The myth of the ‘good war’ goes up in smoke

Nicholson Baker's historical montage has got many reviewers spitting blood, yet all he has done is remind us that the motives and behaviour of the Allies in the Second World War were often far from decent.

Guy Rundle

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‘Well I have to say that I can’t honestly be neutral about the book at hand.’ It was 9.30 on a Monday morning and Andrew Marr, the normally unflappable host of BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week, was in something of a tizz.

Marr has had some ‘out there’ guests on the programme, which specialises in shameless book-plugging under the guise of conversation, usually constraining its guests to a neutral politesse. But Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and FOB (Friend of Bono) was equally upset. ‘I just can’t see this as a moral position.’ What could possibly have got them to this un-Radio 4 state? In Praise of Baby Eating, perhaps? Babyshambles: A Critical Symposium?

No, it was history. Nicholson Baker’s history, to be precise. The soft-spoken novelist, better known for experimental tales of obsession, such as The Fermata, was there with Human Smoke, his mosaic history of the lead up to, and first years of, the Second World War, in which he argues, more by the accretion of a thousand small details than by direct assertion, that the conflict was pretty much the antithesis of the ‘good war’ that it has become in modern memory, nor even the blundered-into amoral conflict between European states that AJP Taylor had sketched out in The Causes of World War Two.

For Baker, the war was a product of the drive for power and death, the clash of empires, racism on all sides, and the quasi-autonomous process by which an arms race generates its own inevitable denouement. Not only was the Allied drive to gain unconditional surrender from the Axis powers not a noble crusade, but its ruthless prosecution may have caused the unnecessary deaths of tens of millions. The few truly virtuous people on the scene were the pacifists who refused to serve in the defence of an empire increasingly reliant on mass civilian bombing as its mode of war. No wonder Marr was spluttering in his cornflakes.

Marr is not alone. Human Smoke has attracted reviews that go well beyond the usual confines of the reviewer’s decorum. It is not that they merely hate the book. They are outraged by its very existence, dismissing it in terms more redolent of green-ink Times letters from the shires. ‘Baker…. is driven by a personal quest and shaped by his assumptions and prejudices’, harrumphs David Cesarani in the UK Independent; ‘perverse tract’, says Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun; ‘Muddled and often infuriating… like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over’, says William Grimes in the New York Times.

The reaction tells us as much about the contemporary period as the book tells us of the last part of that low, dishonest decade, the Thirties. For Baker is no David Irving, going into bat for a long-suffering Christ-like Hitler – his picture of the noxious, self-pitying anti-Semitism of the Nazis is revealing in its detail. But Baker has had the temerity to restore to the picture the full context of the period and, most importantly, the manner in which people of the time understood the choices facing them, the motives and morals of the forces arrayed.

Baker’s portrait of the age is built from thousands of vignettes drawn from news reports, diaries, memos and the like of the time, all rendered in a cool and elegant style. The structure is quasi-musical, with a range of themes repeatedly returning. The first and biggest is the continued existence of the British Empire, and the manner by which it was maintained in the 1920s and 30s – by the experimental use of the bombing of civilians, with both explosives and poison gas. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who would later find notoriety as the arsonist of German cities, had conducted bombings in half a dozen outposts from Iraq to China, including India.

Related to this is the second strand, which is the character of Churchill before the war canonised him – as an anti-Semitic Zionist (a Jewish homeland would encourage the Jews to spend less time being Bolshevik-plutocrats, he believed), a relentless opponent of negotiations towards Indian independence, and a man who, in the words of Lloyd George, faced with the absence of military conflict could not be restrained from ‘getting out the maps’.

The third strand is the game of imperial bluff and counter-bluff played by the US and Japan in the Asia-Pacific arena, and America’s attempt to encircle Japan, not only via imperial possessions such as the Philippines, but also through military aid to China, the whole campaign coupled with a growing official racism towards the Japanese, who were portrayed, especially in the wake of Pearl Harbor, as a race of sub-human pig people (the Chinese, by contrast, were held to be elegant and fine-boned).

The fourth strand is the development of the international pacifist movement in complement with the successful refinement of aerial bombing, and early investigations of the possibilities of nuclear weaponry. The global leader of pacifism was Gandhi, whose comments on the plight of German Jews have hitherto been regarded as an example of proto-hippieish naiveté. Baker, by dealing with them at greater length, demonstrates that Gandhi’s arguments on the issue were as sophisticated, if uncompromising, as any commentator of the time.

Put together, Baker’s work restores to us a picture of what it felt like to be dealing with these issues in the Thirties, as they presented themselves at the time, before the fusion of the grand alliance, the Holocaust and the United Nations into some sort of total unity retrospectively transformed the conflict into a self-aware crusade against genocide, and a historical gold standard for the virtues of total war in the service of good causes.

Much of it will be known to anyone with some acquaintance with the real history of the period, yet much of it also remains sequestered in specialised disciplines – and the image of the ‘good war’ is so encompassing in our culture that it tends to occlude a fully critical account of the period in even the most sceptical mind.

And even the most clued-up and sceptical observer will find details to surprise: the German bombers piloted by teenage boys in the early days of the war; the British blockade of Europe being denounced as enforced starvation by that noted radical, Herbert Hoover; miniature villages being constructed to practice fire-bombing; Himmler’s plan secretly to sterilise the entire Jewish population using X-rays; or some of Churchill’s more eye-popping quotes, the most standout one being: ‘If Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should have a Hitler to lead us.’

There’s no real mystery as to why Human Smoke has met with such violent opposition, for it comes at a time when the general idea of ‘good wars’ has come under immense historical pressure. The most vocal supporters of the Iraq war are now reduced either to a mea culpa that relies on the purity of their motives and the honesty of their errors, or to a blustering argument about making the best of a bad job as the Afghanistan conflict evolves into a sort of combination quagmire/photo opportunity. Military humanitarianism has entered a new stage, best witnessed in Darfur – a situation in which the idea of intervention is never seriously meant, but is continually spoken of; pure fantasy projection.

The contradictions of such a practice are best witnessed in the Burma/Myanmar hurricane disaster, a situation in which talk of intervention was as formalised as a courtly masque – perhaps the first situation in which absolutely no-one in the debate seriously believed that military intervention was likely or possible, even for a minute. Like all such practices, the repetition saps the strength and the will, and will eventually make you go blind. The last thing you need is some smart-arse novelist coming along to point out that the original good war was a chaotic process in which a general culture of violence reached its apogee.

In that respect, what many commentators really find intolerable is what Baker’s montage implies about the Holocaust – that it occurred in part because the prosecution of total war by the Allies, coupled with their earlier refusal to take Jewish refugees, effectively made mass deportation impossible. Though Baker makes few directly forceful arguments in the book, his implication is this: if a peace deal had been made with Hitler – full unabashed appeasement – coupled with an openness to Jewish refugees, the Nazis would not have turned to mass extermination.

That is an enormously difficult possibility to even suggest at this juncture. For many it appears to absolve the Nazis, though of course it doesn’t – unless one has a quasi-theological need for evil to be utterly self-knowing, a pure satanic eruption, rather than the product of an opportunistic bunch of cranks and psychopaths. For others, it simply fuses the circuits, by making the struggle against evil an unwitting accomplice to its fulfilment. To admit that Baker’s thesis is even possible is to contemplate a collapse in the West’s self-regard, and its understanding of the whole postwar period.

Yet what is truly indicative of the current deep anxieties of the West is that these issues have already been canvassed, and then covered over. After all, one of the first, and greatest, Holocaust films was Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog – the title a reference to the cover war gave to make the otherwise unthinkable possible. Also, the issue was extensively canvassed in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she argued that the Final Solution was reached gradually and incrementally, being part of the ‘banality of evil’. Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann now appears to have understated his actual anti-Semitism, but the debate around the historical causality of the Holocaust could at least be had.

That view of the period as causally complex held sway well into the 1980s – even the influential TV miniseries Holocaust in the late 1970s suggested a mixture of amoral opportunism and evil as being responsible for the calamity. In the 1980s, as the event receded further into history, its treatment began to change. In works such as The White Hotel, the Holocaust became a staging ground for a more abstract meditation on human evil in general, and the event was well on the way to a total separation from the wider historical context in which it occurred. The simultaneous collapse of the Eastern bloc – which, as a product of the US/UK/Soviet alliance, could not be mentioned – and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait set the paradigm for the next two decades. Every new situation was a potential Holocaust, a process by which both future and past could be mutually simplifying and reinforcing.

The degree to which this has gone so deep into otherwise intelligent people’s skulls is surely indicated by the way in which Baker has been attacked. The criticism that Baker’s montage approach leaves him most open to is that he has been selective – gathering together all the evidence that a nasty but less catastrophic peace could have been achieved, that the Holocaust might have been avoided by peace not war, what has he left out? Not much, it must be said – there is ample documentation of wanton Nazi barbarity, of Japanese experimentation with biological warfare against the Chinese, all of which accords with the standard account.

One indication that there are fewer omissions or misconstructions than Baker’s critics might want is that so few of them attempt to refute the details of his account. Instead, they focus on motive or tone, often in a manifestly contradictory manner. ‘Events and incidents are presented out of context, with no authorial commentary and separated by lots of white space’, William Grimes notes. Then two paragraphs later, he adds: ‘Almost unbelievably, he 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…’

Adam Kirsch notes that, ‘thought is just what Mr. Baker’s montage-method discourages. He gives us disconnected factoids, portentous with implications, but does not give us the means to decide whether the implications are correct. Using omission and juxtaposition in place of narrative allows him to distort the real sequence of events – as when he allows the reader to imagine that America sold weapons to China for aggressive purposes, rather than to assist China in resisting Japanese invasion…’

So, on the one hand Baker provides no context, on the other he frogmarches the reader to a pre-ordained conclusion. His method makes thinking impossible, yet pushes the reader into perfervid imaginings. Every item of Second World War holy writ that Baker touches on produces almost audible spluttering. In the end, ‘good war’ criticism of the book becomes circular. Grimes notes: ‘In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr Baker writes, “They failed, but they were right.” Millions of ghosts say otherwise.’ Baker’s point is that they may not have been ghosts, had things turned out differently. Fortunately, they have reviewers to speak for them.

Of course, Baker does have a positive argument to make, which can be grappled with, and that is the efficacy of absolute pacifism – though like Gandhi, he has no illusions about the short-term prospects of non-violent resistance to an enemy like the Nazis. Yet his final remarks beg a big question. Take his emphasis on Gandhi, for example. Despite Richard Attenborough’s film hagiography, the Mahatma’s image as sole liberator of India is in fact another product of a process of forgetting – in this case of the armed resistance to Indian rule, especially that by Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA). Bose is another figure who has vanished down the memory hole, because his formation of a guerrilla army to fight the British in the Second World War does not accord with the notion that Britain’s empire, unlike France’s or Portugal’s, was dismantled peacefully.

Yet historians have not underestimated his importance; Calvocoressi and Wint gave him an entire chapter in Total War, their monumental history of the conflict. Ghandi succeeded to a large degree because the British knew that Bose and the INA – modelled on the IRA – were the alternative. Having realised since the 1920s that decolonisation would be necessary, their cat-and-mouse game with Gandhi was a means of keeping him and Congress in business, to have someone to deal with – eventually. Without the threat of a subcontinental uprising, the British may well have been less inclined to non-violence themselves. More generally, Baker’s support of resistance to armed force could be accused of inflexibility.

Trying to stop a war presents a different set of political and moral decisions than does conducting yourself within a war that has started, and which has become one of national survival against an enemy that unashamedly promotes its celebration of mastery and cruelty. At that point there literally are no good choices, and to fall back upon absolute moral positions is to detach from reality, not grapple with it – the moral thing to do may then involve some awful strategic choices.

The Second World War did not begin as an attack on Nazism per se, and it was never a crusade against the Holocaust – indeed the failure of the Allies to bomb the death camps when they were within range has still never been fully explained. The Pacific war was a vicious imperialist struggle, with appalling, albeit different, cruelties on both sides – the Bataan death march versus the Tokyo firebombing. It might be argued that the European conflict acquired a moral character, and a raised level of consciousness among its participants – yet this was as much in a delayed revulsion at the mass industrial death of its bombing campaign as in the Allies’ official anti-fascism. Baker sees it as the ‘end of civilisation’ – it could equally be said that the critical consciousness necessary for the Vietnam anti-war movement, and hence a more reflective global politics, was born within it.

But whatever we conclude, insofar as we can conclude, about the meaning of the war, the important thing now is relentlessly to interrogate what is forgotten about it, and the manner in which it is used. It is a process quite beyond the cosy frameworks of Start The Week. Baker has re-opened these questions and restored a degree of complexity to petrified mythical simplicities. In an era when commentators have degraded themselves from Washington to Euston as propagandists for power, Human Smoke is a reminder of the sort of things that free thinkers should do.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker is published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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