In a recent TomDispatch introduction, I pointed out that, when it comes to America's wars, you can't afford to be right. I suggested that those who had foreseen disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan should logically be celebrated in this country and "should be in the Rolodexes of every journalist reporting on American foreign policy, the Iran crisis, or our wars." But, I asked, "When was the last time you heard from one of them or saw one spotlighted?"
The interviewee in today's post is a case in point. When it comes to being right, there may be no journalist, analyst, or writer who has been more on target than Jonathan Schell, whether on Vietnam, the Nixon White House (and its early cult of executive power), nuclear weapons, the Afghan War, or the invasion of Iraq. His is a remarkable and remarkably unblemished record. If you want to know what to expect from the latest in American war, who better to go to than the man who was never wrong?
Now that a possible war with Iran is regularly in the news, every week reporters are scrambling to check in with "experts" who couldn't have been more mistaken when it came to the invasion of Iraq. Who else should you ask in Washington, where "wrong" is the ticket to media success, a guarantee that your opinion will have value?
As for right? Well, just how many calls a week do you imagine Jonathan Schell gets from reporters wanting his opinion on the latest in American war.
Of course, give the media credit. Schell's record does have a blemish. He wrote a book called The Unconquerable World (and in a world of full disclosure and with great pride let me add that, in my other life as a book editor, I edited it). As TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll points out today, in that volume Schell essentially foresaw the path that would lead to both Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park, but -- and here's the blemish -- he didn't know that. So when those events unfolded, he was as startled as the rest of us. Still, we at TomDispatch thought it our duty to step out of line, do the unpopular thing, and ask someone who has a record for being right, not wrong, about the present moment and how we got to it. Tom
How Empires Fall (Including the American One)
A TomDispatch Interview With Jonathan Schell
By Andy Kroll
When Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, a meditation on the history and power of nonviolent action, was published in 2003, the timing could not have been worse. Americans were at war -- and success was in the air. U.S. troops had invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad ("mission accomplished") only months earlier, and had already spent more than a year fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schell's book earned a handful of glowing reviews, and then vanished from the public debate as the bombs scorched Iraq and the body count began to mount.
Now, The Unconquerable World's animating message -- that, in the age of nuclear weaponry, nonviolent action is the mightiest of forces, one capable of toppling even the greatest of empires -- has undergone a renaissance of sorts. In December 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor triggered a wave of popular and, in many cases, nonviolent uprisings across the Middle East, felling such autocrats as Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in mere weeks. Occupations, marches, and protests of all sorts spread like brushfire across Europe, from England to Spain to Greece, and later Moscow, and even as far as Madison, Wisconsin. And then, of course, there were the artists, students, and activists who, last September, heard the call to "occupy Wall Street" and ignited a national movement with little more than tents, signs, and voices on a strip of stone and earth in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.
You might say that Schell, a former New Yorker staff writer renowned for his work on nuclear weapons and disarmament (his 1981 book The Fate of the Earth was a best-seller and instant classic), prophesied Occupy and the Arab Spring -- without even knowing it. He admits to being as surprised as anyone about the wave of nonviolent action that swept the world in 2011, but those who had read Unconquerable World would have found themselves uncannily well prepared for the birth of a planet of protest whenever it happened.
That book remains the ideal companion volume for the Occupiers and Egyptian revolutionaries, as well as their Spanish, Russian, Chilean, and other counterparts. Schell traces the birth of nonviolent action to Gandhi's sit-in at Johannesburg's Empire Theater in 1906, and continues through the twentieth century, all the while forcing you to rethink everything you thought you knew about what he calls "the war system" and its limits, as well as protests and rebellions of every sort, and the course of empire.
One afternoon in January, I met Schell, now the Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent, in his office at the Nation Institute, where he's a fellow, a few blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. It was a bright space, and for a writer, surprisingly clean and uncluttered. A Mac laptop sat opened on his desk, as if I'd walked in mid-sentence. Various editions of Schell's books, including his Vietnam War reportage The Village of Ben Suc, were nestled into the bookshelves among titles popular and obscure. I settled into an empty chair next to Schell, who wore a jacket and khakis, and started my recorder. Soft-spoken and articulate, he described the world as elegantly in person as he does in his writing.
Andy Kroll: You've written a lot before on the nuclear problem, and one feels that throughout the book. But The Unconquerable World also stands on its own as something completely original. How did you come to write this book?
Jonathan Schell: It was a long time in the making. The initial germ was born toward the end of the 1980s when I began to notice that the great empires of the world were failing. I'd been a reporter in the Vietnam War, so I'd seen the United States unable to have its way in a small, third world country. A similar sort of thing happened in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union. And then of course, there was the big one, the revolutions in Eastern Europe against the Soviet Union.