fisted as they undeniably were, were nowhere near as bloodthirsty or plainly Rube Goldbergesque as what the Churchill and Roosevelt governments went through to get us into war with Germany and Japan. The disadvantage under which our current leaders labor is the increased transparency allowed by advances in communications and related technologies. Ever since, say, Vietnam, it has been harder and harder to unify populations behind war efforts, and it has been harder and harder to conduct those efforts with the brutality that war seems to be require for success. And on the whole, that’s probably a good thing.