“Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” by Nicholson Baker

A friend of mine met Nicholson Baker at a book signing, and mentioned his diversity as an author. Human Smoke is historical, but Baker recently published a novel and has released some “literary porn” (another new genre for me to ponder).

By chance, Human Smoke was handy. I’d started reading it before. This time I powered through it.

First there’s the unusual format. It consists entirely of vignettes, few longer than a single page, most less. Each is associated with a date. NOTES explain the origin of each item. The most common source is the New York Times. A list of references and and index add to the documentation, and I doubt there’s anything in the book that can’t be clearly identified as to origin.

There are no chapters or headings, just 900+ vignettes arranged chronologically. The first is from 1892, the last from December 31, 1941. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the whole world was at war, but most loss of life still lay ahead.

What does Baker mean by “the end of civilization”? The title might lead you to think he was referring to the death camps, which were just being established when the book ends, but that’s not the main focus of the book. I decided Baker was referring to use of air power, which is one of the things that distinguished WWII from WWI.

The thing about aerial bombardment is that it worked so poorly. Hitting military targets by visual direction was incredibly difficult, so the choice was to desist or to bomb civilians, near military targets initially, then later almost anywhere, in order to “demoralize” the enemy. The extreme came with the use of incendiary bombs to create firestorms. Early in the war, both Germany and Britain expressed reservations about intentionally bombing civilians. Each side blamed the other for changing the “rules”.

Throughout the book, Baker includes statements by and about pacifists, antiwar activists, draft resisters and other nonconformists.

Towards the end of the book, I found this explanation: Four days after Pearl Harbor, the Gallup poll asked Americans if the US should bomb Japanese cities. TEN PERCENT OF RESPONDENTS SAID NO. Bombing should be restricted to military targets. Said Baker…

  • Twelve million people (the 10%) still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them. It was December 10, 1941.”

This book has been criticized for presenting facts without context. My reply would be that anyone who wants to present a different set of facts leading to another conclusion is free to do so. “Context” can be hard to distinguish from “spin”.

Baker offers this conclusion…

  • I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and the stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

This book presents a different view from what we usually hear about WWII. As a baby boomer, I grew up with fragmented knowledge of what my parent’s generation experienced. Baker suggests that it was not all “inevitable”. There might have been another path through the dilemmas. We need to ponder this as we face new challenges. We’ve managed to avoid WW III, but the small, undeclared wars have been staggeringly vicious. Is someone out there speaking for negotiation, compromise and humanitarian action?


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