The Bankruptcy of Violence

Jonathan Schell reviews the history of human warfare and concludes that raw power is no longer sufficient to change and rule the world, if indeed it ever was.

click to enlarge The Bankruptcy of Violence - Martha Stewart/Metropolian Books
Martha Stewart/Metropolian Books
The Bankruptcy of Violence

In 1982, Jonathan Schell wrote The Fate of the Earth, a bestseller about the grim realities of nuclear proliferation that galvanized millions of readers and became a cornerstone of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

He has published nearly a dozen books in the years before and after The Fate of the Earth, but with his newest book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, Schell may again have the chance to spark another national conversation, this time about the growing dangers of military power and the need for nonviolent solutions to geopolitical conflicts.

To write a book about nonviolence at a time when the U.S. government is increasingly at war with the world takes a rare sort of intellectual bravery. But Schell, who spent more than a decade researching and writing the book, pulls no punches. "In a steadily and irreversibly widening sphere, violence, always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument," he writes.

As it happens, I met Schell recently in Barcelona where, with seven other progressive American journalists, we were panelists at a conference in honor of World Press Freedom Day. We were a diverse, lively group, our political views ranging from the moderate Tina Rosenberg of The New York Times to the radical Robert Jensen from the University of Austin.

The Unconquerable World came out the day after Schell arrived in Barcelona and was promptly reviewed, and as he said, "savaged" in The New York Times. Schell took this disappointment with equanimity; I got the sense that his is a deeply attentive nature no matter what his surroundings or situation. There amid the fantastic whimsy of Gaudi's Barcelona, the Catalans — who had declared their passionate opposition to the war on Iraq at a 1.3-million-person peace march in February down the broad tree-lined Rambla Catalyuna — put us all at ease.

He gave me a copy of the book and I began reading it on the long flight back to the States. It's a searching, eloquent inquiry into war and the nonviolent movements that have grown up alongside war, as well as their champions, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Woodrow Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

Recently, Schell came through San Francisco and we met to talk about his book and how it was being received. "What's been very happy for me," he said, "is that as I've gone around the country, in the community of opposition I've had very warm and encouraging responses and this is hugely meaningful to me. I feel that if this can happen then I'm reaching the people I want to reach."

Question: In your introduction you say that it's the business of your book to describe changes that, even as they have made our world more perilous, have made the chance for world peace greater than ever before. Can you summarize?

Jonathan Schell: I try to trace two long, parallel and interconnected developments. The first is the fantastic increase and growth in the means of violence and warfare that extend really from gunpowder right down to nuclear weapons — which are a true turning point in the history of warfare, because in effect they make it impossible. Victory and defeat are ruled out and it just turns into mutually assured destruction for all, as they said during the Cold War.

I trace that development, which leads to the edge of the annihilation of the human species.

And as part of that you also find that there's a transformation of warfare that's occurring at what you might call the root level of warfare, which is the "people's war." And people's war turns out to be a means whereby militarily and technically and economically weak countries can defeat the great powers of the 20th century. And not just once or twice but absolutely uniformly. So it's a kind of amazing and unexpected development because in conventional warfare you're always taught that the superior military force wins. But in people's war, the superior military force loses, consistently.

Like in Vietnam?

Vietnam, the Chinese revolution, and in fact, at the end of the day, all of the empires of the 20th century, save one — the one we're sitting in — are gone! They bit the dust. So that's all one huge line of development, which is a very profound transformation in the nature of war. It doesn't mean war is impossible, because you see Iraq, and there are plenty of wars in the world, but they tend to become these wars that go on within countries, like in Rwanda, or Sri Lanka or in the Sudan, almost quasi civil wars or inter-ethnic struggles like Yugoslavia.