Light arrives on earth from the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, four light years and four months after it is sent. As poet Elizabeth Jennings said, "The star's impulse/Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful."
So it is with some ideas. They are conceived long before the world perceives the need. Nonviolence is an old idea whose time may finally have come. In December of 2002, much of the world assembled in protest to America's invasion of Iraq. It's not just the Berrigan brothers this time. Grandmothers, old soldiers, and European leaders marched against the use of military force.
Writer and activist Jonathan Schell has been thinking about peace, nuclear threat, and war for thirty-five years. Just as President Bush launched the first precision missile in March '03, Schell offered a nonviolent solution to world unrest: his twelfth book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and The Will of the People. "In the last decade, most people were not thinking about peace and war," commented the journalist for The Nation Magazine. I began The Unconquerable World ten years ago, but no one was as surprised as I am by the book's relevance now."
The native New Yorker has never shied away from tough topics. Most of his work concerns the ugly image of nuclear annihilation. His Fate of the Earth (1982), first written for The New Yorker, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and contains an unflinching description of extinction. At the time, editor William Shawn worried that the articles might make Americans hysterical. Yet, many fans then and today feel that reading him "is an exhilarating, strangely inspiring experience, " according to current Harpers Magazine senior editor, Luke Mitchell.
In a Chicago bookstore this spring, Schell appeared as he is - not the firebrand, anti-nukes one would imagine - but more the voice of calm in a troubled world. On that warm evening, coffee shop rattling in the background, his professorial look quickly became shirtsleeves as he sat with a group of several generations. "I struggled in the book for the English version of satyagraha, Gandhi's word for nonviolence," describing his writing process. "I settled on 'cooperative power.'"
The listeners and Schell talked about the pre-emptive attack on Iraq, taking place as they met in the soft lighting around the bookshelves. A young woman asked "What can I do?" People laughed and clinked dinnerware in the adjacent restaurant. The author let his bookstore audience answer and encouraged them with examples of how grassroots activism functions. This reality-based proof is the essence of The Unconquerable World: bloodless revolutions work. They are not utopias, but they achieved democracy without war. Havel's Czechoslovakia is; apartheid crumbled without a bloodbath.
"I see my writing-or most of it-as one long development set in motion by the tremendous shock of my first journey to Vietnam," the author commented in a recent interview from his office in New York City. Many Americans went to Vietnam in the l960's; only one became Jonathan Schell. His books begin in l966 with reporting of American forces thirty miles from Saigon. His accounts of war in this time and place appeared in The New Yorker, and "No one did a better job of explaining the inherent flaws of military reporting system," according to Jonathan Larsen of The New York Times. The Village of Ben Suc became a book, and during that time, many Americans began to question the escalating war.
In that spontaneous decision, the Harvard graduate with wanderlust flew to Vietnam just as the build-up of forces reached their peak. "I had an airplane ticket to go anywhere I wanted," he recalls. Setting off from a study program in Japan, Schell decided to expand his college work on the Harvard Crimson. "I came to Vietnam with no strong views on war." What he found in "Operation Cedar Falls" gave him nightmares that became reality. "For awhile, I had dreams of wrestling with Vietnamese children in a ditch," he remembered.
Vietnam has been called the last uncensored war. Reporters such as David Halberstam, John Lawrence, and Schell moved much more freely with the troops than those of today. While the military censored many reports, there was significant access to authentic events - and television. Jonathan Schell arrived in Saigon with Two Vietnams, a book by a French journalist Bernard Fall, tucked under his arm. "Some things are just accidents," he recalled, and in Saigon, he walked into a press office where Fall and Francois Souli, another reporter, were working. "They taught me the groundwork of journalism, who to call, what to look for, where to go," he said.
After he submitted The Village of Ben Suc to The New Yorker, Schell continued to write for the magazine, a journal he had always admired. He talked constantly with his editor, William Shawn, and had conversations with Hannah Arendt, the philosopher, then living in New York. The New Yorker compiled his reflections on Vietnam through Watergate in Observing the Nixon Years, published in l989 as a book.
War strips everyone of innocence and romanticism; Vietnam destroyed Schell's youthful faith in the "wisdom of our government" and his trust in the "institution of journalism." For him, "It was a profound shock. Then, I felt horror - later, anger," he explained recently. "The whole operation made no sense. I realized that we were doing the opposite of what we said we there to do. We were displacing the peasants, burning their homes, killing innocents. The people we were 'saving' hated us. Yet, that was not what was being reported."
Nurtured by William Shawn, Schell continued to write and consider Vietnam. "You couldn't think about war without thinking of larger issues," he said, "and you can't think about larger issues without thinking about nuclear policy." Like Shawn, who had orchestrated John Hersey's trip to Hiroshima (1946) and oversaw that New Yorker publication, Schell focused on nuclear threat. "By The Time of Illusion (1978), I knew that I wanted to write about nuclear policy. I announced it in the last paragraph." Fans and staff of The New Yorker describe William Shawn's unparalled talent for encouraging writers. Similarly, Schell remembers "long, long hours of conversations in the most extraordinary relationship of my life."
As the US moved further into nuclear armament under President Reagan, Schell's writing evolved. By The Fate of the Earth, his research encapsulated the stark statistics of nuclear proliferation and descriptions by scientists of a possible holocaust. Newsweek described the best-selling book as "bringing us face to face wit the idea of a nuclear holocaust by forcing us, step by step, to think through this monstrous 'unconcept.'" Schell imagines a "republic of insects and grass" in that book, as he described Vietnam, letting the details speak for themselves.
Publication of the Fate of the Earth coincided with a high water mark in the anti-nuclear movement. New York City hosted a "Million Person March" on June 12, 1982. In the elections of that year, Nuclear Freeze initiatives were passed by the people in nine states and forty-three towns, cites and counties. For the first time in history, l8 million people voted on the issue of nuclear weapons. On May 4, 1983, the US House of Representatives passed the Freeze resolution. Many streams converged by October of l985 when President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met to discuss the abolition of nuclear weapons at Reykjavik, Iceland.
Now, with The Unconquerable World, Jonathan Schell integrates history, philosophy and a guide to "cooperative power" in a melding of his literary talents. "My greatest hope for the book is that people will be convinced of a peaceful path, a do-able path if only we would follow it. It is the choice of the century, and it is based on very real, historical events, not utopias."
Jonathan Schell is The Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute in New York and writes for The Nation Magazine.
Ideas for Reform from "The Logic of Peace" in The Unconquerable
World. - nuclear disarmament
- reform of the United Nations
- democratization and human rights enforcement
- peacekeeping mechanisms
- advance of international law
- social and ecological programs
Laura Wilson is a clinical social worker from Libertyville, IL. She is also a freelance journalist with a special interest in peace and justice issues.