Even a book as bad as "Human Smoke" (Simon and Schuster, 576 pages, $30), Nicholson Baker's perverse tract about the origins of World War II, helps to confirm the continuing centrality of that war in our moral lives. Myths call forth debunkers, and the myth of "the good war" — that complacent phrase that camouflages the most deadly conflict in human history — has provoked Mr. Baker to remind us of some of the ways in which World War II was not good. There is nothing to object to in this: On the contrary, no one is more alert than the historians to the true ambiguities of the war. In particular, the terrible facts of the Allied bombing campaign — which inflicted unspeakable civilian casualties on Germany, without appreciably shortening the war — have been studied and debated more openly in the last few years than ever before.
The problem with Mr. Baker's book is that he is not interested in ambiguity, but in countering the received myth of the good war with his own myth of the bad war. Mr. Baker's ignorance, however, is much more disgraceful than the ignorance he seeks to combat — first, because he presents it as knowledge, and second, because World War II was, in fact, if not simply a good war, then an absolutely necessary one. In arguing the contrary, Mr. Baker is trying to convince his reader that false is true, and at times even that good is evil.
To take its theses one by one, Mr. Baker's book is designed to convince the reader that America should not have fought Germany or Japan; that Franklin Roosevelt connived to get us into the war at the behest of the arms manufacturers, and probably knew about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in advance; that Winston Churchill was a bloodthirsty buffoon and a protofascist; that in Japan's invasion of China, China was the aggressor; that after the fall of France, Churchill was culpable in vowing to fight on, and not acceding to Hitler's "peace" terms; that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler's response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.
"Was the war necessary?" Mr. Baker asks in his author's note. "Was it a 'good war'? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? These were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing." Though he does not explicitly say so here, the whole tendency of "Human Smoke" is to answer all three questions with a negative. In other words, Mr. Baker seeks to rehabilitate the most decisively refuted interpretation of World War II, the interpretation advanced by isolationists and appeasers in the 1930s. That interpretation was refuted, not by historians with an axe to grind or by Allied propagandists, but by history itself. By 1945 at the latest, it was easy to answer all of Mr. Baker's questions in the affirmative, and for far-sighted observers — such as Churchill, the villain of "Human Smoke" — the answers were clear even in 1935. If it was necessary for the survival of civilization to stop Nazi Germany from dominating Europe — which is to say, from replacing freedom with tyranny, suffocating culture and thought; inculcating racism and cruelty in future generations; depopulating Eastern Europe and turning it into German lebensraum; enslaving tens of millions of Poles and Russians, and exterminating European Jewry — then it was necessary to fight the war. If it was good that, after 1945, the United States was the dominant power in the Western world and not Nazi Germany, then World War II was a good war — even though war itself is always a tragedy. If the Allied victory spared Europeans from France to Greece the fate of Nazi occupation and slavery, then waging the war helped people who needed help.
These conclusions are so plain that no one who spent even a little time reading and thinking seriously about World War II could avoid them. But Mr. Baker confessedly knew little about the subject before he began "Human Smoke." "My interest in World War II," he writes in an author's note, "began when, some years ago, I first opened bound volumes of the Herald Tribune and read headlines for the bombing of Berlin and Tokyo and wondered how we got there."
Nor does Mr. Baker have any experience with writing about large historical and moral questions. On the contrary, he is known as a writer obsessed with trivia, and his novels are stunts designed to discover how narrow a writer's compass can become before it vanishes entirely. "The Mezzanine" is an interior monologue that takes place entirely during an escalator ride, as the narrator contemplates buying shoelaces; "Vox" is a transcript of a conversation between strangers on a phone-sex line. Mr. Baker's last book, "Checkpoint," was something of a departure: It was a dialogue about whether it would be morally acceptable to assassinate President Bush.
When such a writer turns to history, it is only to be expected that he will be hopelessly at a loss. Mr. Baker, in fact, does not even attempt to make a consecutive argument based on knowledge of all the relevant sources, the sine qua non of historical writing. Instead, he designed "Human Smoke" as a collage or montage — a series of short paragraphs, each of which presents a single incident or observation from the years up to and including 1941. (Each one is tagged with a portentous announcement of the date — "It was May 31, 1941," and so on — as though to give the impression of a newsreel or a rocket-launch countdown.)
With a novelist's preference for the dramatic and immediate, Mr. Baker takes most of his examples from published newspaper stories, or else from diaries and correspondence. In fact, it was his much-publicized devotion to newspapers — he created a personal archive to save old issues that libraries threw away — that led Mr. Baker to write the book in the first place. As he told a New York Times reporter recently, "Over and over again I would take out the five most important books on X subject, and then I'd go back to the New York Times, and by God, the story that was written the day after was by far the best source. Those reporters were writing with everything in the right perspective."
But how does Mr. Baker know what the right perspective was? Since when is a reporter more knowledgeable than a historian, or foresight more accurate than hindsight? What Mr. Baker really means, one suspects, is that old newspapers offer a sense of contingency, of different possible futures, that histories do not. But read without a historian's judgment and knowledge, old clippings simply reproduce old errors.
Mr. Baker is especially fond, for instance, of stories about heroic pacifists who made dire prophecies about what would happen if America went to war. He quotes Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against American participation in both world wars, speaking at a rally at Town Hall in Manhattan in April 1941: "You cannot have war and democracy; you cannot have war and liberty." Mr. Baker admires Rankin, and clearly wants this message to echo resonantly. But if we take a moment to think about it, it is obvious that Rankin was exactly wrong. America had war, and still had democracy and liberty. What's more, if America had not entered the war, there would have been far less liberty in the world than there was after Germany's defeat.
It does not take much thought to puncture Rankin's slogan; but 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; or when he implies that, if Britain had made peace with Hitler in 1941, Nazi aggression would have ceased.
This technique is never more delusive than when Mr. Baker seems to take Nazi propaganda at face value. In September 1941, when the mayor of Hanover deported the city's Jews "to the East" — code for extermination — he gave as an excuse the shortage of housing caused by British bombing. "In order to relieve the distressed situation caused by the war," the mayor announced, "I see myself compelled immediately to narrow down the space available to Jews in the city." That this was a transparent and shameless lie, of a piece with all the Nazi "justifications" for their persecution of Jews — that by September 1941 the genocide of the Jews was already well advanced, and the "final solution" a matter of implicit if not yet explicit Nazi policy — cannot emerge in Mr. Baker's uncritical account. Indeed, by reproducing Nazi language uncritically, Mr. Baker effectively endorses it.
This is never more shocking than when he quotes Joseph Goebbels's description of Churchill: "His face is devoid of one single kindly feature. This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition." This is so close to Mr. Baker's own vision of Churchill that he seems to be citing Goebbels as a trustworthy source — an impression reinforced when Mr. Baker writes that this little rhapsody of hatred was composed after Goebbels took "a moment to look searchingly at a photograph of the prime minister."
A book that can adduce Goebbels as an authority in order to vilify Churchill has clearly lost touch with all moral and intellectual bearings. No one who knows about World War II will take "Human Smoke" at all seriously. The problem is that people who don't know enough, and who enjoy the spectacle of a writer of apparent authority turning the myth of "the good war" upside down, will think "Human Smoke" is a brave book. Already a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times has praised it for "demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history." That people who think this way about the past will apply the same self-righteous ignorance to the politics of the present and future makes "Human Smoke" not just a stupid book, but a scary one.