I just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s Good Smoke: The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilization. Baker is a novelist (and as they say in the parochial parts around here, a native Rochesterian) whose novels were characterized by their attention to technical details. This is a work of non-fiction, but constructed in a series of vignettes taken from newspapers and other accounts, strung together in a garland of gritty, interesting details. If this makes a sustained argument difficult, the repeated iterations can be effective in making and insinuating the author’s point. (An effective example of this style, covering much of the same anti-militarist terrain, is Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing.)
Baker’s argument, which has been savaged in every review that I have read, is that World War II was unnecessary; that Churchill was a warmonger, and the Allies were hypocrites, their opposition to the Nazi oppression of the Jews limited to rhetorical salvos, and certainly did not extend to letting many of the refugees into their own countries. Baker describes the horrors of the impending holocaust fully. His argument, to the extent I understand it, is that the Allies in 1940 should have come to a negotiated truce with Hitler, and sort of wait him out. This would, in the end, have saved tens of millions of lives, German and Jew, Axis and Allied. I do not agree with this argument, which relies on the benefit of hindsight not available to historical actors in 1939 and 1940, and because, from everything that I have read, a war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—the Soviet Union plays a surprisingly small role in Baker’s account—would have happened regardless of events on the Western Front, and then most of the other events of the war would have transpired.
But even if Baker is wrong , it is definitely worth considering his argument seriously. What did the Allies get from winning World War II? In Asia, Britain lost its empire almost immediately after the war ended, and the United States, which in many ways entered the war in the Pacific for China, ended up losing China (though exchanging it as an ally with Japan.) And in Europe, we need to remember that no one went to war against Hitler to rescue the Jews. In his recent, near definitive account of the Holocaust Saul Friedlander divides the war years into three parts Terror (fall 1939 to Summer 1941), Mass Murder (Summer 1941 to Summer 1942) and Shoah (Summer 1942 to Spring 1945.) Leaving aside the huge question of the Soviet Union, it is permissible to think that if, as some were suggested, Churchill and Hitler reached a negotiated peace after the fall of France, the full weight of the holocaust would have been avoided? I do not know, probably not, but using hindsight, it is perhaps worth asking if a cold peace with Nazism, if coupled with a plan to transfer the Jews under Nazi control elsewhere, might not have saved many Jewish lives. Certainly whatever else the war against Nazism accomplished, it saved precious few Jews.
I don’t think I am pacifist (yet) but I am glad to see that war in Iraq is spurring a growth in pacifist thinking. The basic problem is not that this or that particular war is bad, but that all wars are bad, and that all “post-war” settlements, whatever the good intentions of some liberal minded humanists, ends up inevitably refighting the war just ended. For twenty years, after the end of World War I, the thinking people of the world were united in their opposition and detestation of war. This sentiment was rejected during and after World War II, and we have been trying to fight “good wars” ever since, for supposed humanitarian reasons (against the tyranny of Communism, or Saddam Hussein) shoehorning every conflict in a fight to the death against an evil foe who needs to be unconditionally defeated. I think most people agree that the world would have been a better place if Saddam Hussein, as evil and tyrannical as he was, was left in place. I really hesitate to say the same thing would have true of Hitler, but I do not think it a crazy argument to make. The greatest story in the incredibly violent history of the 20th century were the striking number of examples of basically peaceful social change; in India, in South Africa, in the American South in the 1960s, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the 1980s and 1990s. Tyranny can be overthrown without war. Good wars continue to provide the illusion that war can be an effective instrument of positive social change. Bad wars at least remind us why war is evil. In the end, good wars, that shield us from the truth, probably do more damage. Whether or not Baker is correct, it is time for all of us to learn to live in a complex ambiguous and dangerous world without refighting World War II, again and again and again.