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In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell

An interview with the late journalist and author who studied warfare and nuclear weapons.

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 6:56 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

"Up to a few months ago, Ben Suc was a prosperous village of some thirty-five hundred people." That is the initial line of The Village of Ben Suc, his first book, a copy of which I recently reread on a plane trip, knowing that he was soon to die. That book, that specific copy, had a history of its own. It was a Knopf first edition, published in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam War, after the then-shocking text had appeared in the New Yorker magazine. An on-the-spot account of an American operation, the largest of the Vietnam War to that moment, it followed American troops as they helicoptered into a village controlled by the enemy about 30 miles from the capital, Saigon. All its inhabitants, other than those killed in the process, were removed from their homes and sent to a makeshift refugee camp elsewhere. The US military then set Ben Suc afire, brought in bulldozers to reduce it to rubble, and finally called in the US Air Force to bomb that rubble to smithereens—as though, as the final line of his book put it, "having once decided to destroy it, we were now bent on annihilating every possible indication that the village of Ben Suc had ever existed."

I had read the piece in the New Yorker when that magazine devoted a single issue to it, something it had not done since it published John Hersey's Hiroshima in a similar fashion in 1946. I never forgot it. I was then 23 years old and just launched on a life as an anti-Vietnam War activist. I would not meet the author, 24-year-old neophyte reporter Jonathan Schell, for years.

To look at that first edition some 47 years later is to be reminded of just how young he was then, so young that Knopf thought it appropriate in his nearly nonexistent bio to mention where he went to high school ("the Putney School in Vermont"). The book was tiny. Only 132 pages with an all-print orange cover that, in addition to the author and title, said: "The story of the American destruction of a Vietnamese village—this is the complete text of the brilliant report to which the New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue." That was bold advertising in those publishing days. I know. As an editor at a publishing house as the 1980s began, I can still remember having a fierce argument about whether or not it was "tasteless" to put a blurb from a prominent person on a book's cover.

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The year after Ben Suc was published, he wrote The Military Half, his second great book on that horrific American war, in which he widened his lens from a single devastated village to two provinces where almost every hamlet had been destroyed, largely by American air power. To report it, he rode in tiny forward observation planes that were calling down destruction on the Vietnamese countryside. He then went to work as a staff writer for the New Yorker and in 1975 widened his lens further in his book The Time of Illusion, taking in the history and fate of a single administration in Washington as it waged "limited war" abroad in a nuclear age and created constitutional mayhem at home, bringing yet more violence to Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, as well as to the American political system.

In 1982, with his globally bestselling book The Fate of the Earth, whose first chapter, looking directly into a future of annihilation, was memorably entitled "A Republic of Insects and Grass," he trained his lens on the threat of violence against all humanity. He memorably explored what was then known as "the nuclear predicament," the way we had fully taken over a role previously occupied by God and, in the midst of the Cold War, were threatening the extinction not of a village, a couple of provinces in a distant land, or a political system, but the planet itself.

I was by then working at Pantheon Books, where in 1988 I re-read his two Vietnam reports and republished them in a single volume as The Real War. Its cover copy read: "The classic reporting on the Vietnam War," which couldn't have been more accurate. And then, some years later, I evidently stumbled across that first edition in New York's great used bookstore, the Strand. My copy is dated 8/93 on a little yellow tag inside the front cover and cost me $4. I doubt I read it a third time when I bought it. I can only imagine that I wanted to have that memorable first book by someone I already considered one of the greats of our age.

As it happened, at another publishing house in 2003, in an even grimmer century, I put out his book The Unconquerable World: Power, 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.

He was then perhaps the only person who imagined that, in our future, lay an Arab Spring, an Occupy Movement, and whatever-is-still-to-come. He may have been the first to see that this planet, careening toward disaster, might no longer be controllable in any of the usual ways. ("Fifty-eight years after Hiroshima, the world has to decide whether to continue on the path of cataclysmic violence charted in the twentieth century and now resumed in the twenty-first or whether to embark on a new, cooperative political path... In our age of sustained democratic revolution, the power that governments inspire through fear remains under constant challenge by the power that flows from people's freedom to act in behalf of their interests and beliefs.")

His final great work on climate change, on which he spent years of research, provisionally titled The Human Shadow, will sadly never be written. In the end, the lens simply grew too wide for a single lifetime—and we will all be the poorer for it.

He died on the night of March 25th of a cancer spurred on by an underlying blood condition that just might have been caused by Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant chemical so widely used by US forces in Vietnam. There is, of course, no way of knowing, but the Veteran's Administration website does list his condition as one that might have been Agent Orange-induced. In life as in death, Vietnam may have defined, but never confined, him. He was a figure in my life and at TomDispatch—as a friend, a writer, an interviewee, and for me a source of constant inspiration. I mourn him.

Given the role Vietnam played in his life, in mine, and in this country's, I thought it might be appropriate to look not to his last words, but—in a sense—to his first words. So, today, I'm returning us to the young Jonathan Schell, the boy who, knowing so little but so terribly open, landed in Vietnam in 1966 and during that nightmarish war that seemed never to end, later at the New Yorker, and finally at the Nation magazine, as well as in his many books, helped shape our thinking and our world. Here, then, is an interview that historian Chris Appy did with him for his remarkable 2003 oral history of the Vietnam War from all sides, Patriots. It catches the sensibility both of the youthful Jonathan Schell and of the man I later came to know. I thank Appy and his publisher, Viking Penguin, for letting me remember and honor him in this way.

Tom Engelhardt

 


"The More We 'Won,' The More We Lost"

An interview with Jonathan Schell on America's Vietnam debacle.

By Chris Appy

[The following interview from Chris Appy's 2003 book Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides is used with the kind permission of his publisher, Viking Penguin, and is posted at TomDispatch.com as a memorial to Jonathan Schell, who died on March 25th, and to his work, which will long outlast him.]

Rushing into the magazine's office, his cheeks flushed, he flops down on a couch looking impossibly burdened by the distractions of a journalist's life. The odds seem slim that much of value will be gained by dredging up a 30-year-old topic. As soon as the subject is mentioned, however, the present evaporates. It's as if the middle-aged man has entered a time machine dated 1966.That was the year he went to Vietnam on a whim, at age 23, hoping to write "something" about the war. On the basis of that trip, and another in 1967, he wrote two book-length articles for The New Yorker that were later published as The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half.

I wasn't very political in college but I do remember noticing that this Vietnam War seemed to be a sort of unsolvable problem. At the time, I didn't see how we could pull out and I suppose I bought into the domino theory. But I didn't see how we could win. It just looked bad. When I graduated from college in 1965, I went to Japan to study and spend a year abroad. On the way back from Japan I had a round-the-world ticket that permitted me to stop anywhere I wanted. I had a certain ambition to be a writer of factual pieces so I decided I would go to Vietnam. I remember reading Bernard Fall's latest book on the plane, which was my little crash education. When I landed in Vietnam I was the very definition of a pest—a graduate student who had no knowledge and who vaguely thought he might like to write something.

Somehow or other it occurred to me that François Sully might be in Vietnam working for Newsweek. He was a French reporter I'd met at Harvard when he was a Nieman Fellow so I called up the Newsweek office and, lo and behold, he was there and invited me over.

It was a loft-like office with a back room full of the pseudo-military gear that journalists wore. When I greeted Sully I had Bernard Fall's book under my arm and mentioned that I had been reading it. There was another fellow at a desk who said, "Could I see the book?" So I went over and gave him the book.

He opened it up and signed it. It was Bernard Fall!

So here were these two ebullient, life-loving Frenchmen, brave and brilliant journalists, both. And just out of sheer high spirits, they took me up—this nuisance, this pest, this ignorant graduate student. They used their connections to perform a kind of miracle. They persuaded the military to give me a press pass on the somewhat deceptive basis that I was there for the Harvard Crimson. I had actually written for the Crimson, and very possibly they would have wanted me reporting for them, but we made up that little tale.

Well, if you had a press pass in Vietnam, it was a free travel ticket all over the country. You could hitchhike rides on helicopters and transport planes, wherever you wanted. It was a meal ticket. It was a hotel reservation anywhere. It gave a fantastic freedom to see what you wanted to see. I think the reason was the cooperation between the press and the military during the Second World War, and the Korean War had carried over for a while to Vietnam. So just a day or two later Fall and Sully called me up at my ratty hotel and said, "Something is going to happen. It's all secret, but you can go and see it if you want. Come over to such-and-such a place at four-thirty A.M. and there'll be a bus." These two wonderful journalists, both of whom later lost their lives in the war, gave me this one-hundred-and-eighty-degree life-changing gift, which set me on the journalistic path I've been on ever since.

We got on a bus and were taken out to an airstrip where we were flown off in a C-5 to a big dusty field in the jungle. A spiffy major with an easel told us we were there for Operation Cedar Falls—the largest military operation of the war to that date. The idea was to clear out the infamous Iron Triangle [a 40-square-mile patch of jungle with its southernmost tip just a dozen miles north of Saigon], which had been the source of so much woe for the South Vietnamese army and a revolutionary stronghold since the war against the French. The American military wanted to clear it out once and for all. On the major's easel there was a great menu of things they were going to do. One of the items on the list was a helicopter attack on the village of Ben Suc. When we got to that item on the list, I asked, "What's going to happen to the village after it's attacked?" The major said, "Well, we're going to destroy it and move the people out."

"Then what?" I said.

"Well, we're going to bulldoze it and bomb it."

So I thought, okay, I'll just follow that particular story from start to finish. It didn't feel like a singularly adventurous or bold thing to do. And I do recall one little act of cowardice. When they asked which of the 60 helicopters we wanted to go on, many of the journalists were clamoring to be on the first or second helicopter. I was delighted to be on helicopter number 47. You could say that the operation came off beautifully. It worked exactly as planned. The helicopters flew in, moved the people out, destroyed the village. Mission accomplished. But to what end? Most of the reporting about Operation Cedar Falls told you how many Viet Cong were captured or killed, and those may have been true facts. But they left out what I believed was fundamental—that we were destroying villages and throwing people off their land.

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