April 17, 2014–Back in the bad old days of Vietnam, when General William C. Westmoreland was running the war, he was intensely focused on what people were saying and writing about the conflict. If you looked at Westy’s personal papers–this was a general who every day was flitting all over South Vietnam and rarely got up and went to bed in the same place–you’d see so many press clippings that the only logical conclusion would be that the general had a platoon of privates clipping the newspapers and magazines for him at headquarters.
Some war correspondents irked Westmoreland tremendously. Jonathan Schell became one such burr under Westy’s saddle. Schell’s work, first in The New Yorker and then in books, proved quite influential. The reporter travelled Vietnam as did Westy, but he spent more time in the places he visited and stopped to smell the napalm. Quite literally. One of Schell’s pieces, expanded into the 1968 book The Military Half, discussed how the armed services, bloated with bureaucracy, wedded to formulas, and with narrow concepts of their methods, were mindlessly blowing up the land. A passage that sticks in mind is where Schell described riding in the back seat of a spotter plane while the pilot glibly called in air strikes on targets that, going at a few hundreds of miles an hour, he could hardly see. If memory serves right, General Westmoreland demanded to know who had let the journalist onto a forward observer plane, and set a posse of spin doctors to work countering Schell’s observations.
Schell’s first book–also an article originally–gave the lie to “population resettlement” as a pacification technique that aimed to win the hearts and minds of South Vietnamese. On an operation north of Saigon Schell described in graphic detail how a U.S. infantry battalion–one commanded by then-Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr.–had gone into the village, plowed everything up, destroyed the place, and carried off the villagers so quickly they hardly had time to pack belongings and gather their livestock. The Village of Ben Suc (1967) was powerful, strong enough that there were attempts to counter it too. The main objection was that Ben Suc lay in a National Liberation Front stronghold area, with the implication the villagers were all enemy anyway. The Colonel Tinyminds of Westy’s PR machine apparently did not stop to think through the issue. If pacification meant anything, it was that the counterinsurgency mavens ought to be making extra efforts to win the loyalties of peasants in the enemy zone, and the way to do that was hardly by destroying their homes. Schell had fingered a key weakness, since military methods hardly differed between this village in enemy territory and others in contested zones.
By the 1980s Jonathan Schell had moved on to grapple with the horror of impending nuclear war, and his book The Fate of the Earth (1982), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, became a mainstay of the nuclear freeze movement. It served as a searing indictment of the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Schell’s contribution was probably responsible singlehandedly–with its treatment of the dangers of automaticity in nuclear attack plans and its invocation of the dangers of nuclear winter–for thousands of people changing their minds on this critical issue.
When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Jonathan Schell stood among those who opposed a war that turned out to be every bit as stupid as they feared. The blood and treasure squandered in Iraq are monumental, and opponents of that intervention deserve honor.
We lose good people every day. Jonathan Schell was a great one. We’re sorry to see him go.