Saturday, March 22, 2008

Human Smoke 

From Colm Toibin's review of Nicholson Baker's impressionistic historical anthology of the Great Jihad (a.k.a., the Triumph of the Band of Brothers, a.k.a., when Butt-Fucking was Allowed, a.k.a. the War to Save Civilization in Advance from Palestine, a.k.a., Operation German Freedom, a.k.a., the Very Important Lesson, a.k.a World War II):

Slowly, as you read, because of the variety in the tone and the shocking or tragic nature of the quotation, and because of how well chosen they are, “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” becomes riveting and fascinating. It is as though a brilliant film editor, with an urgent argument to make, began to work with gripping newsreels.

The main figures in the book are Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; members of the pacifist movement including Gandhi; Hitler and his entourage; and diarists like Victor Klemperer in Dresden and Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest. But sometimes it is the simple stark fact that makes you sit up straight for a moment, like this one from early in the book: “The Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India. It was 1925.” This, coming soon after an account of the proposed bombing of civilian targets in Iraq in 1920 (with Churchill writing: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes”), sets a theme for the book, which Baker will skillfully weave into the fabric of events mainly between 1920 and 1942 — that the bombing of villages and cities from the air represents “the end of civilization.”

Baker is adept at managing the reader’s emotion. His vignettes about the treatment of the Jewish population, the deportations and the planned mass murders, are just as carefully chosen, with the same amount of barely contained anger in them as his pieces about what was done to the civilians of Germany and to the civilians of Britain by bombers. It seems that he wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one. In his afterword he says of the pacifists: “They failed, but they were right.” It is an aspect of the subtlety of his book that the reader is entitled to wonder if it’s true.

Churchill emerges here as a most fascinating figure — impetuous, childish, bloodthirsty, fearless, insomniac, bookish, bullying, determined, to name just some of his characteristics. Baker writes: “He wasn’t an alcoholic, someone said later — no alcoholic could drink that much.” The prime minister of Australia noted of Churchill: “In every conversation he ultimately reaches a point where he positively enjoys the war.” After the bombing of British cities Baker quotes him: “This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain.”

“One of our great aims,” Churchill wrote in July 1941, “is the delivery on German towns of the largest possible quantity of bombs per night.” Soon afterward, he said publicly: “It is time that the Germans should be made to suffer in their own homeland and cities something of the torments they have let loose upon their neighbors and upon the world.” Baker quotes large numbers of people who seemed to feel in these years that the entire German population, including women and children, were to blame for the Nazis and should be punished accordingly. For example, the writer Gerald Brenan: “Every German woman and child killed is a contribution to the future safety and happiness of Europe.” Or David Garnett (the author of the novel “Aspects of Love,” on which the musical is based), who wrote in 1941: “By butchering the German population indiscriminately it might be possible to goad them into a desperate rising in which every member of the Nazi Party would have his throat cut.”

The problem, as Baker makes clear, was that the bombing served to kill and maim the civilian population, yet the survivors did not blame the Nazi leaders, who used the bombing as a further excuse to inflict suffering on the Jewish population, claiming, for example, that evictions of Jews were “justified on the grounds that Aryans whose houses were destroyed by bombing needed a place to live.” As early as 1941 a member of Churchill’s cabinet could write: “Bombing does NOT affect German morale: let’s get that into our heads and not waste our bombers on these raids.” Churchill’s rationale for the bombing, Baker writes, arose from his belief that it was “a form of pedagogy — a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.”

In April 1941 certain German cities were identified as good targets because they were “congested industrial towns, where the psychological effect will be greatest”; the same report recommended the use of delayed-action bombs “so as to prevent or seriously interfere with fire fighting, repair and general traffic organization.” The following month Lord Trenchard, who had been instrumental in establishing the Royal Air Force, admitted that “the percentage of bombs which hit the military target at which they are aimed is not more than 1 percent.” And when Baker turns his attention to Washington, which he does regularly, he offers vignettes to suggest that Roosevelt was busy goading the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor so that America could enter the war.



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