I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.
Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.
The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists
I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.
This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x). Continue reading