Originally published on The New Yorker by David Remnick
In the summer of 1967, The New Yorker published an astonishing piece of reportage from Vietnam called “The Village of Ben Suc.” The author was Jonathan Schell. He was just twenty-four years old. After graduating from Harvard, Schell had studied for a year in Japan, and, on his way home, he flew to Saigon, where he managed to wrangle a press pass under the pretense that he was covering the war for the Harvard Crimson.
“The correspondents there took me under their wing,” Schell told Ben Yagoda for “About Town,” a history of The New Yorker. “Five days after I got to Vietnam, I was told, ‘If you want to see something show up at a bus stop to be taken to the airport strip at 4:30 A.M.’ ”
Armed with his dubious accreditation, Schell went on a forty-eight-helicopter operation west of Saigon. He watched as American and South Vietnamese soldiers raided the village of Ben Suc, rounded up and beat prisoners, and then razed the village out of physical and historical existence. Schell spent only twelve days in Vietnam, which sounds like the brazen act of a journalistic poseur, a war tourist, and yet he proved himself the opposite. His piece, which was thirty-two thousand words long, illustrated in unforgettable detail the senselessness of missions that were supposedly winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, and it remains one of the seminal works from that misbegotten war. Schell wrote with quiet force, concluding:
Faithful to the initial design, Air Force jets sent their bombs down on the deserted ruins, scorching again the burned foundations of the houses and pulverizing for a second time the heaps of rubble, in the hope of collapsing tunnels too deep and well hidden for the bulldozers to crush—as though, having decided to destroy it, we were now bent on annihilating every possible indication that the village of Ben Suc had ever existed.
It was a remarkable piece of reporting and writing, particularly for one so young and so modestly experienced. And, without calling attention to itself, “The Village of Ben Suc” was also a work of moral conscience, a quality that distinguished Schell’s work for the next forty-five years. Schell was an invaluable voice in this country—as an observer, as a writer, as a moralist. Last night, Schell, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1987 and then for The Nation, died of cancer at home in Brooklyn. He was seventy.
Much of Schell’s best work at The New Yorker was unsigned. Working closely with William Shawn, the magazine’s editor, he wrote hundreds of Notes and Comment pieces, particularly in opposition to the war in Vietnam (“a bloody playground for our idealism and our cruelty”) and to the Nixon Administration, especially during the Watergate scandals. Those unsigned pieces, which included a long and rigorous examination of American policy in the wake of the My Lai massacre, were not always received happily by readers or advertisers or, in some cases, colleagues. Just as the Second World War changed the magazine’s tone, Schell pushed its politics. His articles from that era are collected in “The Time of Illusion.”
In the mid-seventies, William Shawn, in a drama that lasted for a decade, began to speak of Schell as his successor. “I know what his judgment and taste are, and I have found them faultless,” Shawn told the staff in a memorandum. “He is an excellent judge of talent, and of people. As for the range of his interests, it is extraordinary. As for his character, his mind, his temperament, I think he has the qualities we have been, or should be, looking for (and I use the following words with precision): warmth and good will, truthfulness, fair-mindedness, self-forgetfulness, humor, imagination, vision, conscience, inner strength, intellectual and emotional depth.”
The succession drama, which has been written about endlessly, was unnerving at times for the magazine, but Schell went on writing prose of remarkable conviction. His greatest political obsession was the argument for the abolition of nuclear weapons. “The Fate of the Earth,” which ran in 1982 as a four-part series in the magazine and was then published as a book, was criticized by some (an “overheated stew of the obvious,” Michael Kinsley wrote), but it quickly became an important text in the anti-nuclear and nuclear-freeze movements. It was notable less for its strategic importance than as a simple yet powerful reawakening of the American public to the sheer danger of nuclear weapons. When the pieces came out in the magazine, Senator Alan Cranston, of California, came to New York to talk with Schell. Afterward, he said, “I accept his thesis that all-out nuclear war could mean the end of the human race. It’s an unprovable thesis, but we can’t afford the experiment.” Schell followed with three more books on the subject: “The Abolition” (1984), “The Gift of Time” (1998), and “The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger” (2007).
When, in 1987, S. I. Newhouse, Jr., the owner of The New Yorker, replaced Shawn with Robert Gottlieb, the staff protested, but very few left the magazine. Jonathan Schell, who was so close to Shawn, was one who did. He moved on, joining The Nation. Even years later, invited to write again for The New Yorker, he politely demurred, saying, “You can’t always come home.” At The Nation, Schell continued to write with his accustomed intelligence and honesty, publishing fierce editorials and articles about the war on terror, the Bush Administration, and the war in Iraq, which he described just last year as “an unbroken record of waste, futility, and shame.”
What follows is an all too brief selection of pieces by an essential political writer, Jonathan Schell:
July 15, 1967 “The Village of Ben Suc.”
June 26, 1971: Comment on the Pentagon Papers.
January 21, 1974: Comment on America’s growing cynicism.
June 2, 1975: “The Time of Illusion,” the first part of a six-part history of the Nixon Administration and the war in Vietnam.
August 21, 1978: Comment on the A.C.L.U.’s defense of a neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois.
February 1, 1982: “The Fate of the Earth: A Republic of Insects and Grass,” the first part of a three-part series about the likely consequences of nuclear war.
May 14, 1984: Comment on the role of “obsession” in American foreign policy.
January 26, 1987: Comment on Iran-Contra.
Photograph: David Shankbone