The Pacifism Quandary

World War II has always been a tough nut for pacifists. Nicholson Baker tries cracking it.

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Pacifism is like virginity. It doesn’t work half way. Anybody can be a pacifist when nothing is at stake. The trick is to be a pacifist even in the face of aggression against oneself or the people one cares about. The principle of pacifism, genuine pacifism, is that violence is always counterproductive. Always. A corollary principle is that wars are always bad for everyone involved. Wars, in that sense, are never winnable. Never. Any position that varies from this line isn’t really pacifism. It is more like prudence or restraint. It is saying that war ought to be avoided but that it’s still a genuine option.

It turns out that Nicholson Baker, the author of such bestselling novels as Vox and The Mezzanine, is a hardcore pacifist. His newest book, Human Smoke, is about the lead-up to and the early years of the Second World War. That’s the Holy Grail for a true pacifist. Most pacifists are scared to touch it. WWII is the ultimate just war, the ultimate necessary war. You’ve got to be strong to even contemplate arguing against those truisms. But what’s an honest pacifist to do? If all wars are bad, if violence is always, in the end, counterproductive, then WWII can be no exception. That’s the brutal logic of the pacifist. If the logic is correct, then every war is a horrible mistake. If the logic is wrong, then pacifism is essentially meaningless.

In the face of that logic, Baker has written a book that is truly pissing people off. That in itself is an accomplishment. Nobody thought there was an ounce of controversy in WWII. Baker has found the ounce and he’s splashing around in it. James L. Swanson, writing in USA Today, writes that if Baker really believes in his argument, then he is “terribly, even monstrously wrong.” As Swanson points out, “Oddly, the book’s very title undercuts Baker’s thesis. When one of Hitler’s generals saw flakes of ash floating over Auschwitz he called it ‘human smoke.’ If the pure evil that lit that truly unholy fire were not worth fighting, then nothing is. Ever.”

But that, of course, is precisely Baker’s point and he’s willing to go all the way with it. Nothing is worth fighting a war over. That is his thesis. And that is also why he titles the book Human Smoke, in direct reference to the ultimate evil of the Holocaust. It isn’t undercutting the argument, it is the argument. If Baker can actually prove that even WWII was counterproductive, that it served no good, then he has gone very far in proving that nothing is ever worth fighting a war over. Ever.

The real hero of Human Smoke is thus Mahatma Gandhi and his principle of non-violence. And the moral center of the book, it’s most difficult and extreme thought, is the following paragraph:

Gandhi answered a letter from Hayim Greenberg, who edited the Jewish Frontier, a liberal Zionist newspaper in New York. Greenberg pointed out that in Germany, a Jewish Gandhi would last about five minutes before he was executed.

‘That will not disprove my case’, Gandhi replied, ‘I can easily conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators’. The discipline of ahimsa—worked most efficaciously in the face of terrible violence, Gandhi said: ‘Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetimes’.

That is a remarkable collection of words. Everything in the book hinges on it. Baker goes through a lot of work showing the massive inhumanity of the war, the degree to which the Allies, just as much as the Axis powers, had whipped themselves up into a killing fever. He wants to show that the frenzy of violence destroyed everything and everyone. It didn’t save the Jews, it destroyed civilization.

But the center of the book is that incredible thought, the idea that there is no length to which the principle of non-violence cannot or should not go. There is no limit to the suffering that can be endured. Indeed, it is in the face of terrible violence that the principle comes into its full efficacy. Gandhi called his specific doctrine of non-violence Satyagrahis, which means roughly “truth force.” He talked about seven essential rules for the application of Satyagrahis. The second rule is the following: Individuals “must believe in truth and non-violence and have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature which he expects to evoke by suffering in the satyagraha effort.”

Baker’s implied point is that tempest of Nazism could never have gotten anywhere without its compliment, the warmongering on the other side. He implies that facing it with empty hands and a pure heart would have eventually rendered it impotent. He doesn’t suggest that there would never have been any suffering, but that the inevitable suffering could have worked to bring us back to our essential humanity. Instead, a cycle of violence was initiated. It became a killing machine. Civilization was destroyed.

But what if you aren’t prepared to believe in “truth and the inherent goodness of human nature?” There’s another tradition, a Hobbesian one, that says that humans tend to get nasty without some contractual relationship with one another. We call it the rule of law. Those laws, at some base level, have to be enforced. War is the extreme end of that enforcement. This is to be agnostic about the ultimate good or evil in the human soul. It is to be prepared for either. Gandhi, and by extension Baker, strip everything down to that individual human soul and its capacity to suffer and resist and to find its goodness. The only way to enforce the law, from that perspective, is to undergo suffering at the hands of those who would break it.

It is a lot to ask. But there is something brave and honest about Baker and his willingness to ask it. He took on the Holy Grail. He has laid down the gauntlet in showing us what a genuine pacifism would have to look like. That’s worth something. • 6 May 2008

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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