SOUTH BERWICK, Maine Even the staunchest opponents of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are loathe to take issue with World War II, the quintessential conflict between good and evil that became the model of a morally just war.
So it's no surprise that novelist Nicholson Baker's latest venture into nonfiction, "Human Smoke," has stirred up strong feelings. After all, he questions the popular notion of the just war and indicates that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt share blame with Adolf Hitler in setting the stage for the deadliest and most destructive war in history.
Baker makes his case through hundreds of brief vignettes culled from newspapers, diaries and secondary sources that are presented chronologically and without context or commentary by the author. The book ends on Dec. 31, 1941, as the world plunges into the abyss.
In a two-page "afterword," Baker dedicates the book to pacifists who risked public scorn and imprisonment by fighting to stave off the war.
Outraged by the invasion of Iraq, Baker said he was familiar with arguments that some wars had to be fought and that World War II is the premier example.
"If this is the war that everyone holds up as the benchmark of a morally justified war, let's look very closely at how it began, let's find out what happened, in what order and where the moments were that things could have turned out differently. Let's ask the question, 'Was it a good war?"' he said in an interview at his 18th-century farmhouse in this New Hampshire border town where he and his family have lived for the past decade.
Exploring the origins of World War II may seem something of a reach for an unconventional author known for quirky novels such as "Vox," which details a phone sex conversation and became a footnote to history after it was learned that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton. Another novel, "The Mezzanine," explores the thoughts of an office worker who rides an escalator during his lunch hour.
Baker has written articles in The New Yorker, ranging from the history of the fingernail clipper to the workings of a movie projector, but his best-known shift to nonfiction was the 2001 "Double Fold," which lamented the destruction of newspaper archives and their replacement by microfilm.
It was while tending the British Library newspaper collection that he rescued from the shredder that Baker began reading about "the horrible period" that led to World War II and prompted him to dig deeper and try "to make some sense" of the situation.
Baker said he was surprised and shocked at the way Churchill responded to Hitler's attacks on Poland and other neighboring states by launching a relentless bombing campaign against German cities as well as a blockade that was designed to starve the enemy into submission.
"He was acting like a bloodthirsty maniac during that period. That has to go back on the record in all of its unpleasantness. We can't learn from a hero like that. It's a mistake to say that because Hitler was bad, we have to clean up the image of Churchill. Churchill was also bad," Baker said.
Baker maintains that Churchill's bellicose actions and Roosevelt's eagerness to supply Britain with ships and planes served only to prop up Hitler's standing with Germans and strengthen his hold on the country.
"It was the war the long, slow war of bombing and blockade that fundamentally helped to keep Hitler in power," he said. "The fact that the country was attacked night after night in this way released a massive antipathy to the British."
The people in the book whom Baker looks up to include Mohandas Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence; Herbert Hoover, who opposed the British blockade; and a handful of lesser-known pacifists who spoke out against the run up to war.
Tall and lean, with a full but neatly trimmed white beard, the 51-year-old Baker does not regard himself as "a war-minded person," but neither does he claim to be "an absolute pacifist." He is sympathetic to the Quaker tradition of nonviolence, having had Quaker forebears and having gone to Haverford College, which was founded by Quakers.
"Human Smoke," which draws its title from a description of the ashes at Auschwitz, is not meant to be a comprehensive history. Rather, he said, "it's just one journey through the thicket of events," one that captures the anguish of the period and puts human faces on those caught up in it.
The book slices and dices the years that led to war into hundreds of little anecdotes rather than a single sweeping narrative. Baker presents the facts in a detached, journalistic manner that belies his underlying passion and leaves it to the reader to sort out contradictions and infer the broader picture.
Reviews, Baker noted, have ranged from "extremely positive" to "ferociously negative."
In The New York Times, William Grimes vilified "Human Smoke" as a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book." But Colm Toibin, in the newspaper's Sunday Book Review, called it "riveting and fascinating" and "a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism."
Among the skeptics was Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who helped oversee the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "If there ever was a war that was worth fighting it was World War II, and there is no evidence that I know of whatsoever that Hitler would have responded to passivity except to regard that as empowering him to expand," Berenbaum said. "Hitler could only be stopped by force."