...[an] engaging, bracing, and moving new book ... There is something about scouring classified documents for long-hidden military secrets that attracts a certain type of obsessive. Nicholson Baker, who once wrote a 147-page essay tracking an archaic use of the word lumber through centuries of Anglophone literature, is that type ... Baker’s learned notes, down-the-rabbit-hole digressions, and verbal flash have invited comparisons with the virtuoso meanderngs of David Foster Wallace, though Baker comes off as gentler, less tormented by his demons, and, frankly, nicer ... What’s missing is the last and vital link, the official document that says, 'Yes, we did it. We doused turkey feathers with Songo fever and spread them around people’s homes. We introduced contagious new diseases into the land we were trying to help. And then we scooped up all the test animals from our germ warfare laboratories and threw them out of F-82s onto inhabited villages because we wanted to scare the bejeezus out of people, even if those people were children.' .... Baker has no such document, and he doesn’t pretend to. Yet if that evidentiary gap weakens his case that the United States probably waged small-scale bacteriological war, it strengthens his case for declassification ... It’s not just a matter of settling historical debates. It’s a bare-minimum requirement of a democratic foreign policy. Of having a government that, when contemplating a horrifying course of action, would think of posterity and choose something saner.
Baker’s effort to share his extensive knowledge has resulted in an awe-inspiring quest that reads like an adventure, a war story, and a scientific mystery of psychological suspense rolled into on. He uses a diary format, with daily entries from March 9 through May 18, 2019, that typically begin with brief asides about Baker’s beloved dogs or the mundane household chores he undertakes before launching, once again, into the world of biological warfare and his country’s ongoing attempts to hide its secrets. This approach proves to be an inspired choice as Baker’s formidable narrative skill and tenacity provide for a thoroughly riveting account and powerful testimony to the need for truth.
Unfortunately, [Baker] only adds to the ball of confusion that is our world today ... Baker’s proposed policy solutions, including a vast increase in declassification and transparency, and the termination of the C.I.A. as we know it, are all to the good...Yet too often, Baker’s search for the truth dissolves in his own prejudices and rampaging sense of moral superiority. Baseless is framed as a work diary he kept for three months in 2019, in which we are also treated to tidbits about his children, his wife, the two small dachshunds they adopted from the Humane Society in Bangor, Maine; the weather; what he’s eating...Baker is making a case for himself as a man of small and virtuous pleasures...By contrast, our leading Cold War wise men, with their 'deep crazy suspicions and enmities,' are 'not normal people.' Baker can be slashingly funny about this 'tiny handful of unelected desk warriors,' middle-aged men ... Yet Baker smears even the likes of this establishment with what he chooses to 'redact' on his own. His distortions, speculations and omissions outstrip any effort to note them all. Suffice it to say that in his view there is not a calamity anywhere in the world that was not caused by a United States government program ... wild accusations ... At times, the book is framed as a deliberate challenge to the intelligence community...But this is not how a historian proceeds. Again and again, Baker bristles with anger over actions that were 'seriously contemplated' by the C.I.A., other intelligence agencies and the military — but never undertaken ... I share Baker’s disgust with all the crazy, wasteful, illegal, counterproductive and murderous things the C.I.A. has done, and no doubt continues to do. Hell, I even like dogs. Baker’s Olympian worldview, though, takes him to almost the same place he landed in Human Smoke, his paste-up 2008 history of the road to World War II: immobilized by purity and concluding that we should never have intervened, even to stop the Nazis. Americans are neither beasts nor angels, just human beings trying to forge our way through the murky moral choices this world poses. To pretend otherwise is perhaps the worst deception of all.