Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Human Smoke

I just finished reading the most amazing book last night. It's called Human Smoke and it's by Nicholson Baker. The book is a series of paragraph to page-long vignettes about the lead up to and first couple years of World War II. Each tiny chapter covers a news story or diary entry and, at some point in the entry, the date will be given. It's written in a journalistic style with very little editorializing by the author. It is obvious, though, that the author's sympathies are with those who opposed the war rather than with those that worked to broaden the conflict.

I have seen at least one other review remark on the similarity between the beginnings of World War II and the current conflict in Iraq. I don't mean that there is any comparison between Hitler and Saddam although both of them were brutal mass murderers. The similarity that stands out in this book is when you compare the desire for war of Churchill and Roosevelt and George W. Bush and friends. In both instances the Western powers spoke of their desire for peace while rushing headlong into war. The similarity in the rhetoric will cause you to doubt your own existence.

What had always been impressed upon me was the inevitability of the Second World War. Hitler was bad and if it hadn't had been for Churchill and Roosevelt and the mighty sacrifices of the 'greatest generation' then we would all be speaking German right now. What Baker shows is the folly of that belief. There were plenty of opportunities to stop the war from spreading in 1940 and 1941. What is intriguing is that it may have been possible to avoid the ultimate horrors of the Holocaust if the goal of the allies was truly humanitarian and not on an aggressive war footing. Imagine that, lives saved by avoiding war.

The reviewer, Mark Kurlansky, sums it up better than I can: "It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war -- and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare."

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