I was pulling books for returns and noticed this weighty and intriguing tome. After thumbing through it for a few minutes, I knew I needed to read the whole thing. Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke is composed of small individual stories and quotes, presented chronologically with very little editorializing. We are simply offered a long series of short historical snapshots that lead up to the moment the United States formally entered World War II.
The result is a mind-boggling and addictive alternate history that challenges the common understanding that this was the unequivocal “good war.” We all know how evil the Nazis were, and their horrors are certainly on display here. Yet we are also exposed to the strangely childlike war fervor of a Winston Churchill who is literally giddy with excitement to bomb civilians into oblivion. We find a Roosevelt who could scarcely wait for the war with Japan to begin, and who goaded the Japanese into making the first attack. We discover that the Nazis’ Jewish slaughter could have been, if not averted, certainly lessened greatly in scope, if not for the unwillingness of the Allied nations to increase their immigration quotas on Jews.
Despite the balanced reporter-like tone of the book, Baker’s pacifism is certainly palpable throughout. I didn’t end up a pacifist myself: I don’t think war was probably avoidable and I’m not completely sure Baker does either. But Human Smoke certainly changed my perspective on the war. This war seemed to drive everyone involved to some degree of madness, and with the calculated targeting of civilians by all sides and the myopic callousness of even the Allied leaders, it gets pretty difficult to still classify this war as “good.”