Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. By Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 566 pages.
The neoconservatives are already in hot pursuit of Human Smoke. In the March 2008 issue of Commentary, David Pryce-Jones called it a “mendacious book.” From this review, one might have thought that Nicholson Baker had written a defense of the Third Reich and its Führer. Quite the contrary: no one who reads the book can suspect Baker of the slightest sympathy for Hitler, whose evil deeds receive copious coverage in the book.
Where, then, lies Baker’s offense? Rather than write a standard historical narrative, he presents on each page a separate fact, often taken from contemporary newspaper accounts. A number of these facts show Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in less than a favorable light, and this has proved too much not only for Pryce-Jones but for John Lukacs as well. For Lukacs and his ilk, Churchill is the Schwannritter of the 20th century, and inconvenient truths must not be permitted to jar unwary readers from the veneration properly his due.
However reasonable one may think the Allied cause in World War II, even a just war must be fought in accord with the demands of morality. Direct attacks on noncombatants are strictly forbidden.
The policies pursued by Churchill could not be further from this clear demand of jus in bello. As First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, he supervised the British hunger blockade of Germany. By endeavoring to starve the German population, Churchill hoped to undermine the German war machine from within.
May 27, 2008