Archive for April 3rd, 2014

Farewell, Jonathan Schell (1943-2014), our remarkable “observer, writer, moralist”

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
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“His lens could not have been wider.” (Photo: David Shankbone)

Last May I attended a memorable dinner at the home of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik, following a panel discussion sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum (I wrote about it here). The dinner was magical for a number of reasons, but among them was journalist Jonathan Schell, who came as the companion of a friend, the Polish scholar Irena Grudzinska Gross.  I sat across from, or perhaps it was next to, the author and activist. I remember his gentle courtesy and curiosity, particularly as we spoke about René Girards most recent book, Battling to the End, discussing the escalation to extremes in modern warfare.

schellWhat a difference a year makes. I learned yesterday that Schell had died on March 25 – according to the Washington Post, he succumbed to leukemia and skin cancer, possibly, according to some sources, caused by long-ago exposure to Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant chemical so widely used by U.S. forces in Vietnam.

David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote, “Schell was an invaluable voice in this country—as an observer, as a writer, as a moralist.” Schell had written for the New Yorker for two decades. His many books include  The Village of Ben Suc (1967), The Time of Illusion (1976), The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Real War (1988), The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (1998), The Unfinished Twentieth Century (2001), The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003), A Hole in the World (2004), and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (2007), among others.

I recognized his name at the dinner, but remembered little more about him than a famous byline – that he had risen to public notice with a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War, then turned his pen to the threat of nuclear war and the necessity of disarmament. The comments from the obituaries have focused on the Vietnam years, the Watergate years … but it’s too easy to categorize him as a critic of old wars and old causes. His words resonate today. “No doubt people have a natural tendency to try to forget about wars the minute they are over,” he commented of the Vietnam war in 1971, “but we may be the first country to try to forget about a war while it is still going on.” And so we still do.

Or these words from a 1974 New Yorker article:

schell1Over the last decade or so, two standard reactions to bad news seems to have developed in our country. One reaction is “It didn’t happen”, and the other is “They all do it”. In the early Vietnam years, the tendency was to react in the first way… About five years ago the second reaction began to emerge. … The man who sees no massacre and no Watergate and the man who sees massacres & Watergates as the inevitable lot of all societies in all times have one thing in common: neither of them can be expected to take any action… This state of mind is new in the U.S. But it’s familiar to anyone who has spent time in Eastern Europe or South America or any place where people have lost the bold spirit of the free and adopted the easy sophistication of the powerless.

Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch.com, writing in Huffington Post recalled his Vietnam war coverage during his time at Pantheon and added, “at another publishing house in 2003, in an even grimmer century, I put out his book The Unconquerable WorldPower, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  His lens by then couldn’t have been wider.  In it, he appropriated a hollowed-out term from the war in Vietnam, the hopeless American effort to ‘win hearts and minds,’ celebrating instead the untamed ‘rebellious hearts and minds’ across the planet that might find new sources of people power and alter a world headed for destruction.  It was a book so far ahead of its time that, in the invasion-of-Iraq moment, almost no one noticed.”