Human Smoke, yet again

humansmokeRichard Crary adds to the keyboard fury surrounding my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. He brings nothing new to the argument but he does include a chronology with which you can follow the debate so far:

I’m thinking of John Self’s positive review, including the related comment thread to that review, and Max Dunbar’s generally negative review , which Steve Mitchelmore addressed here, Mark Thwaite entering the fray here, in the midst of which Dunbar produced two follow-up blog posts [1, 2]

In this piece Crary commits the sin of which he accuses me, that of condescension towards the reader. Look at this:

People from across the political spectrum cleave to the myth of World War II as the good war, for several reasons. They want desperately to believe that the U.S. can and did and indeed does stand for good in the world. Convincing themselves that this is basically true, in a general sense (that is, though mistakes are made, or certain administrations are unfortunate, on balance the United States acts on behalf of ‘the good’), they want to leave ‘humanitarian intervention’ available as an option.

There may be a lot of naive, slack-jawed drones like this who really do believe that Western governments can do no wrong but I think that any potential reader of Human Smoke will have seen through the myth of the benevolent elite to some extent. I make a further assumption: that most readers of Human Smoke will be aware of the true motives for war, the role of the arms industry and support for Nazism among the business and aristocratic elite. This is more credit that Crary, or indeed Baker, gives the reader of Human Smoke.

Is Crary’s charge not reversible? It’s not that Crary does ‘want desperately to believe that the U.S. can and did and indeed does stand for good’, it’s that he desperately does not want to believe it, will do anything not to believe it. Conceding that some battles are worth fighting and that some wars can be justified would evict him from the comfort zone of doctrinaire opposition.

Having started from a position of opposition to the Iraq war, Crary and indeed most of the antiwar commentariat seem to have embraced an absolute pacifism. War is not only the worst thing, it has always been the worst thing, and so the dodgy reputation of WW2 pacifism has to be rehabilitated somehow. If not, that ‘leave[s] ‘humanitarian intervention’ available as an option. ”We’, the thinking goes, ‘should do something’ to prevent or stop particular humanitarian disasters.’ God forbid that ‘we’ (Crary is a great believer in quotation marks as a substitute for content) should meddle in the sovereign affairs of another fascist dictatorship.

Because ‘obscured–is the fact that what ‘we’ in fact end up ‘doing’ invariably only makes things worse.’ Except when it doesn’t: a poll taken in February shows that 69% of Afghans approve of the fact that America invaded and took out the Taliban in 2001. Sierra Leone is doing a lot better now that there are no militias cutting the arms off babies. Even Iraq has elections and constitutions. You wonder if any humanitarian intervention would be acceptable to Crary. The volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, for instance. They failed, but they were right. What does Crary think?

It’s not that there are no criticisms of the Greatest Generation that could be made. There is a collective illusion of the wartime Briton as strong and smiling, standing and waiting. We forget that the public, then as now, were mostly antiwar and that Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was admired. Why risk lives when it is not in our national interest? What makes Poland or Yugoslavia worth the bones of a single Lancashire grenadier?

Or take Donald Thomas’s remarkable book An Underworld at War. It’s an amazing study of crime during the war years – a popular scam during the Blitz was to claim a bombed-out house as your own and collect the insurance. People would try to cover up murders by dragging the corpse to a house that had been hit and then telling the police that the victim had been killed by the Luftwaffe. Thomas does much more to puncture the delusion of the Blitz spirit and to bring home the human dimension of the war than does Nicholson Baker.

And that is it. Contra Crary, I did really like Baker’s technique. The problem is that he doesn’t exploit its potential. It would have been so great to have a record of World War Two composed of scraps of correspondence and diaries, featuring the thoughts and lives of pilots, soldiers, machinists, prisoners, families. But Sam Anderson is wrong: Baker does not give ‘generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history’; in fact he mainly includes statesmen like Roosevelt and Churchill as well as various celebrity pacifists who were influential then and in some cases still household names today. Baker still uses the Great Man theory of history, he just comes at it from a different angle.

This is what annoyed me about Human Smoke. To set yourself an original task with so much potential, and then to fuck it up so badly, and to be so self-satisfied about it.

There are some things about the World War Two pacifists that I admire. To be imprisoned for conscientious objection took courage, and was worth doing, because no one should have to join the army if they don’t want to. Back then, pacifism carried a cost. The same cannot be said of the absolute opposition movement today, which is why it has so little to offer us.

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