In explaining Human Smoke, the author, Nicholson Baker, said that it was a Rorschach test. And despite loving the book myself, I began to realize its deepest flaw, that many readers were still confused by pacifism. Reading through several reviews, that the main points of the book were lost on the reviewers. The very last sentence of the afterward of the book is: "They [the pacifists] failed, but they were right." I believe many reviewers misunderstood what the author meant to convey. It was a simple sentence at the end of a five hundred page book that provided anecdote after anecdote about pacifists, but without understanding what pacifism was meant by the author, many reviewers saw it as a statement about an alternative way to have been victorious over Hitler and Germany. The sentence that should have read: "The pacifists failed to stop the massive bloodshed and death, but they were right to have remained pacifists." Pacifism is not about victory, pacifism is about how to act. Victory is about winning with or without rules.
When I think of the many times I flashed the peace sign, not getting that it was really a V for victory sign, I understand how ingrained the confusion is. Baker does not attempt to argue that pacifism would have led to victory or exactly how history would have been changed through pacifist efforts. And Baker points out many circumstances were pacifists braved horrendous conditions, passing that test often put on pacifists that their actions are based on cowardly self-preservation. Choosing to be non-violent in the face of danger is not less brave than fighting ones way out. Similarly to confusing victory with peace, many confuse bravery with physical power (my favorite poem is, i sing of Olaf by e e cummings). To me the goal is not to worry what others will think of my pacifism, but to not hurt others.
To me the brilliance in the book lay in pointing out the folly of the warmongers, leaders who valued the adoration of the crowds and winning, over the fear of appearing to give in. That World War II started small and built up, that there were choices, that nothing was predetermined except in retrospect, shows that many opportunities to preserve life at those moments were lost. Yes, in retrospect it can be claimed that sacrificing millions saved millions more, but to a pacifist that is not the point and unprovable.
And that pacifists were there at every turn and that a great deal of effort was made to silence their voices. One could argue that those voices would have been successful at dulling the appetite for war which might lead to defeat or argue that those voices could have succeeded at avoiding bloodshed generally. I would argue that silencing dissent is the first step in the horrible march to war. And speaking up against war and death is the only choice for a pacifist.
The book details this real struggle of pacifists to speak up in the face of imprisonment and death. And the book details how often the forces of victory chose death for others through inaction or action, always justifying it based on wanting to win. It was never clear what winning meant besides which team was standing at the called end of the war. But in a clever subtitle naming of the book, Baker leads us to another conclusion, "The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization." I think that is because, perhaps, we have not yet finished World War II. First, it is hard to say that tens of millions of lives ended by the hands of each other is the cause for celebration. Nor is it possible to say that the repercussions of the war are over. The weapon created to win the war may yet end all life on this planet, truly the end of civilization. The "human smoke" of the title refers directly to the remains of millions of Jews and others cremated. Nuclear devastation would complete that transformation.
And the book points out that many still have not truly learned the lessons of World War II, that we must value life over victory. That we must act as if we are vulnerable and not as if we can always fall back to war. There is no longer the myth of survival, of sacrificing a few for the many or of sacrificing the enemy for to save your loved ones. Baker was correct in saying that the pacifists were right, because we all are vulnerable and all will die eventually, but civilization can only succeed if we choose to be pacifists.
Genesis 18 includes the story of Abraham pleading for the lives of both the sinful and innocent. Abraham questioned whether it was right to let an entire city be destroyed if that would lead to even a few innocents dying. In his argument, Abraham is both humble, saying that he is merely "dust and ashes" and insistent in his pleas for mercy for strangers who are mostly sinful. The struggle to banish evil is not a struggle of victory over evil, it is an inner struggle to be humane. Pacifism depends on a great deal of calm, of great love and some hope. Only if you feel vulnerable can you truly be civilized.
I highly recommend reading Human Smoke now that I have, I think, given it the proper context. Also Baker, as he researched Wikipedia, might have added this this from Wikipedia:
"The term Pax Americana was explicitly used by John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, who advocated against the idea, arguing that the Soviet bloc was composed of human beings with the same individual goals as Americans and that such a peace based on "American weapons of war" was undesirable:"
'I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.'