08 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 6

It makes sense to end this long and tortuous exploration of the issues raised by the publication of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke today, the 63d anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, because one would think, given the response to Baker's work, that the war had not ended.

I like to think of Baker's work in the same way as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The GULAG Archipelago is subtitled: "A Literary Investigation". Unlike the Christian Solzhenitsyn, whose book is suffused with a faith inspired by the Suffering Servant, Baker engages in a rather utilitarian argument - did intervention cause more damage? Yet this kind of utilitarianism is necessarily callous. I doubt the effects of implementing the Madagascar Plan would compare all that favourably with the Middle Passage. Corpses would still pile up somewhere, if not to be transformed into smoke. Neither of these books is a work of scientific history, but rather a literary account of an historical event. However, having said that, we uncover the real problem with Human Smoke which to some extent makes the critical response understandable, but not justifiable.

Baker's book restores to prominence the Isolationist Argument, that the United States of America could gain little from intervention in a European war, that America's long-term interests were best served by staying out and dealing with the consequences of the war in due course. For a Briton in 1941, this thesis must be opposed by a propaganda assault - national survival was at stake. However, in the context of 2008, attacking it with the vehemence with which Baker's work has been greeted suggests the continued difficulty of letting go of the war, and recognizing that American interests and British interests may diverge. This is dishonest history. The same dishonesty applies to Americans invoking the Interventionist Argument to the exclusion of all others. Again, the war has not ended for them. Baker, too, is guilty of dishonest history, although he has legitimately more reason to present his case, since the Isolationist Argument is still subject to the same propaganda effort that began in wartime. There's plenty of readily available material that continues to treat the Isolationist Argument on anything but its own merits, even in presidential debates:
McCain said Paul is promoting isolationism in calling for the United States to disengage from the war. "We allowed (Adolf) Hitler to come to power with that attitude of isolation," he said.

History, despite what many of the lions of book review pages might attempt to assert in their texts, should be morally neutral. It is a record of acts, selected and weighted according to judgment (and thus morality) by individuals, but the record itself is without moral meaning. Thus, confronted with a text like Human Smoke, the correct response is not to condemn it as wrong, but rather to remind us that the fight for American entry into the war was at times a bitter one, and not properly resolved through internal political debate.

I return to my general theme - History, especially military, is Politics by another means. What is going on is not an honest debate about the proper place in history of Isolationism, but a continuing propaganda war over the role of the United States in the wider world. In this sense, Baker has missed the target. The strongest force in America First Isolationism was not the kind of American pacifism that Baker endorses, but an ancestral relation (the husband of a great-aunt, so to speak) of the Unilateralist approach that resulted in the War in Iraq. Had he really wanted to make the kind of case he wanted, he should instead have focused on the First World War. And hence, my plural title.


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