World History / A War of Choice?

Nicholson Baker presents pacifists as the heroes of World War II, a war he says could have been avoided, and for which the Allies bear responsibility no less than Hitler.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker Simon & Schuster, 566 pages, $30

Anyone who has had to teach "selected chapters in 20th-century history" is familiar with the problem. Two major struggles called "world wars" are the main pivots around which revolve all the events and dramatic developments of that thrilling century. It is hard to convince students that in many respects World War I, and not World War II, was the formative event of the era. When they are called upon to understand the results of the war that ended in 1918 as factors in the outbreak of World War II, they have a hard time. As students of history have always done, they look for heroes and villains in the story. But they have difficulty comprehending the "war guilt" assigned to defeated Germany at the Versailles peace conference that ended the war. The Germans, led by the kaiser, do not come across, in their eyes, as conscienceless villains. They merely "lost" the war. Conscientious objectors and pacifists of all stripes from the days of World War I are granted affection and understanding, and at any rate are not summarily condemned. Some of them even went on to become cultural heroes.

Nicholson Baker is not a historian, and the ways of historical argument are not known to him. But the writer, best known for his novels, is very angry, and is definitely a pacifist. He does not accept the prevailing version regarding the path from the first world war to the second, nor the customary division of camps into heroes and villains. His manner of demonstrating that World War II was the definitive event that put an end to human civilization is original and sometimes brilliant. But he does not attempt to explain his approach or method. This book has no introduction clarifying his method, or preface outlining the main points of his argument. Baker does not openly condemn and does not judge. He merely presents small stories, one after another, hundreds of vignettes, and believes these will prove his main contention: that World War II could have been avoided.

Policy of firm resistance

A selective and simplistic approach to the sources, and even to Churchill's own descriptions of his actions, would not make it hard to prove that claim. No one disputes that Churchill was among the chief initiators of the massive bombing campaign against German cities. He demanded from his generals more and more sorties and ever more sophisticated and deadlier means. Nor did he bother to acknowledge any moral hesitations when he ordered Royal Air Force bombers to attack and then attack again. When Churchill went to war, he wanted his people and the Western world that he led to look upon him as one who was without hesitation or doubt. But had Nicholson Baker been more meticulous about rummaging through the documents and exposing the underbelly of the leader who cheered his pilots off to battle, he would have discovered a decidedly convoluted system of considerations - relevant, pragmatic and also moral - that formed the basis for the decision to enter the fray.

Churchill did indeed cheer when he heard that Japan had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, and that Roosevelt had announced that his country had joined the war. When all is said and done, even a "warmonger" like Churchill knew (contrary to what he said in his morale-boosting speeches) that Britain could not make it on its own with its back to the wall for days on end. America was his only hope. The problem with Churchill was not his excessive fondness for scuffling (there is no denying he indulged in that quite a bit, too), but rather his passionate fixation on beautiful turns of phrase. He left a great many tracks for those who would seek someday to establish that Churchill possessed a sort of lust for war.

Not politically correct

Alternative heroes

The alternative heroes are of course the pacifist "fighters," who tried with all their might to prevent the mad dash to war and the end of civilization. They were few but courageous. They were in the U.S. Congress; they were at universities. India's Mahatma Gandhi is of course the supreme leader of this moral stance, and his peculiar and puzzling positions and statements regarding Jews, and Hitler's personality, do not trouble Baker overmuch. In his sensitivity to the Jewish matter, Baker makes a point of telling his readers that there were also Jews among those sent to prison in America for refusing military service on moral grounds. He does not bother to ascertain their opinions regarding the fate of their brethren in Europe, but makes sure to tell us that while in prison, they joined their pacifist friends in a Hebrew prayer for world peace.

After reading this special book - special in both its subject matter and method of argument - readers are left with many unanswered questions. One of these is, in what respect does World War II mark the end of civilization? There are also some tough questions about the moral basis for the pacifist position. But the main question for Baker is this: Did the world that stood up to Hitler and the Axis powers (with all the means at its disposal) have a real choice?

It might have been possible to ignore this book, but its ongoing appearance on U.S. best-seller lists and the response it has generated require discussion, and also a rebuttal of its argument, since someone unfamiliar with the historical details might be taken in by its charms. After all, how can you say anything bad about someone who wants nothing more than to prevent wars in the world?

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is editor-in-chief of the Ofakim series published by Am Oved.