Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke

nick baker

Nicholson Baker: history by hyperlink

A wing commander in the [British] Royal Air Force [in Iraq], J. A. Chamier, published his views on how best to deal with tribal rebellions.

The commanding officer must choose the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe, said Chamier, and attack it with all available aircraft. “The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle,” Chamier wrote. “This sounds brutal, I know, but it must be made brutal to start with. The threat alone in the future will prove efficacious if the lesson is once properly learnt.” It was 1921.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 8.

Frederick Birchall, Berlin correspondent for The New York Times, published an article about Germany’s preparations for war. It was October 8, 1933.

Birchell quoted from a recent book by Ewald Banse, a teacher at the Technical High School in Brunswick, Germany. The book was called Wehrwissenschaft — “Military Science.” War was no longer a matter of marches and medals, Banse observed: “It is gas and plague. It is tank and aircraft horror. It is baseness and falsehood. It is hunger and poverty.” And because war is so horrible, Banse said, it must be incorporated into the school curriculum and taught as a new and comprehensive science: “The methods and aims of the new science are to create an unshakable belief in the high ethical value of war and to produce in the individual the psychological readiness for sacrifice in the cause of nation and state.”

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 44.

Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons that England was officially at war with Germany… It was September 3, 1939.

Churchill’s mood, as he listened, wasn’t sad at all. He felt, he wrote later, a sense of uplifted serenity and a detachment from human affairs. “The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation,” he said.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 138.

Dorothy Day, the editor of the Catholic Worker, wrote an editorial called “Our Stand.” “As in the Ethiopian war, the Spanish war, the Japanese and Chinese war, the Russian-Finnish war — so in the present war we stand unalterably opposed to the use of war as a means of saving ‘Christianity,’ ‘civilization,’ ‘democracy.'” She urged a nonviolent opposition to injustice and servitude: She called it the Folly of the Cross.

“We are bidden to love God and to love one another,” she wrote. “It is the whole law, it is all of life. Nothing else matters.” It was June 1940.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.

“This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain,” [Churchill] said [in a radio speech, seven months into the German Blitz.] It had lifted them above material facts “into that joyous serenity we think belongs to a better world than this.”

“There are less than seventy million malignant Huns — some of whom are curable and others killable,” Churchill said. The population of the British empire and the United States together amounded to some two hundred million. The Allies had more people and made more steel, he said. The Allies would win. It was April 27, 1941.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.

Some people want to make an issue of method and form around Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, subtitled The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. But the real problem is, of course, his message. In an afterword on almost 500 pages of vignettes, Nick Baker offers his own judgment that the pacifists and other resisters had the right strategic answer to the war-madness of the 20th Century — people like Gandhi, the Quakers, ex-President Herbert Hoover who wanted to break the British food blockade on starving Europe in October, 1941 (“Can you point to one benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?” Hoover asked in a radio speech) and the diarist Howard Schoenfeld, who went to prison in Danbury, CT for standing against the draft and “against war, which I believe to be the greatest evil known to man.”

Human Smoke reads like a wall of Post-It notes — pointilistic dots on a 40-year canvas — which Louis Menand in the New Yorker, for example, says should not be confused with responsible history. I felt it, on the contrary, as a very familiar, virtually cinematic, quick-cutting, frame-shifting, angular and episodic style of story telling. It’s not so unlike the method of Ken Burns’ PBS epic on The War, which took its perspective from GI letters home and family memories today in just four American cities, like Waterbury, Connecticut and Mobile, Alabama.

The difference is that the Burns TV film summoned up and revarnished a lot of old feelings. Baker tears into every bit of received sentiment about the war, and about its heroes — Churchill most especially — in the book and our conversation:

He’s fascinating. He’s brilliant. He had a mind well stocked with poetry… So one doesn’t want to dismantle Churchill in the sense of saying he was not a great man. He has hugeness of personality, but he was a man of many phases… In this period that I’m looking at him, he was really a maniac. He was absolutely intent on widening the war and on getting as many people — his own citizens and other countries — involved as possible. I don’t think I’m being unfair to him. It’s just that if you quote him properly you realize he was just hell bent on this confrontation. As the prime minister of Australia [Robert Menzies] said on first meeting Churchill: “This man is a great hater.” It was so fascinating to watch Menzies’ visit. He first reaction was: “humorless… a great hater.” A few nights later: “he’s a great hater, but he does know an awful lot.” And then, late night, 2:30 or 3 in the morning, he’s up again listening to war stories from Churchill, and he writes, “the man has greatness.” Finally, he’s saying, “the Hun must be taught through his hide!” Menzies is now speaking the language of Churchill. So obviously this man Churchill has an incredible power over other human beings.

Nicholson Baker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, April 16, 2008

Human Smoke is a departure for Nicholson Baker, the high-stylist of The Mezzanine and of Vox, the phone-sex novel that Monica Lewinsky gave to Bill Clinton. He says, “I’ve always liked writing about the things that I hope make life worth living — the reflections on the edge of moving objects, or the little theories you develop when you shoelace breaks… So I tried to use my same approach, my method, in writing about probably the worst 5-year period in human history.”

And yes, Iraq was at the root of it all. Baker conceived the project, he says, “in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Second World War was repeatedly invoked as the one necessary war. I’ve never really understood the Second World War. It never made sense to me that we had to demolish cities in order to bring a regime down, but I always chalked it up to my own ignorance of history. But if this war is going to be invoked over and over again, then let’s actually look at it. How does it begin? What happened in what order?” And more pointedly: whence came the disastrous doctrines of exemplary war, strategic starvation, bombing and indiscriminate abuse of civilians, that persist in our own long war on Iraq? Baker’s format invites you to put Human Smoke down, annotate it, and keep picking it up. I for one cannot get its arguments out of my head.

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  • nother

    Thank you for a reasoned conversation (and book) on the history of this war.

    I came away with the idea that the distinction between perception and reality is even more pronounced in war, especially with the passage of time.

    I also appreciate the tearing down of caricature. Churchill, Hitler, and Gandhi, have become one dimensional in our retellings, and thus are easier to digest. (Although some of our current leaders are one dimensional in real-time, and they are not any easier to digest)

    This book I take it is refreshingly hard to digest.

  • jazzman

    Chris – Thanks so much for this interview. Nicholson Baker is one of my most favorite authors, (more so non-fiction than fiction but his fiction is excellent as well – and I have copies of ALL of his work – my only regret, as I responded to Hurley way back when, was his lack of prolificacy at least for my taste.) I received Human Smoke for my birthday 3 weeks ago (my wife read a review and bought it, I didn’t realize he’d published another work) and it is a real eye opener. As a pacifist by choice and a deplorer of violence, I am heartened when a courageous soul such as he espouses non-violence and puts his literary creds and popularity on the line. I have since read several reviews (including Louis Menand’s – which I took to be damnation by faint praise and got the feeling that he disagreed with Baker’s viewpoints in many cases) but others were even less kind. I had never heard Nicholson’s voice before, but the calm unassuming voice in this interview conveyed (to me) the same feeling as I get when I read his work. I still do not own a computer and I took a chance and downloaded the podcast at work after hours tonight – I most likely will repeat this transgression when another topic piques my interest. Thanks again.

    Peace to ALL,


    ps. Hi nother!!!

  • Druthers

    Nicholson Baker says he does not understand why the allies undertook the bombing of German cities.

    As a very old American abroad I remember after the war hearing people voice the opinion that in WWI the German people had not suffered on their own soil, so had no real knowledge of the consequences of war. This was considered a prime reason for the revenge sprit that pushed the German people to rally around Hitler, thus the unconditional surrender that had to be obtained to avoid the mistakes of the neogiations following WWI.

    The idea put forward was to destroy the means of war production with the least possible loss of allied forces while “teaching them a lesson.”

    Germany, like Japan, was forbidden to rearm. Both disposed of all their subsequent post-war revenus for peaceful construction and thrived much faster than those they invaded.

    An extremely interesting interview.

    Sorry for the glitch.

  • rc21

    If England and it’s allies had followed a path of pacifism and allowed Germany to follow through on it’s plans, we would not have to deal with this jewish problem that still seems to be getting in the way of things. Imagine the tranguility in a world where Israel doesn’t exist.

    By the way who needs Australia and New Zealand. I’m sure the Japaneese would have made both those island nations much more productive than they currently are.

    Imagine a world where we could be allies with Hammas,Iran,Syria, and a Europe that follows a Nazi doctirine.

    The world would be a much nicer place if we didn’t listen to Churchill and his ilk.

  • ghostofdali

    it’s “its.”

    I don’t think that we know what would have happened if the nations involved in WWII played their hands differently, but what’s interesting to me about this interview is the discussion of how those early moves served to strengthen Nazi power rather than challenge it. The tradition of warfare has highlighted the targeting and punishing of civilians for a very long time, but how useful is it? I’ve always felt that leaders could not inspire their own armies without the illusion that it was somehow a battle between “us” and “them” – and on occasion it actually IS – though mostly it’s a matter of the masses sacrificing themselves for the bloodlust of their leaders.

    I also found a subtle metaphor in the discussion of reconstruction, that the destruction of bombing is part of the process of rebuilding a new city. It’s a mindset that can be found in many places, when we decide to build a new city it’s easier to level it, kill everyone in it, and start fresh than it is to work with what’s there. Somehow, it seems like we don’t believe that the new can exist without the total destruction of the old.

    Very fine interview, I look forward to reading the book.

  • rc21

    We do know that the Jewish problem would have been taken care of. I suppose that would have been acceptable to some people.

    To say we don’t know what would have happened if the nations involved in WW2 had played their hands differently is stating the obvious, although I doubt the outcome would have been peace and prosperity for the world.

    I also assume people who feel pacifism is the answer also supported the Souths bid for succession. After all a strong case can be made that they had the right to just such an act.

  • A very intresting interview, now I have to read the book.

    RC21, get some professional help.

  • Potter

    Marc, M.I think RC21 is being sarcastic, though I should not speak for him. At least I read the posts that way.

    I had a hard time swallowing the part about the suggestion that Nazi Germany should have been allowed to achieve it’s goals- especially after listening to that ( Jewish) war veteran in Waterbury Connecticut on Ken Burns’ “The War” series. He recounted a conversation with a German soldier ( officer?) during the war ( captured?) who told that he was trained to administer us (here in the States after they overcame us). He even knew the details of our countryside. So the Nazi’s had gotten that far in their thinking, so heady and confident and hellbent on achieving their supremacy. Hitler was only one man ( as Baker says), but he had a lot of followers and youth to carry on.

    One has to put up resistance to that- and to match and more. But it’s a risky thing, especially when you get into preemption/prevention. I was just listening to the BBC news account of the US attack on Somalia today. Our government claims it is after Al Qaeda.We are making a lot of enemies, people that we need for friends.

    OTOH look at Tibet. By the time it all may or may not work out, that culture will be gone or moved elsewhere and the landscape will look totally different.

    Still I cannot say Bakers observations are not right- they are.

  • rc21

    Potter this may be the third time I agree with you…or at least in part.

    Yes I was being sarcastic.

    Obviously world peace should be the goal, Pacifism is a noble and rigteous way to live ones life,and it should be encouraged, BUT there are exceptions and we must acknowledge these exceptions. We must also acknowledge that sometimes only war or military action can bring about peace or a more tolerable situation than that which would exist without military intervention.

    For most people it’s not just war vs peace, or, pacifism vs aggression.The question is far more complicated, as is the answer.

  • mgifford

    Well, based on this good interview I did buy this book and read it (altough I am not a History buff) and found it both well written & compelling.

    Frankly I found myself quite angry at what I had been taught about the escalation of WWII here in Canada. Churchill is always portrayed as a brave hero. Shocking to read about how the UK & USA provoked Japan & Germany to lead their countries to war.

    Germany is always given 100% responsibility for the holocaust and it is refreshing in some ways to know that there is plenty of blame to be shared around. How will we not repeat our history though if we only know half truths about it?

  • Smelloise

    I don’t think you can argue that the Allies created the Holocaust on the basis of this book’s powerful argument that it was the Allied decision to start carpet-bombing German cities that helped create a reason for evicting Jews from those cities. The Holocaust was a Nazi decision.
    However, that doesn’t alter the fact that, in 50 years on this earth, I had always believed the Germans started the indiscriminate bombing of cities. There is no doubt from this book that the Allies were the instigators of that abomination. You don’t have to be a pacifist to regard such butchery as a morally reprehensible way to make war, however justified the cause may be.