“Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War Ⅱ, the End of Civilization”

Over the last few days, I’ve raced through Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War Ⅱ, the End of Civilization.

The book is a collection of vignettes — some only a paragraph long, few longer than a page — of episodes from the years leading up to the second World War, and then from the years of the war itself up through . Baker mostly leaves his own voice out of it, except for a few paragraphs of “afterword” at the end.

The book generated a lot of heat when it was released a few months ago because it challenges the idea that World War Ⅱ was a “good” war, something that is today an article of faith for all decent civilized people.

World War Ⅱ is so revered these days, with all of the “greatest generation” fooferaw, politicians trying to get themselves compared to Churchill, and the like, that people have come to have a weird nostalgia for the period as if it were the high point of civilization, when in fact it was very much the opposite.

The greatest generation gave us the greatest failure of civilization the world has ever seen, resulting in the deaths of millions, the development of the technology of genocide, the normalization of a military policy of barbarity towards civilians, and ending with a gargantuan communist terror-state crushing much of Europe and Asia and, along with the United States, threatening the world with nuclear annihilation.

The only thing that might have been worse would have been if the Axis powers had won. Ay, there’s the rub. And that sentiment has been the quick and potent retort to anyone who questions the article of faith.

Baker isn’t satisfied with this: “My feelings about the war change every day. But I also feel that there is a way of looking at the war and the Holocaust that is truer and sadder and stranger than the received version.”

The defenders of the received version were quick to respond. In the New York Times, a reviewer said:

Did the war “help anyone who needed help?” Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.

But in fact, with few exceptions, the prisoners of Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald were not liberated by the war — they were murdered during the course of it. And Baker does suggest, in many places in the book, how many opportunites to aid and rescue Jewish refugees and “untold millions” of suffering Europeans, were squandered — indeed, actively discouraged or forbidden — by the Allies in pursuit of their war aims or other policies.

Much of the criticism of Baker’s book is similarly knee-jerk. Some borders on paranoid — ascribing to Baker opinions and assertions that he never explicitly makes, but finding them implicit in his constellation of vignettes. Baker invites this sort of thing by muting his own voice and leaving the interpretation of his examples (and his choices of what examples to include) to the reader. I think Baker probably deliberately chose to suggest controversial things in this way that he felt afraid to or unable to defend explicitly, which is too bad, but his critics see this as a license to invent straw man arguments to attack, which is also too bad. Someone called the book “a 500-page Rorschach Test,” which hits the nail on the head.

The callousness to the plight of Jewish refugees is one of the themes of the selections Baker chose. Other themes that receive prominent play include:

  • the evolution of the policy of attacks on the civilian population, particularly by the Allies — largely aerial bombardments, but also chemical & biological warfare and starvation blockades
  • that these attacks on the civilian population, sold as a method for demoralizing and weakening the enemy, most frequently did just the opposite, and served mainly to slake a thirst for bloody revenge on the part of the attackers
  • the efforts of various pacifist groups to encourage negotiation, inoculate against war fever, and assist refugees and other war victims
  • the evolution of the “final solution” as the war escalated, with the implication (I think) that the Nazis became more savage toward their victims the more they themselves felt the savagery of the war
  • the surprising (to me) extent to which the United States was engaging in war against the Axis powers prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and the formal declaration of war

The book is a powerful, captivating, relentless read. It has flaws — Baker’s aforementioned editorial stand-offishness; an unseemly amount of naïveté, particularly when it comes to being shocked and surprised (or worse, credulous) at politicians’ hypocritical platitudes or at the commonplace racism of the period; and a largely United States-centric view of the war. Still, it’s an eye-opener, and a good remedy for anyone who’s had a poisonous dose of History Channel.


Aristides Monteiro paints what he thinks of as a comic picture of patient Confederate bandit guerrillas trying to steal requisitions from a furious Virginia Quaker family, in his book War Reminiscences by the Surgeon of [John Singleton] Mosby’s Command:

The county of Loudoun, one of the most fertile in Virginia, furnished some of the bravest soldiers in the Confederate army and retained many of the bitterest foes to the Southern Cause. Amongst the Union men most active and acrimonious in their opposition to Confederate authority, may be noticed the brotherhood or sect, known as the society of Friends. The Quakers of Loudoun may have been friendly to each other, but they were decidedly unfriendly to the Southern soldier. These quaint, peaceful, and thrifty followers of Wm. Penn, possessed the most beautiful and profitable farms in the county of Loudoun. They were generally wealthy and lived well, yet refused to pay their taxes to the Southern Government. The only method that presented a reasonable certainty of gathering the taxes of the Union Quakers, was that adopted by our battalion. Mosby ordered a detachment of one hundred and twenty-eight men to go down into their settlements, quarter the troops upon the rebellious Quakers, and send into the county of Fauquier one-tenth part of their grain, forage and bacon. The men deputized to execute this unpleasant order, were divided into squads of ten or twelve. Each squad was ordered to quarter upon some convenient Union man who had refused to pay his tithe of grain and meat, to the Confederate Government. I remember well riding through a beautiful and fertile region with my twelve rangers to the well-tilled and comfortable farm of Mr. R. T——. We found the old gentleman in his front portico. He was a fat and robust man. His red face and rotund appearance, bespake a thrifty agriculturalist. Everything about his domicile indicated ease, comfort, and plenty. Yet the first expression that escaped his lips proved beyond all controversy, that he was not happy. Indeed, the Carthagenian had no stronger aversion to the Roman, than did this phlegmatic Quaker of Loudoun county, for the soldiers of Mosby’s command. I rode directly up to the front door of the house and asked if he was the proprietor. In reply to a direct and civil question, the old gentleman asked if we belonged to that infernal band of freebooters, cutthroats and thieves commanded by the rebel highwayman, Mosby. The tone and gestures of the old man spoke more eloquently than his words. I had often heard of the quiet disposition and peaceful doctrines of the staid and gentle sect, of which he was a leader and was not prepared to witness such electric sparks of anger as seemed to flash from the old man’s chin. I gently informed him in as mild manner as possible that we came into his county for the simple and laudable purpose, of collecting from himself and other Union men, the government tax of one-tenth of the products of their farms, that I demanded the keys of his stables and barns, for the purpose of examining hay, corn, &c.; also, I desired him to feed our horses and men for a few days. A sprightly imagination may possibly conceive the intensity of anger that kindled the ire of old Douglass, when Lord Marmion called him a liar; but no one can picture the extreme rage that exploded the temper of this demure old man, when he fully comprehended insult added to aggravated injury. His chronic habit of economy was assaulted and his sense of prudence violently shocked, at the prospect of serious loss, and his pain was infinitely increased by the thought that the vile enemy inflicted the wrong. The old man yelled with rage at the bare idea of rebel horses feeding upon his valuable grain. He foamed at the mouth, stamped his feet, and exhibited more activity and vituperation than I had seen before in one of his advanced years. He accused us of all the crimes known to the law, and declared vehemently, that he preferred instant death to the surrender of his property, and he promised to die before he would give up the keys to his corn-house. I made the matter as plain as language could make it — that, in obedience to the orders of Colonel Mosby, we were compelled, no matter how painful the duty, to feed our horses and men at his expense for a few days, and send up to our headquarters one-tenth part of his crops as the tax he justly owed to his government. This was more than Quaker flesh and Union spleen could bear. He screamed with rage and leaped into the air like some powerful wild animal shot in the head. He looked exceedingly comical, dressed as he was, in short breeches, heavy brogans, working jacket and broad-brimmed hat. His chubby figure and grotesque costume, did not coincide with his active and extreme manifestations of indignation and anger. He uttered whole volumes of abusive epithets with a rattling rapidity of sound, very much like that made by pouring a stream of dried beans upon a sonorous surface. He wildly shouted in despair his fixed determination to die in defense of his corn-crib. I endeavored to explain to the infuriated Quaker, that even death could not protect his corn-crib, or save his bacon, and that it was our duty, in obedience to orders, to take his provisions whether he lived or died, and as good soldiers and patriotic citizens, we had no especial objections to his dying whenever his duty or pleasure prompted the sacrifice he then contemplated. I reminded him that he was at the mercy of the very men that he abused in such unmeasured and unreasonable terms, and suggested the propriety of prudence under the unhappy circumstances that environed himself and his coveted corn-crib. In mercy to the old man I explained that even his death would not diminish the exact amount of tax we were ordered to collect from him, and it would be the part of wisdom, for him to live longer and raise another crop, as we would probably pay him one more visit for the same purpose the coming year. At this new insult he strutted awkwardly into the house and slammed the door with great energy behind him. A few loud raps with the butt end of a heavy pistol, aroused him from his profound indignation and brought him to the porch again. I now demanded the keys, with a warning that my men were becoming unmanageable, and I seriously apprehended that they would soon resent his insults in a manner to be deplored.

Trembling with anger and fear, he surrendered the keys, with the exclamation that God would inflict a distinct and terrible curse upon us for every ear of corn we dared to steal. The men proceeded rapidly with their work of measuring the old man’s corn, while he poured out his vials of wrath and vituperation, upon all God-forsaken rebels in general and our little partisan flock in particular. The dull sound of his corn, as it rattled into the rebel measure, was wormwood to his Union soul. His rage seemed to wear itself out gradually as the deep sense of his loss, overspread his niggardly mind and parsimonious disposition. The sensitive old miser, crouched down upon the steps of his corn-crib and wept as bitterly over the trivial loss of a few bushels of grain as a true patriot would, over the loss of his country’s rights. When the rust of a metallic conscience oxidizes the microscopic soul of a contemptible miser, the sudden loss of a few pennies jars upon his sordid emotions with acutest agony. The sentient nerve structure of a base nature, will vibrate only to the touch of pecuniary loss. Such creatures feel no sympathy with the sufferings or misfortunes of others. They care not for their kind, kindred, or country. The old Quaker felt more acute pain at the loss of a few bushels of corn than the true patriot feels when he proudly offers up as a gift offering his gallant life upon the altar of his country’s honor. The tears of a hungry crocodile make a respectable fluid compared with the lachrymal secretion of a chronic miser.

His paroxysm of passion had subsided into a wail of distress, when I again aroused his anger by demanding that my men should be provided with food. This demand he stubbornly resisted, and declared that if the infernal hell-hounds entered his house they should enter “over his lifeless corpse.” I solemnly assured him that we would have no real objection to doing so, if it was at all desirable to him; that we were disposed to be accommodating, and would endeavor to please him either dead or alive; and were not very particular on that point, as indeed it was a matter of absolute indifference; but we were determined to be fed for a few days at his expense. I expressed the belief that he would find it more economical to prepare a dinner for the men, than to give up his keys to them — that we had no good cooks in our squad, and I feared they would be rather extravagant in an impromptu culinary enterprise. He comprehended this reasonable suggestion, and agreed to prepare a dinner for his enemies. Within less than two hours my order was obeyed, and a very excellent repast was ready for a dozen hungry partisans.

After dinner it became my painful duty to make another very unpleasant proposition to our antipathetic host. “Mr. T——, we are compelled to avail ourselves of your hospitality for the night. You will please prepare room and beds for twelve.” When I uttered this sentiment, or “words to that effect,” a torpedo under a camp-meeting would scarcely cause more confusion, consternation and noise. Even the ladies of this quiet abode manifested a lively interest against us. They gathered around a small table in the room in which we had dined, and by a given signal from the head of the household, that sounded like the discontented grunt of a wild boar in distress, this interesting family group, knelt down and prayed. The old man led off in a devout growl; followed in indistinct murmurs by the younger and lesser members of this delectable group. The head of the house devoutly asked the merciful Ruler of the universe to condescend, in the infinitude of his power and mercy, to damn every rebel in the world; and, if he ran short of general curses, to please be kind enough to specially damn, without the power of revocation or appeal, the infernal devils in gray uniforms commanded by that hell-bound robber, cut-throat and murderer, Colonel John S. Mosby. The good Lord was petitioned, in most pious accents, not to spare any rebel; but if, in the discretion of Divine wisdom, anybody had to be spared the endless torments of a perennial hell, “do, good Lord, visit the extreme terrors of your chastening wrath, upon those unconscionable scoundrels that stole our corn.”

This excerpt can also be found in the book American Quaker War Tax Resistance.

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