Thursday, February 12, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF NICHOLSON BAKER'S HUMAN SMOKE

This is an odd book: its format is less like a book than a research folder or elaborate clipping file for the writing of a more conventional history. Its subject is undoubtedly controversial for some because it makes strong statements about the nature of modern war and it questions the clarity with which we traditionally define the heroes and villains in that vast human enterprise in destruction called World War II.

The book consists of a long series of quotes from all kinds of documents and publications and from famous people. The quotes go in time sequence leading up to and during World War II, and they are selected and orchestrated to make important points about modern war.

The points made here are so difficult for some to accept that I believe the author wanted to use a method that excluded his own voice, offering only the actual words of those who lived the history. In the end, the book has a powerful impact and its title nicely captures what it is about.

As a student of history, I did not find eyebrow-raising facts here, although particular quotes were startling, but I know many will not have been exposed to the disgusting facts of modern warfare. I have long believed, and I wrote an essay on the subject a few years ago, that the methods of modern warfare render the term terrorism meaningless. America or Israel today routinely kills far more civilians than soldiers. You simply cannot use horrible weapons and methods like napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, or carpet-bombing without doing this.

The author makes the point strongly - and I do think it an important one - that it was not Hitler who started the indiscriminate bombing of civilians but the British. He shows Churchill's history of advocating gruesome destruction for enemies of the British Empire. This part of Churchill was less than valiant and less than honourable and had little to do with the values of democracy.

More generally, the conclusion emerges inexorably that there are no heroes in the gruesome business of turning war into something that targets civilians more than armies.

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