'Hell on earth'

In The Unconquerable World, Jonathan Schell decries war as a political tool

By Howard Zinn, 7/13/2003

In the year 1967, the fog of official lies surrounding the war in Vietnam was beginning to lift. One of the critical pieces of war literature that year was a small book, ''The Village of Ben Suc,'' by Jonathan Schell. In it the reader could see, up close, in all its horrors, the reality behind the official rhetoric about ''stopping communism.'' A peasant village was invaded, its inhabitants terrorized, its huts set afire, by the soldiers of the world's greatest military power. Left dead and mutilated were the most ordinary of people: a man on a bicycle, three people picnicking by the river, terrorized children.

When the war in Vietnam ended, Schell turned to an even more serious subject. His book about the nuclear arms race, ''The Fate of the Earth,'' was a clang of alarm. It became a bestseller and helped fuel a national movement for a freeze on the building of nuclear weapons.

Our government has just bombed and taken over the already devastated country of Iraq. Important people speak pridefully of our great victory. Schell is leaving it to others to write about the human reality behind that victory, about the Ben Sucs of Iraq, about the terror of the air campaign, the dead civilians, the mutilated children, often unreported in our press.

He wants to step back, very far back, from those scenes, mesmerizing as they are, and ask a crucial, troubling question: Of what value is this military power with which we have become so infatuated? And has its wild, uncontrolled development become so dangerous that we must, with whatever leap of imagination this requires, find a way other than war to solve our problems?

In ''The Unconquerable World,'' Schell leads us through his argument (not an analysis, which is passive, but an argument, loaded with energy) using an impressive backing of political theory and history. He begins with the 19th-century German theoretician of war Carl von Clausewitz, whose most famous idea has come down to us as '' War is the continuation of politics by other means.''

He draws out the full implications of this: that while war is presumably a means, and politics its end, the logic of war has developed a momentum of its own. This was epitomized by the absurdity of the First World War, in which any possible political objectives became lost in the mobilization of mass armies, the horrors of trench warfare, the new phenomena of ''shell shock'' and poison gas, and the deaths of 10 million soldiers.

With the possession of nuclear weapons, this disjunction between the logic of war and the logic of politics became total. What possible political objective could justify a nuclear war that would kill several hundred million people, at the least, and leave, as Khrushchev once said, the survivors envying the dead?

There was a nuclear stalemate between the two great powers. But it did not bring peace, for the survival of the human race still hung from a fragile thread. And large-scale violence below the level of nuclear war continued, in wars between states (Iran and Iraq), civil wars (Nigeria, Rwanda), and imperial wars (the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Indonesia in East Timor).

It continues today, with the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, billed as a ''war on terrorism,'' but revealed more clearly in the official document ''National Security Strategy of the U.S.A.'' That document declares that the United States must maintain unchallenged military supremacy in the world, and reserve the right to make preemptive strikes on other nations.

The huge task that Schell undertakes in this book is to convince us that the era of massive violence can be brought to an end.

Violence, he says, ''always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument. Increasingly, it destroys the ends for which it is employed, killing the user as well as his victim. It has become the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth.''

It is a mistake, he says, to think that violence conveys power. Nonviolent action can be a greater power, and there is history (much of it overlooked) to demonstrate that. The epic revolutions of modern times - in America, France, and Russia - actually accomplished their goals with little bloodshed and only later became immersed in violence.

He cites the overthrow of repressive governments, during the 1970s and 1980s, in Greece, Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, South Africa, and the extraordinary fall of Soviet power in Russia and Eastern Europe. In these and other cases, it was people power, not military power, that was crucial.

Nonviolent action is not utopian - it is practical as well as moral. It builds on what already exists. It starts not with change in government, but with civil society, with the hearts and minds of people. The people can bypass the government and tackle social problems themselves.

Violence by its nature is instigated by elites. Nonviolence requires the commitment and cooperation of masses of people. It is by its nature democratic. Schell, in this profoundly important book, wants us to begin thinking about how we can use democracy - the actions of people, rather than governments - to bring about a peaceful world.

Howard Zinn is the author of ''A People's History of the United States.''

The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

By Jonathan Schell

Metropolitan, 433 pp., $27.50

This story ran on page H8 of the Boston Globe on 7/13/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.