I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts — Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One — but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper’s Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country’s honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.
This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I’ve been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled “Pacifism’s Coma” and “The Trauma Theory“.
But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It’s a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I’m sure it’s not) and that’s why I’m so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.
I wish Harper’s would put his article “Why I’m A Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War” online for all to read, but it appears to be currently available only in the print edition of the magazine. (UPDATE: it’s also available for paid subscribers at Harpers.org). The article recalls his groundbreaking history of World War II, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, but that book was composed of facts and scraps of news without a first-person voice, and this article presents Baker’s own angle on the same topic. We learn that his wife and sometime co-author Margaret Brentano helped Baker to discover the importance of the pacifist cause years ago, and that Baker resisted the message at first. (She must be an extremely impressive person; I have briefly met Nicholson Baker, and now I’d love to meet Margaret Brentano). Here’s an excerpt from the piece, and I hope you’ll find the time to read the whole thing.
Praising pacifists — using the P-word in any positive way, but especially in connection with the Second World War — embarrasses some people, and it makes some people angry. I found this out in 2008, when I published a book about the beginnings of the war. “Human Smoke” was a mosaic of contradictory fragments and moments in time, composed largely of quotations: it made no direct arguments on behalf of any single interpretation of World War II. But in an afterword, I dedicated the book to the memory of Clarence Pickett — a Quaker relief worker — and other British and American pacifists, because I was moved by what they’d tried to do. “They tried to save Jewish refugees,” I wrote, “feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.”
They were what? In a review in “The Nation”, Katha Pollitt said she pored over my book obsessively, for hours at a time — and she hated it. “By the time I finished,” she wrote, “I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.” Pollitt’s displeasure hurt, as negative reviews from thoughtful readers generally do. But I still think the pacifists of World War II were right. In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They were naive, they weren’t unrealistic — they were psychologically acute realists.
Later, Baker states his case in a single sentence:
The Jews [Hitler’s victims, during the early years of World War II] needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses.
This is a difficult message to deliver, because we are deeply committed to our image of World War II as the good war, and we know about Hitler’s capacity for evil. Few people are happy to hear that the greatest evil of all was not Hitler but the institution of war itself (it was this institution, of course, that created Hitler’s power in the first place, since he based his entire platform on Germany’s wish to avenge its loss of the First World War). It’s much easier to hate a shrill guy in a brown shirt with a funny moustache than it is to hate an institution that plays a big role in our own national culture.
I’m so glad there are still a few noisy pacifists like Nicholson Baker around, even if he does make many people uncomfortable, and I hope you’ll read his important article in its entirety. I can’t think of a cause in the world today that matters as much as pacifism, and I’m so glad there are a few writers brave enough to address the morality and effectiveness of war directly, regardless of the derision they will face.