Clearing the Smoke from History’s Horrors and Heroes

I’ve just read Nicholson Baker’s take on the first years of World War II, Human Smoke, and it is certainly unsettling. But I have come across a couple of reactions to the book of late that complain that Baker is trying to convince the reader that WWII was a bad war that should never have been fought, and that Churchill and Roosevelt were as bad as Hitler. This leads to a pretty much categorical dismissal of the entire work. Here’s a bit from the New York Times review:

Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.

[ … ]

Almost unbelievably, [Baker] includes multiple instances in which Churchill and Roosevelt rejected the idea of negotiating with Hitler. Although he offers no commentary on the matter, the reader is forced to draw the conclusion that negotiation was a sensible idea cavalierly tossed aside by leaders who preferred war to peace.

As “the reader” in this instance, I at no time felt “forced” to draw any such conclusion, nor any other proffered by this and other similar criticisms. If I felt that the book’s central message was so naively simplistic, I would likewise dismiss it.

What the book does do is to remind us that the events of World War II were not black and white, that Churchill and Roosevelt were not utterly pure and heroic in their motives or executions, and that there was a legitimate anti-war sentiment that pulsated at the time—one that was as well-intended and as based in honest principle as any opponent of, say, the Iraq invasion in 2003 (putting aside whether the opponents of battling Hitler were in that sentiment correct, which I think history bares out that they were not). The principled pacifists of that era deserve to have their story told, stories seldom told—how many World War II histories can you think of that feature Gandhi as a central figure and moral voice?

The book also reminds us, very often through primary sources such as diaries and direct quotes, how removed those waging war can be from those suffering unspeakably from its horrors. The prime ministers, presidents, ambassadors and generals often seem heartless and utterly out of touch in regards to the real world consequences of the war’s mass butchery of human beings.

Yes, Baker shows us the often-bloodthirsty and callous sides of Churchill and Roosevelt, but this aspect of such a giant figures needs to be aired, needs to be remembered. It is important that we are reminded that throughout history the good guys are not always good—a lesson which, to this reader, only made the bad guys seem even worse. As jaw-dropping as some of the Allies’ actions and sentiments were, the acts of the Nazi regime as recounted by Baker were so horrific, so awful, so monstrous, that Churchill at his worst never approaches the evil of Hitler.

Baker makes that very distinction clear without having to say it explicitly. Baker gives us the real human beings as they were in this chapter of the human story, and does not need to explain that, yes, of course, Hitler was far worse than any Allied leader. Perhaps some folks, still oversensitive and over-reverent of certain persons and eras, just need it spelled out more plainly, and have the same versions of history fed to them on slightly different spoons each time.

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