I just finished…

…”Ways of Seeing,” by John Berger, and “Human Smoke,” by Nicholson Baker. (Robert the K recommended the first and I chose the second in my efforts to form a world policy for myself.)

“Seeing,” a Marxist approach to art, was written over 40 years ago, so some of its points may have already entered the culture and lost their power by becoming familiar. (Also Berger does not value clarity in his prose style, and, being a Brit, his language choice does not always connote to an American as it might to his domestic audience.) Finally, Marxism is a narrow way to look at art, though the concentration may add potency to his remarks. I liked best his final remarks about “publicity,” which I took to mean “advertising.” There I found much with which to agree.

“Smoke” is an apple cart-turner. It is pro-pacifism. All wars, it implies, are part of one war; and no war achieves naught but evil. So far, so good; but the war which Baker selects to make his point, through an assemblage of selected events leading up to it, is “The Good War,” World War II. Most historians (but not everyone) trashed it, but the book will not leave my head alone.

I Just Finished… (3)

So before I start on filling in my junior high days, I will digress to discuss…

…Rick Atkinson’s “The Guns at Last Light,” the final volume in his trilogy on World War II, as it was fought in North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe.

Atkinson is a journalistic historian, writing clear, conscise, direct, ground-covering prose, unencumbered by deep thought or theory. He does a fine job caturing the character and personalities of generals and political leaders, especially in this book, Eisenhower and Montgomery. He is a master at the use of numbers to concretize his points, whether he is cataloguing the contents of transport ships, the extent of various diseases striking down troops, or the total of Camels cigarettes Ike smoked in the weeks before D-Day. And je superbly captures the morality murdering misery of infantryman, fighting and dying inch-by-inch across this terrain.

At the end, the sheer horror of war, no matter the nobility or necessity of the cause, is overwhelming. It put me in mind of a position taken by an anti-torture expert in the weeks following the Abu Ghraib story’s breaking. He was asked if it would be proper to torture an individual if that was the only way to find out where terrorists had hidden a nuclear device they were planning to detonate. His answer was, “No.” If you take the position the saving of a few hundred thousand lives does not justify abusing one person, must you not also conclude that perhaps saving a couple million lives does not justify killing several hundred thousand.

I recall that Nicholson Baker wrote a book several years ago which argued that the United States should not have entered World War II. I may take a look at it and report
back further.