In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell

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

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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.

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 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.

The unmistakable fact was that the general population despised the United States and if they hadn’t despised it before we arrived, they soon did after we destroyed their villages. Our whole goal was to build up a political system that would stand after we left, with a functioning government supported enough by its people so it could fight on its own. But our policies were destroying whatever support that government might ever have had, which was probably about zero to begin with. The more we’d win on the battlefield—and we did just about every day in just about every battle—the more we lost the political war.

The more we “won,” the more we lost. That was the paradox of Vietnam. American soldiers went over thinking they were freeing an enslaved people from their oppressors. I do think the Communists were pretty oppressive. However, it just so happened that they were the representatives of national dignity and that seemed to trump whatever oppression they dealt out. Whatever the reason, the people by and large supported them and they were the de facto government of a very considerable part of South Vietnam. So the idea that the Viet Cong were a sort of mysterious band of people that could be rooted out and separated from the population at large just didn’t have a basis in political reality.

One thing that struck me very powerfully was the capacity of both the officer corps and the press corps to see things in terms of a story they had brought with them to Vietnam and not to see what was actually going on under their noses. For example, when I came back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967 I went up to Quang Ngai Province and saw that the place was being leveled by American bombing. But when I got home, I remember reading a story in the New York Times about how the marines had built a hospital in this area. Apparently the Hiroshima-like devastation that was around that hospital was not visible to the reporters of the New York Times because they weren’t telling about that.

And it wasn’t a subtle thing. The fire and smoke was pouring up to the heavens. You didn’t have to be a detective or do any investigative journalism. The flames were roaring around you. I mapped it all out and seventy, eighty percent of the villages were just dust—ashes and dust. But that was not the story. The story was still how we were going to help the South Vietnamese resist the attack from the North. In Vietnam I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.

When I first went back to Vietnam that summer I joined the journalistic pack, the “boys on the bus.” What they were covering at the time was this fraudulent election, a completely farcical election. One day we were all taken to a village for a campaign rally, but the candidates somehow didn’t make it. Apart from the journalists, the only person who showed up was an ancient guy going around with a bullhorn shouting that there was going to be an election rally. This was supposed to be democracy in action and we were the only people there.

To report on that as if it was something real would have been absolutely absurd so I just took the next helicopter out and somehow decided to begin covering the air war in the South—the air slaughter, really. People had been writing about the bombing of North Vietnam, but the air war in the South was far more devastating and not getting much attention.

So in Quang Ngai I started going up in forward air control (FAC) planes—little Cessna two-seater spotter planes that would direct the pilots to their targets. These little planes were constantly turning and twisting, in part to avoid enemy ground fire. That and the overwhelming heat made me constantly nauseous. But I had my notebook right there in the plane and the setup was unbelievably perfect for reporting. It was as if it had been designed for reporting. It gave you this fantastic perch. You could sit over the scene of the action, witness it, and you were conveniently supplied with earphones in which you heard conversations among the pilots, the forward air controller, and the ground. The quotes were coming right into the earphones and I wrote them down as if it were a lecture at Harvard. It was an amazing stroke of journalistic luck.

The idea that the US military was operating under constraints in South Vietnam is ridiculous. We pulverized villages from the air if we merely imagined that we received hostile fire. I witnessed it with my own eyes and I saw the leaflets we dropped which said, “If you fire on us, we will destroy your village,” and then a follow-up leaflet that said, “You did fire on us, and we did destroy your village.” And US planes were actually bombing churches. They would see the church, target it, and blow it up. I saw that happen.

And sometimes they cracked jokes about it. They were trying to imagine that the war was something like World War II. When you were in the air you could try to forget about all the paradoxes of policy that made your very successes counterproductive. But I sensed a deep uneasiness and regret among the pilots. They sometimes sang rather brutal ditties that seemed to me like confessions in a way:

“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”

I wasn’t inclined to blame the people doing it so much as the people ordering it. I got along well with the soldiers and their officers. I liked them very much. Maybe that was a defensive thing. It would have been very uncomfortable for me to be in a position of feeling fury at the people doing it. Those are deep questions. You know, just following orders is no excuse. These were atrocities—bombing villages from the air, just pulverizing houses, attacking people on the basis of little or no information. And there was this absurd supposition that if someone ran away from your attack, they automatically belonged to the Viet Cong.

It was a massacre from the air that was going on every day and I was a part of it in a way. I was kind of doing it. That was the feeling. The FACs were equipped with phosphorous rockets. They were used as markers for the bombers, but phosphorous rockets are particularly horrifying weapons—worse than napalm. It’s something that burns that you can’t put out. The rocket would blow up the house and then people would run out. I was witnessing from a distance, but I had a real feeling of complicity. I mean I didn’t push the button, but I was there.

When I got back from Vietnam I met Jerry Wiesner, provost of MIT and a friend of my parents. He had been Kennedy’s science adviser and knew Secretary of Defense McNamara. We had lunch and when I told him about what I’d seen in Vietnam he said, “Would you be willing to go and talk to McNamara about this?” I said, “Yeah, sure,” and the meeting was arranged. So I went down to the Pentagon, where I’d never set foot, and was ushered into the secretary of defense’s office. It’s the size of a football field—a proper imperial size. And there was McNamara, all business as usual, with that slicked-back hair of steel. I began to tell my story and he said, “Come over to the map here and show me what you’re talking about.”

Well, I truly had my ducks in a row. I had overflown the entire province of Quang Ngai and half of Quang Tin. And so I really had chapter and verse. After a while he interrupted and asked, “Do you have anything in writing?” I said, “Yes, but it’s all in longhand.” So he said, “Well, I’ll put you in General so-and-so’s office—he’s off in South America—and you can dictate it.” And so for three days I sat in the general’s office dictating my longhand, book-length New Yorker article on the air war in South Vietnam. Up from the bowels of the Pentagon would come typed copy. It was a dream for me, probably saving me a month’s work because this was long before word processors.

Three days later, stinking to high heaven because I had no change of clothes, I reappeared in McNamara’s office. I handed it to him, he took it, and that was the last I heard about it from him. But I learned later that a foreign service officer in Saigon was sent around Vietnam to retrace my steps and re-interview the pilots and the soldiers I had quoted. He even read back to the pilots the gruesome ditties they had sung for me at the bar. The foreign service officer had to admit that my book was accurate but he added, “What Schell doesn’t realize is what terrible circumstances our troops are in. He doesn’t realize that old ladies and children are throwing hand grenades because the people are against us.” Hence, the Vietnam War makes sense because the South Vietnamese are against us!

So why couldn’t we get out? When it became clear that the costs were so much greater than anything at stake on the ground in Vietnam itself, then why couldn’t we just withdraw? None of the official war aims made much sense. It was hard to maintain that we were fighting for freedom or democracy in South Vietnam since the government we were defending was so obviously corrupt and dictatorial. Nor could we honestly claim to be preventing aggression when the only foreign combatants in Vietnam were Americans or soldiers paid for by the United States like the South Koreans. Even the domino theory seemed to fall apart in the face of intense nationalism, support for reunification throughout Vietnam, and the historical conflicts between Vietnam and China.

But the one justification that proved most durable was this idea of credibility. Fighting for American credibility was not a tangible goal; it was the defense of an image—an image of vast national strength and the will to use it. According to the doctrine of credibility, the United States was engaged in a global public-relations struggle in which a reverse in any part of the world, no matter how small, could undermine the whole structure of American power.

Part of the concern with maintaining credibility stemmed from a kind of psychological domino theory. In other words, policy makers worried that if the United States did not prevail in Vietnam, it would cast doubt on our determination to prevail anywhere. If the United States lost in Vietnam, then countries and revolutionaries all over the world would see that we were a paper tiger who couldn’t win wars and they would be emboldened to resist our will. So what was at stake in Vietnam was the ability of the United States to maintain control all over the world on a psychological basis.

But there was another component of the doctrine of credibility that is in a way the most subtle and the least noticed, but I think the most important. It was nuclear policy. In nuclear strategy one of the crucial facts is that you can’t actually fight a nuclear war. The moment that you fight the war you’ve lost it because everybody loses in a nuclear war. The purpose of deterrence is to prevent a nuclear war from happening. It depends entirely on producing a psychological impression in the mind of the enemy that you are a very tough guy—so tough you’re ready to commit suicide and drag the enemy down with you.

Well that is a kind of crazy proposition. It doesn’t have a lot of inherent credibility. Why would you commit suicide to defend yourself? So it’s a real strain to keep producing an impression of toughness. All you could do in the arena of nuclear confrontation was build up your arms and talk tough. You couldn’t prove your toughness by actually using the weapons. ‘Round about the end of the 1950s there were a number of thinkers, including Henry Kissinger, who began to say, well, okay, we’re paralyzed in the nuclear arena, but we can go out and win a few on the periphery. Here’s a place where we can actually fight wars and show how tough we are. At the same time [Soviet Premier] Khrushchev began to talk about the necessity of fighting wars of national liberation in the Third World so the Soviets were making their own contribution to the rhetorical battle. Thus, the model for Vietnam was actually created before we ever went directly into that war. Because the so-called peripheral wars were supposedly winnable, and since they occurred in a context of a very shaky credibility based on nuclear weapons that you couldn’t use, these limited wars came to bear an additional burden.

It was as if World War III were being fought in Vietnam. In the nuclear age, the whole structure of credibility and deterrence seemed to depend on winning these wars out there on the periphery. This was the sort of theoretical trap that the policy makers found themselves in. They thought they were not only preventing the toppling of dominoes but total war itself. And if you believed the assumptions, then almost no cost was too high to pay in Vietnam.

The above interview is from Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian Appy, copyright (c) 2003 by Christian G. Appy. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

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