Sunday, April 26, 2009

Human Smoke signals

Oppressors don't fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator's placard: 'WAR MEANS FASCISM'. The truth is the exact reverse.
This is the end of Max Dunbar's review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, which has just been published in paperback. Isn't the reverse true only because the phrase is chiastic? Whichever, it is meant as the triumphant rebuttal of Baker's support for pacifists in the 1930s. Looking back in the knowledge of the Holocaust, Baker's position seems not only dubious but downright callous. Back at the beginning of the review, it's clear Dunbar agrees and quotes Orwell in support of the suggestion that pacifists are "secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty". And, before he begins to address the book, he also quotes three other reviews that take issue with the morality of Baker's project (though how all four can be described as "professional historians" is a question that'll have to remain for others to answer - Adam Kirsch, for instance, is a poet and literary critic). The potential reader is well-primed to be suspicious.

For me, otherwise unperturbed by the challenge of Human Smoke, the reception has been troubling because the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers' responsibility for more recent atrocities. For all the reviewers haughty disgust at Baker, the fact is the British did not declare war on Germany to end oppression of European Jewry. Forgive me for repeating the obvious, but it was only when Nazi Germany invaded a sovereign nation that war began. It's worth pointing out too that those, like Max Dunbar, who supported the invasion of Iraq, it wasn't Saddam's oppression that prompted the US and UK governments. Indeed, he was toppled at his least oppressive, least dangerous time. In the 80s, at the height of his well-sponsored reign, the powerful whose aggressive policies Dunbar so admires, encouraged a terrible war on Iran and, in order to maintain military support, turned a blind eye to the gassing of civilians that would later be used to back-up spurious warnings of WMD that were themselves used to justify an invasion.

Moreover, oppressors do fear pacifism. The Nazis were so fearful of The White Rose movement that they beheaded a 16-year-old girl. We might wonder whose "power and successful cruelty" Sophie Scholl admired - Orwell's perhaps? And more recently, in Iraq, there was a campaign of non-violent resistance which, Chomsky observes, "compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals". Insurgent aggression, it could be said, enables the oppression the US seeks to impose on Iraq as it had previously relied on Saddam to do (overthrowing once he became too weak) - enables it, that is, to present the oppressive occupation as "resolve" and "determination" to bring "freedom" at some vague point in the distant future.

Finally, Dunbar observes that Baker's juxtaposition of fragments "becomes a technique for lazy moral equivalence". I can see how this is likely. Yet Dunbar himself uses suggestion when he asks "how honourable were the war's opponents?". For example, Gandhi, he tells us, was "a committed racist". If one decides every pronouncement made by each individual quoted by Baker is relevant then juxtaposition becomes impossible. Surely absences is as much the point of juxtaposition as presence, or is thinking for one's self - awareness of resonances and alternatives - problematic for some? Still, let's avoid laziness and rely on definitions supplied by international law. The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia in that they violate the sixth Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention. Those with executive power in each nation are potentially guilty of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression (they have to be tried first of course). This isn't a mere technicality. As we know, the death toll as direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has risen well above one million civilians. Reading the overt supporters and covert apologists of aggression, one has to ask: what part of Never Again don't they understand?

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