Remembering Jonathan Schell: 1943-2014

Jonathan Schell, The Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent for nearly two decades, was an extraordinary colleague, reporter, writer and thinker. It is difficult to imagine The Nation without his thoughtful, humane and powerful voice. I will miss him.

The power and persuasiveness of so much of Jonathan's work came not only from his elegant style, clarity of analysis and powerful logic but also in the enduring belief that there is no idea so powerful as a moral one. In a special 1998 Nation issue making the case for nuclear abolition, he compelled us to confront the nuclear peril in which we all find ourselves, and he brilliantly laid out the argument that there exists a viable and desirable alternative to continued reliance on war and nuclear weapons. On the nuclear crisis, no voice was as clear, no writing as perceptive as Jonathan’s, going back to his acclaimed 1982 book The Fate of the Earth and his articles in The Nation and in other publications.

In the days after September 11, and in the weeks running up to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, Jonathan was one of the most thoughtful, reflective and independently critical voices to emerge in a media landscape filled with calls for war and vengeance. His weekly column, "Letter from Ground Zero," launched just hours after 9/11, was a remarkable chronicle of those charged times. Never losing his bearings, as so many others did, Jonathan used the column to unwaveringly advance the case for sensible and moral non-military actions.

In his February 2003 essay, “The Case Against The War,” Jonathan mounted an impassioned and historically informed argument against a war that is now almost universally understood to have been a disaster. And in an unsigned "Open Letter to Congress" (which Jonathan wrote) published on the cover of The Nation in October 2002, just as the fog of war and national security fully enveloped the Congress and media, Jonathan invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A time has come when silence is betrayal...The case against the war is simple, clear and strong.” And in themes that came with his years of reporting on war and violence and military debacle—Vietnam was a journalistic crucible for him—Jonathan sounded the alarm: “As disrespectful of the Constitution as it is of the UN Charter, the Administration has turned away from law in all its manifestations, and placed its reliance on overwhelming force to achieve its ends. In pursuit of empire, it endangers the Republic at home....Members of Congress! Be faithful to your oaths of office and to the traditions of your branch of government. Think of the country, not of your reelection. Defend the Constitution. Affirm the Republic. Preserve the Peace. Vote against the war in Iraq.”

They did not heed his counsel.

Yet Jonathan's outlook was never bitter, cynical or angry about the state of our country or the world. He was more the citizen-philosopher who believed his readers would find their way if they had all the information necessary to deduce the answer.

A day hasn't gone by in these last months, when Jonathan was too ill to write, that I haven't wanted to talk to him, sit and riff—a term he once told me best described the style and pace of our talks--about all sorts of ideas and stories he might do. I cherished our many conversations over these last 20 years—ones often held during fraught moments when Jonathan was the ideal interlocutor.

Jonathan once told me he valued the freedom The Nation accorded its writers. We will forever value Jonathan for the freedom he argued for—and ceaselessly supported with his words and actions. We present a selection of Jonathan's work for The Nation below.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

A Hole in the World, September 13, 2001
On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline. In my neighborhood—I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center—the heavens were raining human beings. Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever.

 

Letter From Ground Zero: September 27, 2001
Of course there can be no such thing as a literal letter from ground zero—neither from the ground zeros of September 11 nor from the potential nuclear ground zero that is the origin of the expression. There are no letters from the beyond....

Letter From Ground Zero: October 4, 2001
On September 1, 1939, Hitler's armies rolled across the western border of Poland. On September 3, England and France declared war on Germany. But the two great powers, unable to intervene in strength in Poland, did not take action right away. A lull—"prolonged and oppressive," in Churchill's words—followed. The "phony war," as many called it, had begun....

Letter From Ground Zero: October 11, 2001
One month after September 11, ground zero—six blocks from where I live—remains unquiet. Inextinguishable subterranean fires belch smoke into the neighborhood, as if the ruin were an active volcano, spreading a stench whose source we do not care to think about. The global crisis set in motion by the attack has been active, too. In its fourth week, two major eruptions occurred: the beginning of the Anglo-American war on Afghanistan and the outbreak of anthrax in Florida....

Letter From Ground Zero: October 18, 2001
The horrors that have been sprung upon the world since September 11 have come with a rapidity that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the imagination to respond, not to speak of the capacity of governments to frame policies that make sense.

Letter From Ground Zero: October 25, 2001
As the conflict that began on September 11 heads into its sixth week, two clouds of danger hang over its two battlefields, the United States and Afghanistan. In the United States the danger is bioterrorism, represented by the attacks on the news media and the federal government by means of anthrax sent in the mail. In Afghanistan it is starvation, which, according to the United Nations and private relief agencies, could claim hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives if the flow of international aid, now disrupted both by the war and by interference from the Taliban regime, is not dispatched into the country before the onset of winter...

Letter From Ground Zero: November 1, 2001
Hawk and dove agree: The war in Afghanistan is not going well. Hawks point to the resilience of the Taliban, which has "surprised" Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem by not collapsing yet. Doves point to the suffering of the civilian population, who face American bombing, Taliban repression and the prospect of mass starvation all at the same time. The problem goes deeper, however, than the unexpected toughness of the foe and stray bombs. It lies in an underlying contradiction in US policy....

    • Katrina vanden Heuvel
    • Katrina vanden Heuvel has been the editor of The Nation magazine since 1995. She is the coeditor of Taking Back America and Voices of Glasnost, and editor of The Best of the Nation and A Just Reponse. She is a frequent commentator on MSNBC, CNN, and PBS. Her articles have appeared in the Los A...

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