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The Limits of Power

Review of The Unconquerable World, by Jonathan Schell.

Reviewed by Jack Miles for The New York Observer, May 14, 2003.

"Schell has offered, and not for the first time, what may be needed most: a hunch, a lever, a mental starting point for the long and difficult journey that lies ahead."

The Unconquerable World:
Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

by Jonathan Schell
(Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. 448 pp. $2.50) 

Reviewed by Jack Miles for The Observer

"Had we taken all of Iraq," General H. Norman Schwarzkopf wrote after Gulf War I, "we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit—we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of that occupation. This is a burden I am sure the beleaguered American taxpayer would not have been happy to take on."

Twelve years later, the beleaguered American taxpayer has been saddled with just that burden. Perhaps Iraq alone will not prove a tar pit large enough to trap the American military dinosaur. But what of Iraq plus a crypto-nuclear Iran meddling in Shiite Iraq and forcing American intervention? What of Iraq and Iran plus a Taliban-infiltrated, increasingly violent, geographically contiguous Afghanistan? What of the three of them plus Pakistan after an Islamist coup d'état? What that be enough to bog the great beast down?

As Jonathan Schell writes near the end of this study of the limits of power, the Bush Administration's official "National Security Strategy" dictates that the United States "will employ its overwhelming military superiority to stop [WMD] proliferation all around the world.... And so on behalf of its own and the world's safety, the United States will fight a series of what can be called disarmament wars." As President Bush put it, "The United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Whether you regard the Bush strategy as idealistic or imperialistic, Schell writes, the question is: Can it work? He argues that it cannot, for it "tilts against what have so far proved to be the two most powerful forces of the modern age: the spread of scientific knowledge and the resolve of peoples to reject foreign rule and take charge of their own destinies. If the history of the last two centuries is a guide, neither can be bombed out of existence." In other words, the United States may be at one and the same time invincible in conventional military terms yet quite incapable of bending the world to its will. Thus is the world "unconquerable," a tarpit capable of defying even the largest, fiercest military dinosaur in all of recorded history.

But why is this so, or since when has it begun to be so?

Schell spends most of his pages on "the resolve of peoples...to take charge of their own destiny." Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is a prophet for him because, paradoxically, the great military strategist gave unsurpassed expression to the supremacy of the political over the military. Clausewitz recognized, in Napoleonic France, the power of democracy to effect, for the first time in history, the military mobilization of an entire population. Without democracy, Napoleon's tactical brilliance could never have won France its brief European empire or its enduring political influence.

Schell's twentieth-century corollary to Clausewitz, multiply illustrated, is that a population totally mobilized is invincible even when unarmed. In the long run, a people that will not be ruled cannot be ruled. The recalcitrant need not militarize their recalcitrance. They need only, massively, do what they want rather than what their oppressor wants and keep doing it.

This is the vision most directly linked in twentieth-century history with the name Mahatma Gandhi, but Schell finds a harbinger of Gandhi in Britain's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 when Britons wanted a Protestant king and would not be denied their wish. The Catholic incumbent, James II, commanding an army that would not fight, succumbed to the Protestant pretender, William of Orange, in a virtually bloodless coup.

Schell finds another harbinger in the American Revolution. He quotes John Adams: "What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington." In 1781, on the eve of victory, General George Washington reported to Congress: "I have been your faithful servant so far as it lay within me to be. I have endured." Schell comments on Washington's "seemingly modest claim": "As long as the army remained in the field, the will of the American people to prevail remained intact; as long as the will of the American people to prevail was intact, the British could not militarily defeat the United States; as long as the British could not militarily defeat the United States, the war would go on indefinitely—a burden that the British were not ready to shoulder."

Echoes of Norman Schwarzkopf! The America of Washington and Adams had become a tarpit for the British dinosaur and would have remained such even if Washington been defeated. Had that happened, the American colonies would simply have returned to the pre-revolutionary condition of 1760-1775 and soon enough would have found their way to another Lexington. The key to victory in the self-determination game is not to beat the enemy at what he does but to persevere in doing what you do. This is the core of satyagraha, Gandhi's mystical pragmatism, as Schell presents it. Again and again, resistance leaders have learned Gandhi's lesson, whether or not they learned it from Gandhi.

Thus, the Vietnamese never sought to carry the battle to the home country of whoever was currently their overseas enemy. Like Washington, they knew that they had only to endure at home. Like Gandhi, their tactic was to create on the ground a working political alternative in every area of civilian life; hierarchies parallèles, they called them. Change the society, however ruthlessly, and you make regime change merely a matter of time.

In a similar way, the resistance movements of Eastern Europe took to heart "a famous saying of Jacek Kuron, an intellectual adviser to Solidarity, who in the late 1970s counseled angry workers, 'Don't burn down Party Committee Headquarters, found your own.'" Schell quotes Vaçlav Havel, who in much the same way "reject[ed] the labels 'opposition' or 'dissident' for himself and his fellow activists." As Havel preferred to put it, "We introduced a new model of behavior: Don't get involved in diffuse general ideological polemics with the center, to whom numerous concrete causes are always being sacrificed; fight 'only' for those concrete causes, and fight for them unswervingly to the end." Refuse to define yourself as anyone's enemy, appoint no one as your head, and your movement will be everyone's friend and invulnerable to decapitation.

So much for self-determination as a master tendency of our time. What of its companion tendency: the spread of scientific knowledge? Jonathan Schell's well-remembered The Fate of the Earth argued that nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was a war that neither could win. Worse, it was a war that could render the planet itself uninhabitable. But how much better off is the planet if the remaining nuclear dinosaur is henceforth to face a steadily growing number of nuclear lizards?

Disappointingly, Schell has much less to say about this than one might hope. In essence what he argues is that the one master tendency may yet neutralize the other. That is, self-determination, the will of the people, may yet achieve global nonviolence by taming the lethal potential of the diffusion of military science. He writes: "A revolution against violence in the world at large would, in imitation of [the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe], not be the realization of any single plan drawn up by any one person or council but would develop, like open software, as the common creation of any and all comers, acting at every political level, within as well as outside government, on the basis of common principles."

So it might go, but we see so far little sign of any such mass movement. Fertile in exemplification and brilliantly apposite in quotation when it comes to the will of the people for self-determination, Schell must make do with scraps when he looks for suggestive evidence—proof is much too strong a word—that the will of the people may yet embrace nonviolence to the same irresistible effect. Such a scrap is the voluntary "delamination" of political sovereignty under way in Northern Ireland where, to achieve peace, a divided and embattled population is agreeing, however haltingly, to be neither quite as British nor quite as Irish as either side would wish. In the "war system" of contending nation states that has operated in the West since the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, sovereignty has been an all-or-nothing proposition. Anything could be negotiated except that, and absolutism about sovereignty has helped keep the war system alive. In Northern Ireland, however, the supposed indivisible is being divided and shared—and a war that has run for centuries is finally coming to an end.

Can we imagine the West and the Islamic ummah agreeing, in the cause of peace, to be, similarly, neither quite as Western nor quite as Muslim as either side would wish? If that happened, would the two contending world communities feel as little need of nuclear arms as sovereignty-delaminated Italy and Germany do within Europe or Illinois and Indiana do within the United States? And are the people on either side of the clash of civilizations prepared to rise up and usher their leaders toward the nonviolence that will save the world?

Dream on, I hear you cry, but Mr. Schell knows that he is allowing a dream to father a thought. It is the thought that the principle by which "people's war" has been organized can organize a "people's peace" as well. Totalitarian war "immerses the people in the violence from which it seeks to deliver them." [99] Against it, the suicide pact of mutual assured deterrence is no more than "a stay of execution." [99] But in the ambiguity of these extremes, he writes, "we can, for the first time, catch a glimpse of a true rejection of the twentieth century's terrible legacy of violence, as when climbers, upon reaching a mountaintop, and able to climb no higher, first see the new land beyond, and turn their steps down the other side." [99]

There are works I wish Mr. Schell had cited. Andrew Schmookler's The Parable of the Tribes provides a superior exposition, on a broader historical scale, of endless military escalation by what Mr. Schell calls the "adapt-or-die" imperative. There is an entire literature I wish Mr. Schell had visited in pursuit of his curtain-opening juxtaposition of Pericles and Isaiah, Virgil and Jesus. At virtually the moment when Virgil was writing "I sing of arms and the man," launching the Western tradition of glory on the battlefield, Jesus was telling a disciple, "Put up thy sword. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword." In its opening centuries, if not thereafter, Christianity did put up its sword; and the Roman Empire fell before its refusal to fight. The legendary dying words of Julian, the last Roman emperor to attempt to stop Christianity by persecution, were (in cultivated Greek) nenikekas Galilaie: "Thou hast conquered, Galilaean." To this day, popular Christian works like John Roth's Choosing Against War keep alive the tradition of what might well be called Christian satyagraha. Here, if anywhere, might be recruits for the implementation of Mr. Schell's dream.

But rather than faults in the book, these are personal associations to it; others will have other associations, for it is a highly suggestive work, and just that may be its key strength. At a time of political prostration, when millions of Americans sense that their country is on the eve of a precipitous and irreversible decline, Schell has offered, and not for the first time, what may be needed most: a hunch, a lever, a mental starting point for the long and difficult journey that lies ahead.