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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Human Smoke

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization - Nicholson Baker

There is a widely accepted philosophy that says history is written by the victor. I've always believed this to be true; naturally this has made me curious about some of the more time-honored events of the past. Specifically, I was quite curious about World War II: a world of liberation and salvation? a war of just causes? a war of good versus evil? Nicholson Baker addresses the war in Human Smoke and provides his reader with answers to some of these questions.


From the onset of this work, it is clear Baker's concern is presenting the facts in the simplest, most consolidated fashion possible: there's the fact, the basic details of the fact, followed by the date. It's rather monotonous and, at nearly 500 pages, a chore for those less than interested. My initial reaction was that Baker should've taken this material and made it into a very readable story. I assumed the reason he didn't elect to utilize the narrative was simply because he didn't know how to. We can't all craft entertaining stories. Except I then found out that Baker is a storyteller, a writer with seven highly regarded novels behind him. Change of theory: either Baker lost interest in the project, decided it best to just compile all his notes and print them as they were; or the stripped-down style was intentional.


Largely, Human Smoke focuses on 1940 and 1941. In fact, the book ends in '41, years before the Battle of the Bulge, the firebombing of Tokyo, the fall of Germany, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Baker crams quite a few facts into the years between WWI and 1941, but a few stood out to me. Here I list them as I interpreted them:


  • Churchill was power hungry and a warmonger. His aim from the beginning was total victory and he was willing to win a war by any means necessary. Before becoming an all-out war, the conflict might have been resolved, but Churchill was unwilling to even consider such avenues. He was often quoted saying, in regards to wiping out Germany's civilian population, “duty must come before pleasure.”


  • England made many attacks on German civilian populations before Germany finally retaliated with its pounding of London and other British cities.


  • British forces attacked French ships, killing many, upon refusal to join the British fleet. Although there was a fear the ships would fall under the control of the invading Germans, ultimatums and alternatives were not properly presented to the French during the tensions to allow a different course.


  • Early in the war, England, France, and the US denied humanitarian services to Jews and other victims of the war. This continued throughout the war. In fact, no nation, with the exception of the Dominican Republic, was willing to take the influx of Jewish refugees; no nation willing to assist politically with humanitarian efforts. The few humanitarians efforts made were done so by private groups working around government censure of such actions.


  • The US had been planning war with Japan years before Pearl Harbor. Not only had they been instigating the Japanese, but they'd been spying on Japanese cities, planning aerial attacks, and building up forces in anticipation of an eventual attack. Ally leaders in both the United States and Europe celebrated the attack of Pearl Harbor as it meant the States' hands were no longer tied, and they could enter the war with the blessing of the people.


Of course there's a lot more to this book than what I've mentioned above, and more knowledgeable students of history will likely walk away with more than I have. If these kinds of details interest you, as a reader, Human Smoke is an interesting read. If not, there's not much else here. Just a string of facts meant to paint the war in a more balanced light.