September 1, 2015
Tomgram: In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell (1943-2014)
Posted on Mar 31, 2014
By Tom Engelhardt and Chris Appy, TomDispatch
He died on the night of March 25th of a cancer spurred on by an underlying blood condition that just might have been caused by Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant chemical so widely used by U.S. forces in Vietnam. There is, of course, no way of knowing, but the Veteran’s Administration website does list his condition as one that might have been Agent Orange-induced. In life as in death, Vietnam may have defined, but never confined, him. He was a figure in my life and at TomDispatch—as a friend, a writer, an interviewee, and for me a source of constant inspiration. I mourn him.
Given the role Vietnam played in his life, in mine, and in this country’s, I thought it might be appropriate to look not to his last words, but—in a sense—to his first words. So, today, I’m returning us to the young Jonathan Schell, the boy who, knowing so little but so terribly open, landed in Vietnam in 1966 and during that nightmarish war that seemed never to end, later at the New Yorker, and finally at the Nation magazine, as well as in his many books, helped shape our thinking and our world. Here, then, is an interview that historian Chris Appy did with him for his remarkable 2003 oral history of the Vietnam War from all sides, Patriots. It catches the sensibility both of the youthful Jonathan Schell and of the man I later came to know. I thank Appy and his publisher, Viking Penguin, for letting me remember and honor him in this way.
“The More We ‘Won,’ The More We Lost”
[The following interview from Chris Appy’s 2003 book Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides is used with the kind permission of his publisher, Viking Penguin, and is posted at TomDispatch.com as a memorial to Jonathan Schell, who died on March 25th, and to his work, which will long outlast him.]
Square, Site wide
Rushing into the magazine’s office, his cheeks flushed, he flops down on a couch looking impossibly burdened by the distractions of a journalist’s life. The odds seem slim that much of value will be gained by dredging up a 30-year-old topic. As soon as the subject is mentioned, however, the present evaporates. It’s as if the middle-aged man has entered a time machine dated 1966.That was the year he went to Vietnam on a whim, at age 23, hoping to write “something” about the war. On the basis of that trip, and another in 1967, he wrote two book-length articles for The New Yorker that were later published as The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half.
I wasn’t very political in college but I do remember noticing that this Vietnam War seemed to be a sort of unsolvable problem. At the time, I didn’t see how we could pull out and I suppose I bought into the domino theory. But I didn’t see how we could win. It just looked bad. When I graduated from college in 1965, I went to Japan to study and spend a year abroad. On the way back from Japan I had a round-the-world ticket that permitted me to stop anywhere I wanted. I had a certain ambition to be a writer of factual pieces so I decided I would go to Vietnam. I remember reading Bernard Fall’s latest book on the plane, which was my little crash education. When I landed in Vietnam I was the very definition of a pest—a graduate student who had no knowledge and who vaguely thought he might like to write something.
Somehow or other it occurred to me that François Sully might be in Vietnam working for Newsweek. He was a French reporter I’d met at Harvard when he was a Nieman Fellow so I called up the Newsweek office and, lo and behold, he was there and invited me over.
It was a loft-like office with a back room full of the pseudo-military gear that journalists wore. When I greeted Sully I had Bernard Fall’s book under my arm and mentioned that I had been reading it. There was another fellow at a desk who said, “Could I see the book?” So I went over and gave him the book.
He opened it up and signed it. It was Bernard Fall!
So here were these two ebullient, life-loving Frenchmen, brave and brilliant journalists, both. And just out of sheer high spirits, they took me up—this nuisance, this pest, this ignorant graduate student. They used their connections to perform a kind of miracle. They persuaded the military to give me a press pass on the somewhat deceptive basis that I was there for the Harvard Crimson. I had actually written for the Crimson, and very possibly they would have wanted me reporting for them, but we made up that little tale.
Well, if you had a press pass in Vietnam, it was a free travel ticket all over the country. You could hitchhike rides on helicopters and transport planes, wherever you wanted. It was a meal ticket. It was a hotel reservation anywhere. It gave a fantastic freedom to see what you wanted to see. I think the reason was the cooperation between the press and the military during the Second World War, and the Korean War had carried over for a while to Vietnam. So just a day or two later Fall and Sully called me up at my ratty hotel and said, “Something is going to happen. It’s all secret, but you can go and see it if you want. Come over to such-and-such a place at four-thirty A.M. and there’ll be a bus.” These two wonderful journalists, both of whom later lost their lives in the war, gave me this one-hundred-and-eighty-degree life-changing gift, which set me on the journalistic path I’ve been on ever since.
We got on a bus and were taken out to an airstrip where we were flown off in a C-5 to a big dusty field in the jungle. A spiffy major with an easel told us we were there for Operation Cedar Falls—the largest military operation of the war to that date. The idea was to clear out the infamous Iron Triangle [a 40-square-mile patch of jungle with its southernmost tip just a dozen miles north of Saigon], which had been the source of so much woe for the South Vietnamese army and a revolutionary stronghold since the war against the French. The American military wanted to clear it out once and for all. On the major’s easel there was a great menu of things they were going to do. One of the items on the list was a helicopter attack on the village of Ben Suc. When we got to that item on the list, I asked, “What’s going to happen to the village after it’s attacked?” The major said, “Well, we’re going to destroy it and move the people out.”
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