Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pernicious Pacifism: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke and Julian Assange's WikiLeaks

While doing research into World War II for a writing project, I came across Nicholson Baker's non-fiction book, Human Smoke (2008 – Simon & Schuster), on the bargain tables at my local Chapters bookstore (it was a second-printing hardcover). Looking for a stand-alone source of quotes and thinking on the war while it was happening, Baker's work looked promising. The book consists of hundreds of short vignettes (the shortest 20-30 words; the longest 1 page) taken from letters, diaries, speeches, books, magazine and newspaper articles published from between August 1892 and December 31, 1941 (the first vignette is a quote from Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, and the last is by Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian-Jewish writer and diarist). The majority of the book covers the years between 1933 and 1941. Baker's thesis? If the Allies had not been so complicit, so blood-thirsty in their actions, and only listened to the pacifists, a peace treaty could have been established between them and the Axis powers. Because Baker is a pacifist, the book not only repeatedly argues that a peace treaty of some sort could have been established with the Axis powers (thus preventing the war), he also blames the Allies for much of what happened to cause the war to break out in the first place. Although, to be fair, Human Smoke doesn't let the Nazis off the hook, Baker's book does suggest that Roosevelt and Churchill were little different than Hitler.

Nicholson Baker
As I said in my title, the book is pernicious. Nicholson Baker – a writer of several novels – is obviously a talented writer who is using his skills to an ill-conceived end here. For example, during the course of Human Smoke, he suggests the following: If the British had not started the bombing of the German cities in the first place, the Nazis would not have followed suit; if it weren't for a British blockade of Europe, convoys of food destined to feed the starving of Europe would have got through (no, he doesn't mention anything about the Germans just taking the food for their army, which would have likely happened); again, if not for the British blockade, the Nazis could have gone through with their original plan to relocate the Jews of Europe to either Siberia or Madagascar, thus preventing the Holocaust (!); if the Americans had not been so provocative as to give the Chinese warplanes and establish their naval fleet in Hawaii, the Japanese would not have felt so threatened and been forced to attack Pearl Harbour, thus bringing the Americans into World War II. Another bit of finger-pointing he indulges in is looking at the number of American pacifists who were detained for refusing the draft. (Of course, he mentions that these people were imprisoned for a year or two and then released, but he fails to acknowledge that any German or Japanese pacifists in their countries were either shot in the head or shipped off to a concentration camp.)

Ultra Decoding Machine
As I continued to read, I was constantly resisting the urge to pitch this god-forsaken book across the room (since each vignette is so short, it was hard to stop reading – hmm, maybe “pernicious popcorn” would have been a better title for this piece, because once you eat one piece you need to keep going). What Baker fails to do is to fill in the whole story. For example, the dozens of events that caused the Americans to give fighter planes to the Chinese and locate its fleet in Pearl Harbour – such as the “rape of Nanking” incident in December 1937 when the Japanese attacked and conquered Nanking, China, killing and raping thousands of civilians – are never mentioned because it would defeat his argument. Sure, the Allies did some bad things during this period (some of which were pretty horrendous, like turning away Jewish refugee ships that in many cases were forced back to Germany, and imprisoning Japanese-American/Canadian citizens in internment camps), but during war, actions are taken and directions determined (such as, fire-bombing civilian targets in Germany to break the German citizens' will) based on the need to defeat the enemy. Many of these ideas were failures, but many of them had to be tried since they didn't have the 20-20 hindsight we have today. Baker also brings out the tired story of how Coventry could have been saved because the British knew it was going to be attacked. He never mentions that they knew this because of the German Ultra decoding machine the Allies had secretly captured. The British uncovered the truth of the attack by decoding messages using their copy of the machine. If they had moved enough weaponry and airplanes around Coventry to protect the city, the Germans would have known Ultra had been compromised and would have changed their coding techniques and untold thousands more people may have died elsewhere. And the war could have raged on longer than 1945 – horrifying decisions had to be made, and Coventry was one of them.

Julian Assange
Ultimately, what Baker's book is really about is the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan (it is not for nothing that British-colonial Iraq's part in WWII is brought up on more than one occasion). What he's trying to get at is that the West must open peace talks with the antagonists in these two wars, particularly Afghanistan. But his argument is horribly compromised. He sets forth an agenda in his book about how 'if only' this or that had been done, the WWII would have been prevented and the “end of civilization” would not be upon us (the book is subtitled “The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”). Unless one is a psychopath like Hitler, nobody wants war, but when the belligerents are intractable, such as the Taliban and Al Quaeda, what is the point of creating a negotiated peace when people such as this (and Hitler too – remember Neville Chamberlain's “peace in our times”?) will make whatever promise you want to hear and then promptly break it? He is trying to shame the West into “seeing” what they did before and during WWII in an effort to shine a light on what is happening in the here and now. Too bad there's not a lot that's new here (much of the blame he tries to lay is crackpot), and whenever his point of view is challenged, he conveniently ignores the details that would undermine it.

This leads me to Julian Assange and his lunatic organization WikiLeaks. Another pacifist who blames the West for what's going wrong in the world, Assange's organization recently released 92,000 pages of secret American documents onto the Internet in an attempt, I guess, to blame the West for what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His aim is to hurry the end of these wars by holding a mirror up to the West and shaming them into getting out. To what end? So the Taliban can come back, oppress women and kill anybody who disagrees with their medieval point of view? Now, as far as I'm concerned, Assange has as much blood, if not more, on his hands as he accuses the West. Within the 92,000 pages were also names and addresses of Afghan citizens who were assisting NATO forces in order to bring about some form of democracy to their country (no, not a Western version as it won't work, but one that makes sense in the Afghan context). Because of Assange and his gang's actions, the Taliban have announced they now have these names and retribution will commence. NATO is scrambling to find these brave folks and get them to safety, setting back some form of freedom in Afghanistan by who knows how many years. Assange, of course, counters the charges that he is now helping the Taliban to kill by saying “the West has all the blood on its hands, not me” (he's wrong). I cannot conceive of a worse use of the Internet.

If Assange and Baker are what it means to be a pacifist, they can have it all to themselves.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death, and continues to research that WWII project.


  1. What motivates Assange? Not pacifism. In his words, "we are not anti-war activists, we are pro-transparency activists".

    The basic idea of Wikileaks is to bring out the truth and let people decide, rather than be fed the 'approved' spin from governments and corporations, (information which is often purposely misleading). That is what investigative journalists are supposed to do, but often fail to do, for a variety of reasons (another long discussion).

    The onus, of course, is on Wikileaks to wade through the information they get and only publish what is in the public interest (and to protect the innocent). In the case you mention, they sat on that information for a month and worked with journalists at NY Times, Guardian etc.... to sift through the documents before releasing....

    Perhaps they failed to protect the innocent, but their failure is in diligence, not motive. Hopefully hey will learn from their mistakes and do it right in the future. I think they'll get better.

    Limitations aside, I can't think of a better use for the Internet.

  2. Hi Sean, thanks for your comment. I don't believe a single, solitary word that Assange and his gang say. If they were 'pro-transparency' MAYBE they'd notice that the material they are releasing is going to cause a lot of tragedy for a lot of people who are trying to help their country stay out of the hands of the Taliban. Assange and his thugs are no different than anybody else looking to 'make a name or reputation' for themselves. So, they sat on the material for a month. Ostensibly they vetted it. Did they 'miss' that the names and addresses of Afghan assistants were there? They are reprehensible idiots. If the internet had existed during WWII, some insane group such as this probably would have dumped secret material on the web so the Nazis could know, in the interest of transparency. If that had happened, we all would be speaking German now and a lot of our friends would not be around. If they are so keen on transparency, where's the material from the Taliban, or are they too afraid of what would happen to them if they put that material on the web? They're cowards who picked the 'easier' target for their much vaunted 'transparency'. Having read pacifist tactics during WWII from Baker's book, Assange's group is practicing similar tactics. If they are pro-transparency, to what end if it's not to try to stop the war? I for one am glad the media kept things to themselves during WWII -- if not -- Hey, look, D-Day's happening at Normandy. Let's put in on the front page of the paper before it happens.

  3. Maybe you're right and Assange doesn't care about anything but his own aggrandizement. History will be the judge. I don't 'trust' him. Who is he? I don't know.

    That doesn't take away the need for a Wikileaks type of mechanism on the internet which allows whistle-blowers and activists living under bad regimes to anonymously get the word out.

    Maybe someone with more integrity will take the mantle and create a legit version of Wikileaks? Or maybe they'll get their act together. We live in interesting times.