Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Here's what I do. I read the book reviews in the NY Times online. Once or twice a month, I see one for a book I think I'd enjoy. I go directly to the Denver Public Library (yay!) web site and reserve the book. Typically copies have not arrived for circulation yet, but when they do, I'll get an email from the library that the book is waiting for me - at the branch I've chosen.

I waited about three weeks for Human Smoke, copyright 2008, Simon & Schuster. It's a history, sortof, of the period from the beginning of the First World War (or Great War) to just after Pearl Harbor.

Human Smoke is a series of vignettes, little stories about people who wanted to fight and people who hated fighting: Hawks and Doves, we'd call them today. The stories are a paragraph long or a page long. To my mind, they paint a stunning picture of a world we only learn about from spin: Someone's purposeful interpretation of what's happened or what's been said.

Here's a sample vignette or two:

From pg 46, Human Smoke:

Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the ninth annual Congress on the Cause and Cure of War. There were five hundred delegates at the congress, representing eleven organizations with a combined membership of eleven million people. "Any one who thinks, must think of the next war as suicide," Eleanor Roosevelt said. "How deadly stupid we are that we can study history and live through what we live through, and complacently allow the same causes to put us through the same thing again!" It was January 17, 1934.

A week later, Clark H. Woodward, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, gave a fierce speech before the assembled delegates of the ninth annual meeting of the Women's Patriotic Conference on National Defense, a promilitary, anti-immigrant umbrella group. Admiral Woodward had won many medals and fought in many wars - he had helped crush insurrections in Nicaragua and Haiti.

Subversive propaganda in favor of disarmament was being "viciously pushed by radical aliens, foreign-born and un-American Americans," Admiral Woodward said to the patriotic women. "Proselytizing parlor pinks and treacherous paid lobbyists have renewed their sinister, intensive and destructive efforts to convince our statesmen by insidious appeal and academic reasoning of the futility of future preparedness."


H.C. Englebrecht, author of Merchants of Death, a bestseller about arms dealers, spoke at a conference of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. "Armament is an industry that knows no politics, friends, right or wrong - but only customers, " Englebrecht said. "If you can pay, you can buy."

The French arms company Schneider had recently sold four hundred tanks to Hitler's Germany, Englebrecht observed; the company disguised the sale by shipping the tanks via the Netherlands. The Germans had also ordered sixty airplanes from Vickers, the British maker of bombers.

"In every war," said Englebrecht, "the armaments maker who sells internationally is arming a potential enemy of his own country - and that, practically if not legally, is treason."

It was April 14th, 1934.

I could not stop reading Human Smoke. I can't recommend it to you highly enough.

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