DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Jonathan Schell and the fate of the Earth
By Tom Engelhardt
"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 had 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.
Click here, then, for 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 is editor of Tomdispatch and the
author of The End of Victory Culture. His novel, The Last
Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.