Human Smoke


Human Smoke“The truth of history,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs while exiled on St. Helena, “is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon mostly by the victors, one should add. The losers seldom agree with it.

In 1865, Mark Twain added in his work, Following the Equator: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Two centuries after Napoleon, Dana Arnold wrote in Reading Architectural History:

Historical reality is then a ‘referential illusion’, in which we try to grasp the reality… In this way history becomes a Myth or an ideology as it purports to be reality. Indeed, storytelling is often seen as one of the most important functions of writing histories and fundamental to the nature of the discipline.

When I was growing up, like so many millions of other post-war children, I was taught the history – the accepted, official history that was indelibly stamped on every page of our textbooks, and woven into our national identity – of World War II. The absolutely defined, cut-and-dried good=us vs. evil=them. Our bravery, their cowardice. Our sacrifices, their terror. Our victory, their loss. History was like a game of cowboys-and-Indians: two sides, one struggle, one outcome.

As a child of two veterans – whose own fathers had been veterans in the previous war-to-end-all-wars – and nephew of other veterans, I was inoculated with the “right” history that coloured our own family sense of honour, pride, loyalty and duty. Our bloodline fought the good fight and we were damned proud of it.

It was only decades later, when I started playing wargames and writing for a military history magazine that I started to read wider and deeper into the history of the century before I was born. And in doing so, learned that there were many more facets to the story than I had ever been led to believe. It proved both fascinating and unsettling. There’s more we’re not taught  than what we are taught.

The first thing you learn is that history is never so simple as the textbooks make it. Nothing involving humans ever is. And we mythologize everything to suit our cultural, social, religious and political ideologies – both the victors and the vanquished do it. We weave stories around issues and events that take on the nature of biblical myths: allegories and metaphors rather than strict or objective histories.

And you also learn that no matter what the man in the trenches believed, no matter what their faith, their loyalty and their determination, the people in high office, the motives of the leaders, the arms manufacturers, the oil barons, and far too often the generals and admirals, were seldom as pure as that as that of their soldiers and sailors.

The simple, binary good-versus-evil, us-versus-them, freedom-versus-enslavement models don’t work when trying to assess the truth of history. You need to see things in multiple shades of grey, not just black and white.

(Try this: ask your friends and family who won WWII? There are always many answers, depending on where they came from, what their schools taught, what they’ve read about the history. The real question, I suppose it, did anyone really win? It’s easy to say the Axis lost – which they did, militarily – but were the social order and the political changes that emerged after the war really a win for the Allies? It’s not an unqualified yes.)

The truth is never easy to realize because there is no absolute truth, only opinions. Historical truth is that chameleon-like ‘referential illusion.’ What one ideology, one culture sees as truth another sees as a lie; interpretations abound even over apparently factual data; becoming more Byzantine the further from the time of events that we move. Peeling back the layers, trying to understand what lies behind the masks and myths, reading everything regardless of its angle and perspective, a has been a passion of mine for the past 40 years.

History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.
Gore Vidal: interview, summer 2007.

This week I began to read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker. It reminds me of Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy about Latin America, a cut-and-paste collage of items. But where Galeano reached across several centuries for his stories, Baker confines himself to a mere half-century, from Alfred Nobel’s factory opening in the late 19th century to the early years of the war (ending on Dec. 31, 1941).

Gore Vidal’s quote, above, is appropriate: Baker’s book is as about the people more than just the events and the politics. It’s no dry collation of dates and facts. He shines a light on some of the leading players that is often less than flattering. Our long-loved heroes are tarnished by their own words. Frail, fickle humanity emerges. Yet new heroes arise from unexpected places: men and women who tried to prevent the inevitable war, and who tried to provide shelter, food, comfort for those affected by the rising violence in the fascist states;.

Baker is no less an ideologue than all of the other authors and historians who came before him. It’s just that Baker doesn’t beat the drum of nationalism or partisan politics: he’s clearly an ardent pacifist. His selection of pieces – taken from letters, dispatches, official reports, newspaper articles – is meant to throw a different light on how events unfolded. Not necessarily a new one: I’ve read much of it in the past,  but when conflated into one book, the shadowy tale, the under-text, strikes the reader as somewhat dark, somewhat sinister. It’s hard not to conclude that war was not merely inevitable: that the path to it was laid out craftily and carefully by many parties, not simply the Axis aggressors.

Yet it’s still difficult to shake off the elementary us=good-them=bad I was brought up with. What Baker makes clear is that there were shades of colour, not mere binary absolutes, and deep currents at play that shaped the surface outcome. Tim Adams, writing in The Guardian, tells us how Baker obsessively built his story:

A few years ago, dismayed that libraries were destroying their newspaper archives in favour of microfiche, Baker purchased 20 tonnes of old newsprint, including a complete run of the New York Times from the British Library, which was about to pulp it. He has the archive stored in a warehouse near his home in New England. His obsession, subsequently, has been to immerse himself in this paper history.

I can appreciate that sort of passion for detail that borders on obsession. I often suffer from it.

Colm Toibin, reviewing the book in the The New York Times, wrote:

The novelist Nicholson Baker’s customary style in books like “The Mezzanine” and “Room Temperature” is to observe the world in slow, painstaking detail, relishing the tiny moment, enjoying the aside for the sake of accuracy, insisting on charting the precise state of things. He has now applied this system to history, to the few years before the United States declared war on Japan and entered into World War II as a full participant. It is clear Baker has not done this as a literary exercise, nor as a new way of amusing himself and his readers, but because of a passionate view of how the war against Germany was conducted by Britain under Winston Churchill.

It’s a relatively easy read because it’s presented in short pieces; many only one or two paragraphs; few more than a single page. But reading them is like eating salted peanuts: you just keep reaching for one more.

If political or military history is something you enjoy reading or you just want another perspective on how the world came to this madness, I recommend Baker’s book. You’ll come away with some unexpected insights.

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