london burning, sep 1940
The afterword and dedication of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization tells you a lot about the perspective Nicholson Baker has in telling the story of World War II up to January 1942:
This book ends on December 31, 1942. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?
. . .
I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. The 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.
Whether or not a different approach to the “Great War” would have helped those who needed help cannot be answered, but after reading this book you will truly see how horrifying the war was, and how those who waged it contributed to it’s horrors. That the title of the book refers to the smoke from the incinerators at Auschwitz should be enough to give you pause over whether you want to read this book. It’s pretty devastating. But it does serve as a powerful antidote to the false historical idea that the Allies fought the good fight to liberate the world from the Axis evil. There’s not much good in war, even a “necessary” war like World War II, and there was plenty of evil among all leaders engaged in the struggle.
I found three main threads in the book. First, and probably most important was the nature of the way the war was brought to the citizens of Europe. Cities on both sides were bombed using brutal techniques that typically started with incendiary bombs to set blacked-out targets on fire, followed by high energy exposives targeting the fires themselves (if it’s burning, it must be something worth destroying), and ending with delayed-action bombs “so as to prevent or seriously interfere with fire fighting, repair and general traffic organization” (from a British Air Ministry report on bombing policy, April 24, 1941). Churchill is quoted several times using the phrase “Business before Pleasure” to describe targeting military targets before civilian ones. Despite this intention, the vast majority of British and German bombs fell on citizens, not military targets. The British blockade of Europe also brought the war to Axis countries in the form of famine. Churchill explained that fats make bombs and potatoes make synthetic fuels that would be used against Britain. Herbert Hoover wrote: “The notion that the special type of food we needed for children (milk, chocolate, fats, and meat) would be used for munitions was sheer nonsense.” As in Bush’s war in Iraq, Hoover quotes the old adage: truth is war’s first fatality.
dresden firebombing, feb 1945
The second main thread concerns the plight of the Jews. It appears from the quotes in this book as though Hitler’s main objective was to remove the Jews from Europe, and when he could find no place to send them (including Palestine, Madagascar and any other country willing to take them), he began his program of extermination. Again, there’s no way to know what might have happened if the Allies had offered refuge to the Jews in Axis countries, but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than what happened.
The final argument working through the book is the ways in which the United States goaded the Japanese into their pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor. Without all the evidence, it’s hard to decide if this is a valid argument, but it is clear that the United States had many opportunities to relax tensions with Japan and prevent a Pacific war. Instead we were supplying the Chinese and Soviets with bombers, fuel, pilots and training, while at the same time, building up our own bases surrounding Japan. Churchill seemed convinced that the United States would enter the war once the Germans started bombing England, and then when France fell, but it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to get us in. Baker’s book has something to say about how that happened.
These three main arguments, and others, weave their way through the book’s chronologically arranged short presentations of facts. It’s a very effective way to make a simple argument about the nature of war, and despite the horrors on the page, it’s an entertaining way to receive history. The problem is that without any objective (or even subjective) interpretation of the passages, or a stated intention toward balance and objectivity, it’s hard to evaluate the arguments that formed in my mind. I have no doubt about the facts Baker includes, but there are likely to be facts that don’t follow the general patterns on display. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in what lead up to the entry of the United States into World War II, or if you have doubts about the heroic storyline presented in the multitude of “Great War” documentaries, this book should be included alongside more traditional historical accounts of the war.