Before I met Jonathan Schell, I already knew him in the best way possible: on the page. Even in his days as a neophyte journalist in Vietnam, he committed a writer’s greatest act of generosity. First in the pages of The New Yorker, and then in his books, he took readers to places most of us never could have gone on our own — to The Village of Ben Suc, for instance, as American troops cleared it of its 3,500 peasant inhabitants and destroyed it in what was, in 1967, the largest military operation of the Vietnam War to date; and, not so long after, in The Military Half — from the back seats of tiny Forward Air Control planes — to two South Vietnamese provinces where Americans were wreaking utter havoc. (In that book, he offered a still-unmatched journalistic vision of what war looks like, up close and personal, from the air.) In the 1970s, in The Time of Illusion, he would seat us all front-row center at the great Constitutional crisis that preceded our present one, the Nixonian near coup d’état that we now call "Watergate."
In The Unconquerable World (for which I was the editor), looking back from a new century, he considered several hundred years of growing state violence that culminated in a single weapon capable of destroying all before it — and the various paths, violent and nonviolent, by which the people of this planet refused to heed the wishes of a seemingly endless series of putative imperial masters. I needed to know no more to feel sure, in March 2003, that the shock-and-awe fantasies of the Bush administration would be just that. In other words, he made me seem prophetic at Tomdispatch.
But if one subject has been his, it’s been the nuclear issue. Like me, he came into this world more or less with the Bomb (a word which, back when it represented the only world-destroying thing around, we tended to capitalize) and its exterminatory possibilities have never left his thoughts. In his bestselling The Fate of the Earth, as the 1980s began (and an antinuclear movement grew), he approached the subject in print, beginning famously: "Since July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated, at the Trinity test site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, mankind has lived with nuclear weapons in its midst." And so, sadly, we continue to do, despite his best efforts. He returned to the subject (when critics claimed he had no "solution" to the nuclear conundrum he had so vividly laid out) in The Abolition in 1984, and again in the post-Cold War 1990s, in The Gift of Time, The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, when the vast arsenals of the two superpowers were still sitting there like great unmentionable embarrassments, mission-less and yet going nowhere fast. (It was, of course, a time when people largely preferred to pretend that the nuclear danger was a thing of the past.)
Now 62 years old, the bomb (which, long ago, lost its capital B) is no longer an embarrassment, no longer mission-less. The old Cold War arsenals are being updated; possession of the weaponry has spread; and the Bush administration, which drove the American people to war partly with nuclear fantasies, has made such weapons, whether real or imagined, the heart and soul of its imperial policies — and again, there is a Jonathan Schell book to guide us. Think of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger as a brilliant intervention, an essential guidebook to a world gone mad in a new way.
It begins: "The nuclear age has entered its seventh decade. If it were a person, it would be thinking about retirement — reckoning up its pension funds, weighing different medical plans. But historical periods, unlike human lives, have no fixed limit, and the nuclear age is in fact displaying youthful vigor." It is officially published today and what a moment to enter the world–just as the Bush (are-you-with-us-or-against-us) has collapsed in nuclear-armed Pakistan, having already (as Schell writes in his most recent piece) "stoked the nuclear fires it was meant to quench."