Some critics have been predictably outraged by Human Smoke, issuing code-orange alerts about the damage it will do to ignorant and impressionable readers—and not entirely without reason. The book occasionally gives off a strong whiff of Michael Moore. Baker will restate, sardonically, facts that are already powerfully implicit in his anecdotes: “Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.” He’ll steer the reader toward certainty about hugely controversial historical points (e.g., that America baited Japan into attacking; that Churchill’s aggression made Hitler’s violence worse; that a workable peace might have been had, at several points, in lieu of total victory; that pacifism was the best response), all of which his unorthodox method, by its very nature, can’t honestly support, given that it denies all the traditional hallmarks of historical argument: direct comment, abstract analysis, deep engagement with the existing scholarship. And so Baker sometimes lapses into the crime he means to correct: He simplifies the narrative he’s trying to complicate, distorting the truth as badly as any pious acolyte of the Greatest Generation myth. Villainizing Churchill isn’t necessarily wrong—the numbers and statements are all a matter of public record—but in the end it’s no more subtle than lionizing him.
To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes (“What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none”), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.