The Unconquerable World
Power, Non-Violence and the Will of the People
Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Non-Violence and the Will of the People, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2003, pp. 443.
This is Jonathan Schell's most ambitious book. It is an elegant, extended essay that argues essentially that modern war is obsolete. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Schell, best known for his 1980s cri de coeur against nuclear war, The Fate of the Earth, points out persuasively that winning the hearts and minds of the people, building civic structures, has usually been the force that wins battles, even before the first shot is fired.
Although Schell discusses Gandhi and Tolstoy at some length, this is not a pacifist book and that gives The Unconquerable World much of its rhetorical strength. Schell does not start out with a fixed belief against any use of force or violence. Instead he argues against its power and importance. He begins with Virgil's often quoted "of arms and the man I sing" as one of the roots of the Western world's militarist tradition and the reigning paradigm in government and political science circles that force and war are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs. Schell recognizes the appeal and apparent success record of this world view, but believes passionately that it is both wrong and dangerous.
In this approach, he is like historian Howard Zinn, a former World War II bomber pilot, who argues from a non-pacifist view that Hitler was evil, but that World War II as it was conducted, unleashed slaughter and long-term consequences such as strategic bombing, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War that could have and should have been avoided by alternative policies.
This is, of course, a difficult and often unpopular approach, but Schell profitably uses a number of cases to make his point. After a somewhat needlessly complex opening section on Clausewitz and the true meaning of his famous view that war is the extension of politics by other means, Schell settles into some pretty interesting stuff. He quotes John Adams, for example, to marvelous effect, on how the American Revolution was won in the hearts and minds of Americans well before the "shot heard round the world." Historians will misunderstand things, asserts Adams, who was there, if they focus on the military history of the Revolution. Instead, they should look to the committees of correspondence, to the growing sense of nationhood, and to alternative political structures that sprang up apart from and despite the British.
This idea is repeated in Schell's discussion of how the French Revolution was won, including the fact that the Bastille was actually surrendered, not stormed; that Gandhi drove off the British empire without violence; and that one of the most heavily armed empires of all time, the Soviet Union, collapsed without violent revolution. In fact, in modern times, the end of the Soviet Union is a watershed event for Schell and a key piece of his argument. Here he draws on thinkers and actors like Adam Michnik and Vaclev Havel who demonstrate the power of refusing to succumb to the purported superior force of totalitarianism, nuclear weapons and war. Instead they live their lives and create alternative intellectual and civil circles as if they are and will be free. For those of us in the United States, Schell is arguing that building movements, NGOs, and intellectual and political resistance to the reigning notions of power and the Pentagon is what really matters.
Obviously, this is an idea with tremendous appeal to groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility who have opposed nuclear weapons, Bush's Iraq War, and argued for international norms of global security and health when such notions have been considered, frankly, naïve. So. I like and agree with Jonathan Schell's Unconquerable World. Modern war, with its destructive high tech weapons and nukes, the rigid, often undemocratic structures needed to sustain it, and the lure of empire it carries like a virus, are obsolete. Through a mixture of protest, non-violent resistance, low-tech people's war and resistance, and the ability to create alternative social ideas and structures, those faced with apparently unstoppable violence have ultimately triumphed.
For these reasons, I highly recommend Schell's latest book to those engaged in the long struggle to rid the world of modern war and weapons of mass destruction. But I do fear that The Unconquerable World is, and I hate to say it, best for a limited audience of activist Americans with a taste for intellectual history and political philosophy. Though beautifully written as always, Schell's latest effort is alternately too difficult and dense for the general reader and insufficiently scholarly or focused to persuade or take on scholarly debate in this field. I wish it were not so. Schell is one of our best and most original thinkers and he has reflected long and hard here and come up with insights that deserve huge audiences. In my view, his Time of Illusion, for example, among his many fine books, remains the best and most original understanding of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam era, and the Watergate scandal. Put simply, he roots them all in the need of American Presidents during the Cold War and the nuclear age to risk much for small pieces of empire, to root out dissent at home, and to maintain a face of toughness and unity so that the world will believe, irrationally, that we would indeed risk destruction and use our nuclear weapons if necessary.
This, then, in sum, is really the main point, the lesson if you will, of Schell's latest work. Huge militaries, nuclear weapons, proxy wars-none, in the end, saved the Soviet Union. And, unless altered substantially or abandoned soon, none will help save a once proud and democratic Republic that John Adams and other anti-imperialists founded as the United States of America.
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Page Updated September 20, 2013