[Note to Tomdispatch Readers: This is the fourteenth in a series of interviews at the site. The last of these was “American Fundamentalisms” with James Carroll. The previous 12 were collected in the book, Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters.]
Trying to Dispel a Mist with a Machine Gun
A Tomdispatch Interview with Jonathan Schell
Enter his small office at the Nation Institute only if you don’t mind experiencing a slightly vertiginous feeling. Books are everywhere — in boxes on the floor, on every surface, in, along, and perilously stacked above shelves. If you took a wrong step, you could at least imagine disappearing in a tsunami of tumbling books. “That’s my Hannah Arendt pile up there,” he says, gesturing toward a shelf I’m examining. He’s sitting at his desk, his legs up and an iMac perched on his knees. Even here, he wears a jacket — black corduroy in this case – a blue button-down shirt, grey slacks, and on his feet the leather shoes of a man who has yet to enter the all-comfort Age of Nike. Glasses are perched on his nose and his face, when he looks up, is welcoming and well-lived in.
Only the titles of the books scattered everywhere hint at the less than mild-mannered reality of his life: Living with the Bomb, Empire, The Next War, Savage Dreams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The United States and the Legacy of the Vietnam War, and — all in Japanese characters but for a single word in English — Hiroshima. It’s hard to believe that this modest-looking man once rode in a forward air controller’s small plane in Vietnam, surveying the wholesale destruction of two provinces for what became his 1968 book, The Military Half, or that his 1982 bestselling book on the nuclear conundrum, The Fate of the Earth, was one of the sparks for the greatest anti-nuclear movement of our — or any other — lifetime. In one way or another in those days, he jostled with millions of demonstrators and activists; most of the time since, while writing for the New Yorker, then Newsday, and now the Nation, he has remained a ! largely one-man campaign against nuclear annihilation and nuclear “forgetfulness,” as well as for the abolition of such weapons from the fateful face of our Earth.
Several days after the publication of his latest nuclear book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, at a moment when the Bush administration, long focused on nuclear weapons, fictional and real, was up to its ears in a potential nuclear crisis involving Pakistan, we sit down in the conference room of the Nation Institute, where he is a Fellow (as am I). With two cheap tape recorders rolling and Tam Turse, the official photographer of this site, snapping photos, we begin to explore the mysteries of the nuclear crisis — and conundrum — that has occupied much of his life and threatened the planet for the last 62 years. He speaks with emphasis, but in a measured way, stopping from time to time to carefully consider his answers.
Tomdispatch: So, take us on a little tour of our world in terms of nuclear weapons.
Jonathan Schell: The way I think of it, in the Cold War, the nuclear age was in a sort of adolescence. Just a two-power or, at most, a five- or six-sided affair. Now, it’s in its prime. We already have nine nuclear powers, with lots of aspirers to the club waiting in the wings. The nuclear weapon is fulfilling its destiny, which was known from the very beginning of the nuclear age: to be available to all who wanted it, whether or not they choose to actually build the thing.