Jonathan Schell

How the nuclear bomb, used first at Hiroshima,forever changed the nature of war. Schell is the Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent, and the author of The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People and The Fate of the Earth.


The Village of Ben Suc

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

I’d like to start out by asking you about a piece you wrote a long time ago about Vietnam, “The Village of Ben Suc.” What was your experience of actual war?

War is always a shock the first time you see it. Certainly that was true for me. All the more so because I’d been living in Japan for a year and a half, and I stopped in Saigon without really having any plan or intention in being there. I was quite ignorant of what was going on in the war, because I’d been pretty well cut off from the news in Japan.

I was plunged into it very suddenly. It became apparent to me immediately, even though I had no general view of the war, that it wasn’t making sense in its own terms.

It was an accidental trip that set me off in the direction that I’ve followed ever since.

If I remember correctly, this was the re-location of an entire village. What did you see? What was the emotional affect on you?

We were taken off to an airstrip early one morning and then flown for a short hop, about 15 minutes, to another airstrip in the jungle without being told what we were going to be witnessing. It turned out to be the largest military operation of the war up to that time, and in fact, subsequently, as well, because it was such a failure that they didn’t want to repeat the experience.

We found ourselves in a dusty field talking to a captain who had a slate, on an easel. The slate was sort of like the specials at a restaurant, except that here were six or seven elements of the operation, and the reporters were permitted to go on any of those missions they chose.

I chose to accompany an attack by 48 helicopters into a village that had always been run by the National Liberation Front. I asked the captain in the field what was going to happen to the people there and he said, “We ship them out.” And I said, “What will you do to the village?” And he said, “Well, we’re going to destroy it.”

I resolved at that moment that I would follow the progress of that entire operation from its very beginning to its very end. I was plunged into the middle of that military operation with no knowledge in advance of what the war was about, with no opinion about it, so in a certain sense it was an unalloyed experience of war itself, without preparation.

It became clear to me very quickly that this operation was not working in its own terms. Because the hope was to win over the hearts and minds of the people to the side of the United States, to get them to support the government and so on. But if you were destroying their village and moving them out, this very clearly wasn’t going to serve the purpose of the war.

Even in its details, right there locally on the ground, leaving aside any over-arching geopolitical purposes, the thing was defeating its own purposes.

When you have a belief in a war, when the mission seems to you to be just or fair, the whole war might appear to an observer in a different light. But I think the experience that not only reporters, but also the soldiers in Vietnam, had was of war without that redeeming belief that would make it palatable. I think the very experience of being there, of seeing it, of witnessing it, is different if you find that you can’t believe in the purpose of it.

There was a lot of controvery about Vietnam, but World War II is often called “The Good War.” What do you think about that concept, the concept of a “good war”?

I very much dislike that phrase, “The Good War”, for the Second World War. The way I see it, there’s no such thing as a good war.

I think there can be such a thing as a good cause for which a war is fought, but to call the war good seems to be a terrible mistake. War, in itself, is always a horror and a terror; awful for those fighting it, for the victims. And to call the war good seems to me to be a great mistake.

Tell me what effect your experience at Ben Suc had on the rest of your life.

It had a decisive effect, certainly. This is true, in part, for anybody who sees war for the first time.

In your ordinary life back at home, you see all the apparatus of civilization. The buses, the cars, the buildings, and so forth are devoted to purposes that make sense, that seem broadly beneficial. Suddenly you see all of that turned on its head, all turned to a destructive purpose.

The power and the strength of civilization is inverted, it's turned to destroying human life rather than preserving it. That’s an immense and tremendous shock and in modern war especially so. In Vietnam, the disproportion between the power of the United States, with all its money and machinery and wealth and destructive power, aimed at this very primitive and simple and poor society, presented a profoundly shocking picture to anybody witnessing it.




Why Iraq? A Demonstration War


This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

Let’s talk a little bit about Iraq. You talked in an article about losing the war. Can you talk about that?

I wrote – rather infamously in some circles – that it was very important for the United States to lose the war in Iraq. Now what I meant by that is something rather specific, which was that in my judgment, it’s not going to be possible for this country to achieve the objectives that it set out to achieve.

That’s most clearly the case with the weapons of mass destruction, which simply turned out not to be there. The formal justification for the war has just been turned to nonsense. Simply, it was pointless, if you look at the justification put forward in the legal instruments that justified the war, namely the Congressional Resolution and the resolutions put forward at the United Nations by the United States.

But also, in a secondary sense, I don’t think it’s going to be possible for the United States to determine the political future for that country. I don’t think we are going to be able to set up a democracy there, as has been promised.

It’s conceivable that the Iraqis themselves will be able to do it, but if they do it will have to be according to their own will, their own wishes, not because of what we have asked them to do.

So when I said it is important for us to lose the war, what I meant was that we must not stay there insisting upon the objectives that we have set ourselves . That can send us down an endless path, and one that will be increasingly destructive for Iraq.

Tell us how you see the roll of the press, before the invasion and as it was just happening.

The press really abandoned its role as a check or a balance, or critic or investigator of the government policy in the period leading up to the Iraq War. It really became a cheerleader. Certainly the television news programs did, but even the newspapers failed to examine carefully and to investigate the justifications for the war, such as the alleged presence of the weapons of mass destruction.

There was an enormous enthusiasm for the war. Is that common for most wars? This sort of enthusiasm and build up?

Quite honestly, I don’t think there was very much enthusiasm in the public at large, for the war. There were polls that showed that people accepted it, or they accepted the justifications, but I didn’t see any positive outpouring among the public at large.

It’s quite different if you look at the press. If you look at the networks, where every shot had the flag waving in the background, there was emphatically such an atmosphere. But curiously, in this case, I don’t think it involved much public enthusiasm.

Historically speaking, that may be quite unusual, because very often in the past, especially in Imperial ventures, there’s been quite a lot of jingoistic enthusiasm from the public. But here I don’t think we saw it.

I think that was also the case in Vietnam, I don’t think that there was public enthusiasm for the war. These were wars sold to the public by the government. They like to say they were “wars of choice”, but the choice was very clearly made not by the public at large, which was sort of dragged along with it, but by the government.

The other day I saw James Wolsey, former head of the CIA, who was a very strong supporter of the war, saying not only that it was a war of choice, but that the justification of weapons of mass destruction was chosen among many possible justifications. So it was a chosen justification, as well as a chosen war, and it was the government, not the people, that chose it.

Tell us a little bit about your experience at the poetry reading at Avery Hall.

That occasion at Avery-Fisher Hall was a wonderful one. It was a very snowy night. There were something like two feet of snow on the ground, and they got several thousand people to come and listen to poets read their poems – which is in itself something extraordinary. It was a very lively and feisty atmosphere.

I happen to remember, in particular, the response to the poem by Stanley Kunitz, who is an elderly gentleman, but who read with terrific verve and sort of clarity and spirit. And then finally, the more sort of reflective and thoughtful and melancholy poem of W.S. Merwin. It was a wonderful occasion.

In fact, as far as involvement by the public is concerned, the principal emotions that were displayed were on the anti-war side. You’ll remember the immense demonstrations that occurred at that time, not only in the United States but world-wide. So as far as active emotional participation was concerned, I would say that it was more on the anti-war than on the pro-war side.

Why did we go into Iraq, and not into Congo or Sierra Leone?

The top officials in this administration had wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq long before they ever arrived in power in Washington, and long before September 11th. This is very clear in statements that they signed; in the letter that they wrote to President Clinton back in the 1990s. I’m thinking of Cheney, I’m thinking of Rumsfeld, and others in the administration.

This was an objective that they had for a long time. I think that the primary reason that they went into war is that they wanted to make a demonstration of American power that would establish America’s global military dominance in the 21st century. I think it was a demonstration war above all else.

Other objectives were subordinate to that, and those would be finding weapons of mass destruction if any; getting control over the oil in that country and in the region generally; and I’m sure they’d be delighted if they were able to produce so many Switzerlands on the Tigris in the Middle East.

But I think those objectives were really subordinate to the much larger one, which was to make an unmistakable demonstration of not only American power, but of America’s willingness to go into countries and overthrow their governments if we didn’t care for them.

Tell us a little more about this idea of American military dominance? What do are the implications?

They are asserting American military dominance of a kind that the world has never experienced before, not even in Rome. Because after all, Rome governed only a certain portion of the Earth’s surface and the claims being made now are for a dominance that is global in scope.

I personally think it’s completely unattainable and an illusion.

Because although the United States certainly has the biggest pile of arms, if you stop to think about it for a moment, what we can actually achieve by military force is far less that what is advertised.

For example, there are now 8 or 9 other nuclear powers in the world; the United States cannot touch any of them. We do not dominate those countries. Even tiny North Korea is beyond our reach, they perhaps have one or two nuclear weapons. Not to speak of Russia, or China. So that whole sphere is outside any zone of domination.

But also, if you look at what’s happening in Iraq now, it turns out that even in parts of the world where we certainly can go in and overthrow a government, as we did in Iraq, it’s not at all clear that the United States will have its way politically in that country, and in that region.

It turns out that one of the lessons of the 20th century is that people want to run their own country, and they have the will and the means to do so. And if they resist strongly enough, there isn’t a great deal the United States can do about that, and I think that’s the verge we’re approaching at this moment in Iraq.

That’s all at the sort of macro level of international affairs, something that’s widely forgotten. Certainly it’s true that the United States has the biggest pile of weapons, there’s no doubt about that. But the question is, what can we do with that? Can we push people around? Can we overthrow their governments and so forth? And in the nuclear age you simply can’t do that in a wide swath of the globe.

And then also, if you look at the more grass-roots level of the earth, at the countries that don’t have nuclear weapons, as Iraq turned out not to — even there it turns out that military dominance is a bit of a fantasy, a bit of a delusion. It turns out that once you’ve overthrown the government you have to try to control the place politically, you have to do nation building, you have to put in a government that is going to be favorable to the United States.

And if there’s one clear lesson of the experience of empires in the 20th century, it’s that countries do not like to be run by other countries. They resist, they know how to resist, and when they do resist there’s very little you can do about it.

That was the lesson of Vietnam but not only of Vietnam; it was the lesson of the British in India; of the French in Algeria; of the all the imperial powers everywhere; of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe eventually. In my opinion, this idea of military dominance really is an illusion.


The Transformed Character of Warfare

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

Do you think military warfare has been replaced by another medium of settling disputes?

There’s been a revolution in the character of warfare, a transformation of warfare that we haven’t quite caught up with. I was speaking before about the nuclearization of war, and how nuclear weapons have a paralyzing effect. That was certainly true during the Cold War and it remains true.

You simply cannot have a world war of the kind that you had twice in the 20th century. You will not have a victory of one side and a defeat of another, you will have the annihilation of both and everybody knows it. Everybody knows that warfare at that level is simply unfightable.

You could go ahead and do it, but it will just lead to mutual assured destruction, as they used to say, so warfare is paralyzed at that level.

I think that a new way of exerting power and settling disputes has arisen in the world. Local peoples have resolved to take charge of their own destinies. And they have invented ways of doing that, ways that have proved highly effective in actually defeating and expelling all of the empires of the 20th century.

One of these methods was people’s war, which really relied primarily on the political resolve of the local population and secondarily on military force. Military force was surely involved, and people’s war is a very bloody business, but what the leaders and inventors of people war said--and I’m thinking of Mao Ze Dong and also Ho Chi Minh -- with the greatest clarity is that politics must be in command. If they can’t win the allegiance of local people,  their military operations are going to be an absolute failure.

But other movements experimented with and found ways of opposing occupations without any violence whatsoever. The most dramatic example is Gandhi’s non-violent movement against the British in India, which was successful in defeating the greatest empire of its time.

The other would be the movements beginning in Eastern Europe and then spreading into Russia against the Soviet empire, which once again turned out to be the specific political process that unmade that tremendous empire with all its resources of violence, from nuclear weapons to the KGB to the Red Army.

Highly effective means of defeating superior force have been discovered, and they’ve been remaking the map of the Earth in the 20th century as much as violence has.

Do you think that war has been an important part of human relationships since the beginning?

Throughout most of history war has, in fact, been what people have said it is; namely the ultima rateo, or the final arbiter. It’s been the means of deciding things that could not be otherwise decided, and that is written throughout all the centuries of history. It really hasn’t been until modern times that this transformation in war and in the other means of opposing it have arisen.

At one point you said, “War made the state and the state made war.” Could you tell us, how important was war in creating the modern state?

That quote refers to the beginnings of the nation-state. War has been a feature of history long before modern times, that is, long before there were nation-states. Feudalism was a highly violent business too, and they were fighting wars constantly at that time.

What that quote means is that in the modern period, the rulers began to understand that in order to summon up the resources of their peoples, they really had to establish the draft. They had to create not just a state, but actually a nation that would bring its resources to bear in warfare. It became a consolidating force in history.

Talk a little bit about war before and after the French Revolution.

The French Revolution absolutely marked also a revolution in warfare, because it brought the enthusiasm, and the loyalty, and the energy of an entire people into warfare. Previously armies had been made up of whatever people that the princes could bribe or bully or drag into warfare – reluctantly, typically.

When the French Revolution broke out, suddenly the great mass of people was made available for purpose of warfare. The key event was the invention of the levee en masse, which really was like an early draft. It meant not only the recruiting of young men, or the enlistment of volunteers, but hundreds of thousands, in numbers that had never entered into warfare before. Also, the mobilization of all the resources of society, of industry, of women knitting at home, even the elderly were brought into the picture.

The enthusiasm of the revolution, the mobilization of the people for revolutionary purposes, made it possible also to enlist them in warfare. Eventually that was given its ultimate expression in the armies of Napoleon, which were able very quickly – at least in the early years of his rule – to defeat the other dynasties of Europe, which had not yet learned the arts of recruiting and mobilizing their own peoples to this extent.

You talk about four elements: the mobilization of citizens by democratic revolution, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and imperialism, as permanently changing war. Can you tell us a little bit about how these four elements worked together?

War has always been a contest. Clausewitz likens it to a wrestling match, in which the mightier power overthrows and defeats the lesser. It's elementary. But in the modern period, a whole variety of new sources of strength and power arose. One was scientific: the resources of science were made available to war. Another was the energy and enthusiasm of entire peoples, of nations, which became available in the revolutionary period. Then came the resources of industry, and finally – in part as a result of all of those – the acquisition of territories on a global basis, and imperialism.

These four new resources had not been available for war or anything else until the modern period, when these powers arose in society at large. So if you were going to fight the contest of war, you would simply lose if you didn’t bring these fantastic new powers to bear against your foe.

War, which had once been a matter of maybe five or ten thousand people fighting, suddenly became an affair of millions. It became an affair of immense technical destructive power, of the deployment of the resources of industry onto the battlefield.

So to reach that decision – which is the whole point of war, and which dictates victory and defeat – nations were helplessly required to summon up these energies and deploy them against one another, with the result that the destructiveness of war increased steadily throughout the modern period.

How does nationalism enter this whole equation?

To have nationalism, you first have to have nations. In other words, you have to have the nation-state, and the nation-state is a creation of the modern period.

Nationalism is the deployment of the energies and enthusiasm of the people in rivalry with other countries. Nationalism is really a militarization of democracy, because at the beginning of the revolutionary period, the popular energies were rather directed at the aristocrats, at the kings.

But as the 19th century progressed, those popular energies, which before long have pretty well triumphed over the feudal system, began to be directed against other nations. In fact, the very word “nationalism” really doesn’t come into use very much until the very end of the 19th century. It's a redirection of the revolutionary energy of the people into hostility with other peoples and wars. That’s why I say that nationalism is the militarization of democracy.

This brings us the theme of your last book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. You talk about two strands of war, the nationalistic war and the people’s war, growing up together at the same time. Could you talk a little bit about that?

The first people’s war was probably the Spanish rebellion against Napoleonic rule in about 1806, 1807. This resistance was both obviously nationalistic, because the Spaniards resented being conquered by Napoleon’s army, and at the same time – perhaps for the first time – it really became a people’s war. That is to say, war that was not waged by regular armies, but rather by guerilla forces sustained by the support of ordinary people. People’s war and nationalism were, and have always remained, very tightly linked.

The difference was that in the Napoleonic wars, previously, it had been a matter of states mobilizing their people for military purposes. In Spain, it was the people themselves, without benefit of a state – as yet – mobilizing themselves against the conqueror.

That turned out to be a pattern that would be decisive in the 20th century. That’s what we saw in China, that’s what we saw in Vietnam, in Algeria, and in all of the anti-colonial resistance movements. Peoples mobilizing themselves against a conqueror, peoples who did not yet have their own state to organize them.

How do these changes in war we’ve talked about effect the concept of honor, the concept of right and wrong?

The idea of the honor of the warrior is a product of conventional war. That is, a war in which the soldiers of the two sides go out on a battlefield. Each is defending his own population, they fight it out, each is sacrificing himself – it was men in those days exclusively – for his country.

The idea of the soldier’s honor really depends on this idea of being willing to sacrifice yourself for your country, for the civilians who are left at home. In modern times, all that has gone by the boards.

Imagine a nuclear war. What warrior’s honor is there in a missile that flies from one continent to another and destroys the civilians in that other country? What honor is there when you’re ethnically cleansing, when you’re driving out the Croat population of your town? What honor is there in a people’s war, where you’re waging war not only against the opposing soldiers but against the very population of a country?

I think we’ve seen a pretty radical eclipse of the idea of the soldier’s honor.

Also, the idea of sacrifice really depends on the readiness to die for a cause. Now in America’s wars of the 1990’s, really they were fought very largely from the air. There were almost no casualties – American casualties – in the war over Kosovo, for example.

The honor that comes from a readiness to die in a cause is missing, for structural reasons. Because war, at least the way the United States has been fighting war – from the air, casualty-free war – ha quite a different moral equation.

But Americans ARE dying in Iraq. Let’s talk about this a little: Are they dying for a good reason? And can you talk a little about the myths coming out of this?

The situation of the American soldiers in Iraq is truly ghastly. They face an almost completely invisible enemy. They’re almost never involved in any actual fighting. The casualties are incurred when they’re driving down a road and a bomb goes off on the side of the road and they’re simply slaughtered.

This is not fighting, this is slaughter.

In retaliation, they are sent out on Vietnam-like search-and-destroy operations, in which almost all of the people they encounter are civilians, are innocent. Kicking down doors in the middle of the night, carrying people off. Some 11- or 12-thousand people are now in detention in Iraq; nobody knows who they are, there’s no accounting of that.

It’s really a horrible situation for them to be in, and all of it depends on factors that are outside of their control. Mostly it depends on what the people of Iraq turn out to feel and want, and what is the political will of the various populations of Iraq.

These are the decisive factors, and the soldiers, who can’t even speak the language, they have no way of affecting it. They simply are driving through the city being blown up, and then trying to find a few of the people who may have done that, which is almost impossible. It’s an awful situation to be in.


Technology and Civilians: Raising War's Stakes

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

Tell us about the First World War. Why were millions of people killing each other? And was there any political accomplishment from it?

By the time of the First World War, the means available for war had overwhelmed and grown beyond any conceivable purpose for which the war might be fought.

In other words, if you were going to fight a Great Power war at that time, then necessarily it was going to be a war of millions of men facing one another with artillery, eventually with tanks. That is what a war was going to be if you were going to fight one at that time.

The ends of the war were really quite trivial – really quite minor – consisting of a forgotten quarrel in the Balkans, and they became only the trigger for this overwhelming clash of forces that was dictated by what the system had become.

That was the tragedy of the First World War, and that was why so many millions had died: because of this transformation that had occurred in the character of warfare. If you were going to resort to war at that time that’s what you were going to get. There was no way to calibrate it or to limit it, to arrive at a decision without this horrendous slaughter of millions, so that’s what they got.

What was that like for the common soldier?

The First World War, as distinct from the Second, was a static war. There was a sort of gash running through Europe; through Belgium, France, down into Italy, at which the armies met. These, of course, were the trenches. If you drew back even 15 or 20 miles, you might find quite normal existence continuing.

This was very different, of course, from the Second World War, which was a war of mobility. The armies on each side were just thrown into this gap where they were chewed up and destroyed. It was a zone of absolute horror but in a rather limited area, and it was a war of horror for soldiers, much more than for civilians.

It really wasn’t until the Second World War, with the rise of air power and strategic bombing, that civilians became involved by the millions.

The First World War concentrated the fantastic destructive power and horror of modern technical prowess in this very limited and narrow area, running from one end of Europe to another, in which 8 or 9 million young men were poured and died.

What were the changes between the two world wars?

The technical inventions had not ceased to come online. The two chief ones were, in the first place air power, and above all, bombing – strategic bombing, and the capacity to send great flotillas of planes to absolutely annihilate and wipe out entire cities, which was done by both sides in the Second World War. This wasn’t possible in the First World War.

Once again, in other words, the mere fact that these new technical possibilities were available almost necessitated their use by both sides. Because neither side dared to be the one that would forego a particular technique on humanitarian grounds. Then of course there was tank warfare and the techniques of blitzkrieg invented by the Germans, which enabled them to really punch through the defenses of First World War, like the Maginot line of the French.

The Second World War was a war of tremendous motion, of tremendous mobility. Of the Nazis pouring across the Russian plains to Stalingrad, and then being driven back thousands of miles. Of American Naval forces fighting their way up through the Pacific; of attack in Africa, coming up through Italy. This was made possible by technical development.

The horror and the tragedy of that was that it involved civilian populations in a way that they had never been involved before. People often think that the destruction of cities began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's not so; it began on both sides in Europe.

At one point, Hitler's plan, when he was going to occupy Moscow, which he didn’t succeed in doing – was to make it into a huge lake. That was his plan for Moscow. And of course in the siege of Leningrad, hundreds of thousands of people were starved and killed.

The Allies invented strategic bombing and more especially, the fire-bombing of cities, in which both Hamburg and Dresden were absolutely annihilated. Likewise in Japan, before Hiroshima or Nagasaki, 61 cities were absolutely flattened by so-called conventional bombing.

So the moral boundaries that once had supposedly prevented the absolute wholesale destruction of cities in warfare had been erased before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Really, the difference at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a technical one, it was the fact that one city could be destroyed by one bomb. You didn’t need 200 planes dropping napalm to destroy a city; you only needed one plane with one bomb.

What’s the position of civilians in World War II?

The new kind of involvement of civilians in World War II – of course they were involved as soldiers in the millions because still this was national war and the resources of entire nations, including their young men, were brought to bear against one another, so there were millions of soldiers who died — but the new involvement of civilians was to die as civilians because, chiefly, of airpower.

Also because the war was mobile war; and because of tanks and the motorization of armed forces. They were flung across vast territories, and everywhere they went they were murderous towards the civilians. The Nazi troops crossing through Ukraine and Russia, especially, were very murderous toward those civilian populations.

What was the significance of Hiroshima?

Hiroshima announced the possibility of the end of the world.

Although it’s true that many cities had been destroyed by so-called conventional bombing before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was impossible to imagine previously that every city in the world could be so destroyed.

But the minute Hiroshima was destroyed it became perfectly obvious to every thinking person that if one bomb could destroy one city, then it wouldn’t take very many bombs to destroy every city on earth.

And indeed during the Cold War, those numbers were quickly achieved, and quickly surpassed.

Did the Atomic Bomb legitimize the idea of slaughtering the civilian population?

I don’t think it really did legitimize it. You entered into the paradoxical situation in which the United States and the other nuclear powers began to rely for their safety on their ability in retaliation to absolutely annihilate the civilian population of the other side.

In the early days of the Nuclear Age at the Strategic Air Command, they called it “nation killing”, which is a livelier phrase for what we call "genocide" these days.

So in that sense, there was a legitimization, and yet at the same time – and this is the paradox of the whole strategy – the purpose of having that ability was to never have to use it. So the intention was to do exactly that, to kill nations if so-called deterrents failed. But the hope was that that moment would never arise. So the practical consequence, as it turned out most fortunately, has been the paralysis of warfare at the Great Power level.

How did nuclear weapons change the global war system?

Nuclear weapons paralyzed the global war system, they made it unworkable, dysfunctional; it could no longer operate.

For the first half of the 20th century, great issues of politics were settled by war, in the First World War and the Second World War. Once nuclear weapons were introduced into the picture, you could no longer settle your political disputes with warfare because it simply meant mutual annihilation. The result was paralysis, it was more than a revolution in warfare; it was the end of warfare at that level, simply the end of it.




Post-nuclear Conflicts: People’s War


This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

After nuclear weapons ended Great Power wars, did other kinds of wars arise?

The paralysis imposed by nuclear weapons reached quite far down into the system, so to speak, really dampening just conventional wars. Even between non-nuclear powers, especially in the Cold War, the danger was very present that a conventional war would lead to a nuclear war, would drag in nuclear powers. So the paralyzing influence reached quite far down into the system.

And then, in part in response to this paralysis, and taking advantage of this paralysis, if you will, was the rise of people’s war. Which was something fundamentally different, because whereas conventional war – which developed a destructive power to the point at which it was paralyzed by nuclear weapons – depended on the idea that the person with superior forces was going to be the winner (until it became paralyzed and they were no longer the winners or losers and you couldn’t do it).

People’s war depended on something else fundamentally, and that was the political allegiance of ordinary people in local situations within countries. That was the powerhouse of people’s war: the power exerted there was of a fundamentally different kind, even though they resorted to force, it ultimately was a kind of political power depending on this allegiance.

That’s why very typically in a people’s war, the end would come when the opposing army would throw down its arms and defect, as an exhibit of political power. A change in will, a change in hearts and minds, this was decisive. So, in this situation of paralyzed conventional war – paralyzed by nuclear weapons – I think people’s war arose as a means of fighting that was still possible and highly successful.

Give us some examples of people’s wars.

Well, Vietnam is the ideal example because there you had a nuclear-armed superpower with really, virtually endless military resources available that was actually defeated by a very poor, small country without that much weaponry and so forth, at its disposal.

And the reason is a very simple one: they won the political war in their own country, and there was nothing that the United States could do to reverse that. It could fight there forever, it could occupy Vietnam forever and fight there forever, but it couldn’t set up a government that would be popular with its own people and also friendly to the United States. That was what the United States could not do.

So it turned out that in the contest between military force and the political power exhibited in people’s war, the people’s war was eventually the winner, that this political power eventually trumped the military power.

Is this a lesson we’ve learned, as we’ve developed this enormous arsenal and bases all around the world?

America, right now, is rejecting the lesson of Vietnam. It’s rejecting the lesson of the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century.

We are acting as if we can still impose our will through our admittedly tremendously superior military forces, and while it’s true that you can win all the military battles, I don’t think ultimately you can win that way, because you can’t win the political battle and at the end of the day, it’s the political battle that’s decisive.

What was Vietnam like for American soldiers, and does this have any relevance for American soldiers now in Iraq?

I think the experience of the soldiers in Vietnam is very relevant to the experience of the soldiers in Iraq, because in Vietnam the soldiers had the experience of fighting a war for a people that wanted them to leave. In short, they faced people’s war, and in people’s war, it’s not just the soldiers of the other side that hate you and are fighting you, it’s the population as a whole.

And immediately American forces felt this, the soldiers felt this; they knew they were hated in the villages that they went into. And they were hated not only by the Viet-Cong or the NLF; they were hated by ordinary people. Old women, old men, children, who indeed would be giving support to the NLF.

So the dreadful temptation, the dreadful mistake, which is almost inevitable in that situation, is that you start making war against the people. After all the people are making war against you. You start to shoot the old women; you start to burn the villages; you start to bomb and destroy the villages. You start to move the villagers into what are, in effect concentration camps, these strategic hamlets, so-called.

No matter how many battles you win, you continue to lose the war, because it all depends on politics. On hearts and minds, and what the people think. It's the most frustrating, most brutalizing kind of warfare, and it looks as if we’ve heading into the same kind of situation in Iraq.

In both cases, [Vietnam and Iraq] what they are facing is resistance by the local population. The irony  is that they believe they’re there to help the local people, but it turns out that the local people do not want help. They do not appreciate it, and they support the resistance to the American occupation. These are things that the Vietnam War and the Iraq War seem now to have in common.

When the American forces first went into Iraq, quite a few people were pleased to see the back of Saddam Hussein. But at the same time, they did not want to be occupied and ruled by the United States, and the longer the American occupation went on the more they have resisted, and the more they have resented it.

They want to take over their own country and we’re standing in their way, and eventually they will. They will run their own country, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And if they want to have an Islamic fundamentalist state there, they will have that. It will be a nice irony, since it was a certain strain of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism that was the cause of September 11th in the first place.

Maybe they won’t have that, maybe they’ll have something more moderate and gentle; I don’t want to pre-judge what the people of Iraq are going to do. But right now, the American forces are in the unfortunate position of being asked to solve a political problem by military means, and that can’t be done.

Now that we’ve moved into the post-nuclear age, are wars between nations, or are they more within them (going back to your book)?

One consequence of the paralysis of large-scale warfare by nuclear armaments is that most wars today are not between fully-fledged nation-states. You don’t even have very many conventional wars. Maybe the last large-scale straight-out war between two nation-states was the one between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.

What you do have however, is internecine warfare. You have warfare among ethnic groups. You still have civil war, you have guerrilla war, you have people’s war. And these wars typically – which are very brutal, and very bloody, and very hard to stop, I don’t minimize them in any way – occur within countries rather than between them. It’s a big change.

Talk a little bit about the effects of these types of wars on the societies they occur in?

Wars waged among ethnic groups and other groups within society are some of the most brutal and brutalizing wars, and long-lasting wars, that exist. Think even of the situation in Ireland, in Northern Ireland. England’s a democratic country, the Republic of Ireland is also democratic, and yet they’ve been unable, over 25 years – or if you want to look at it this way, 400 years – to make peace among those populations.

Or think of the Palestinians and the Israelis intermixed in the West Bank and in Gaza and so forth. Or think of Kashmir, or think of obviously, the Balkans. Think of the former Yugoslavia. This is an especially bitter and intractable kind of warfare.

These are exceptionally horrifying wars, they’re intimate, they’re personal wars, they’re long-lasting. The feelings of hatred reach a pitch of intensity that probably exceeds that between nations; very, very hard to deal with.

Do things go back to normal after war? Or does it change the essential nature of things?

When war is fought between nations, they’ve often shown a capacity to get over it rather quickly. Sometimes not, but sometimes yes.

For instance, after the Second World War, France and Germany were able to actually ally themselves and become the foundation of the European Union. They had learned an historical lesson in doing that. Nevertheless, it was possible to do so.

In these internecine wars, it’s much harder to get over the bitterness. Where neighbor is killing neighbor and stealing the TV of the person across the street, and maybe raping the daughter too.

The bitterness is very entrenched and becomes much harder to get over it. Bosnia would be an example, or the wars that are going on now within the Congo, or the ones in Kashmir. Perhaps they can be gotten over, but it’s much harder than when war is between two nation-states that are divided by a border.




On Terrorism and the Challenge of Proliferation

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

What does the ideological or religious terrorist element bring to the equation, and is this a new element?

One new element is the stateless terrorist, inspired by religious fanaticism, groups such as Al-Qaeda. One thing that’s very surprising in Iraq and in other terrorist attacks now is that nobody takes credit. Nobody makes a phone call to say, “We did it.”

For instance, in Turkey when the terrorist group blew up the synagogues and there causing scores of casualties, nobody said, “We did that, and our cause is thus and so.” Or for instance, in Iraq just the other day, two bombs went off in the Kurdish areas, again scores killed. They blew up the political headquarters of the two parties, but nobody stepped forward to say, “We did it.”

It's anonymous, it’s invisible. This is really something new. You're just supposed to draw your own lesson, I suppose. But what lesson would it be? Very hard to say. Even when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11th, eventually it was found out that Al-Qaeda was the group responsible, Osama Bin Laden was responsible, so we believe. But he never announced it, he never said something.

I think in some of the tapes that he released later he’s kind of acknowledged responsibility or sort of vaguely boasted about it. But there was no note pinned to the door, there was no phone call, no telegram, no letter that came that said, “We are these people, here are our grievances, this is what we want, and this is why we have done this.”

These are new and awful factors introduced by this new kind of stateless terrorism that the world faces.

Do you think the object of these terrorists is just the total destruction of the more economically advanced countries?

The motivation of these stateless terrorists, and of Al-Qaeda in particular, is really very poorly known. You can read what they have to say about it, but there’s huge leeway for interpretation. It’s a very curious state of affairs. People can say, “Oh their motivation is religious,” or others will say, “No, it’s political. It’s because what the United States has done in Iran and Saudi Arabia, or what have you.”

But they leave us free to make our own interpretation, because they are not clearly stating even that they have done it, much less why they have done it. So it’s a very peculiar situation, and I wouldn’t be able to speak with confidence about why they’d done it, if they even know.

Do they have a strategy, for instance? Are they going to go from point A to point B to point C, in order to achieve objective D? Or are they venting some emotion or feeling? It’s very hard to say, we can’t speak with confidence about it at this point. That’s very different from the past, when states had clear objectives: They wanted to get Alsace-Lorraine back. It was quite a different picture.

Do you think it’s an apocalyptic kind of thing? Are they trying to bring on the apocalypse?

I don’t know, you’d have to ask them, and we can’t find them. Certainly it’s apocalyptic to blow up the World Trade Center. If you look at their ideology, it’s an apocalyptic ideology. There's certainly an apocalyptic strain in their motivation.

Let’s talk a little bit about 9/11. What was the significance of 9/11 and the United States’ reaction to it?

The reaction to September 11th could have gone in either of two directions. You’ll recall that in the first days after that happened, there was an immense wave of sympathy and support from everywhere in the world. The French newspaper Le Monde famously said, “We Are All Americans”. That was the headline at that time.

I think that could have created a basis for a cooperative relationship not only with the United States’ traditional allies, but with countries all over the world for a concerted campaign against terrorism. They could have formed a foundation and a basis for a more cooperative foreign policy in the beginning of the 21st century.

Instead the United States headed off in a different direction led by this administration. And that was the direction of, in the first place, unilateral initiatives; and in the second place,the use of force; and in the third place, the assertion of American military dominance over the entire globe. The idea that we were the sole superpower, and we could pretty well do what we wanted in the world, because we had this preponderance of military force. I’m afraid that the reaction has gone off in a direction that is really very harmful for the United States and the world.

Isn’t it also true that there’s an assumption among leaders of both parties in Washington that the United States must be the pre-eminent military power in the world?

Yes, there’s hardly a politician in the United States that will tell you that the United States should not be the dominant military power, but there are very significant differences among them in regard to what policy they would pursue. Some would be much more willing indeed to insist upon having a policy of forming alliances with other countries, traditional allies, other countries. Whereas the current administration definitely wants to go it alone and to use this military power on a unilateral basis.

How do you think that technology, these very powerful weapons, affects the people who actually wage the war?

Technology has not stood still. First we saw the rising curve of the destructive power of state violence, which reached its absolute apex in the Cold War with the ability of the great powers to destroy the world many times over. There can be no power greater than that.

Now we’ve had a new development, and this is the new situation and the greatest challenge we face. That is that the apocalyptic violence, literally apocalyptic, in the sense of being able to destroy the earth, is slipping out of the hands of the great states into the hands of the lesser states and even below that, down, conceivably soon, into the hands of terrorist groups.

This is what we call "proliferation". What’s fearful now is not the increase in destructive power in the hands of humanity at large, but the increase in the number of groups, people, nations, and so forth that can unleash this power. The great question today is, how do you deal with that situation? That dissemination of apocalyptic destructive power? Now the Bush administration has one idea, which is do it with military force.

In my opinion, it’s unimaginable that that will succeed, it’s the wrong instrument. It’s just not conceivable that we’re going to be able to actually find and kill every person or group, or overthrow every government, that gets its hands on this spreading technology.

To my mind, the only conceivable solution is a political one, and that is to really go after this technology at its source, which means the possessors of this technology now. That would be, to begin with, the nine nuclear powers; and to start rolling back that technology in those countries, withdrawing it from circulation, placing it under the firmest international control that you can find. And to increase and strengthen the treaty system that restricts and finally should ban this technology all together.

Even then you won’t have solved the problem 100 percent, but you probably would have solved it by 90 percent, which is pretty good in this world.

What is the significance of the knowledge of the ability to create a bomb? Can that be contained, or is that something that will spread?

Once the nuclear weapon had been invented, tested, and used, there was and could be no such thing as a return to pre-nuclear age. There’s no way that you can rid the human mind of a certain piece of knowledge, of scientific knowledge, once it has been acquired. So in that sense, we will live forever in the nuclear age.

That is, we will live in an age in which it is possible for human beings to build nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. So the question is how do you live in such a world? What do you do about that? How do you get it under control? My answer is the answer must be political. There must be agreements, and they have to be global in character, to turn away from that technology, to get rid of it, to root it out, to draw it down, to have world-wide, global inspections, agreed by everybody, enforcement mechanisms.

I know this isn’t a perfect solution, I know it’s very difficult to achieve, but it’s the only one that actually addresses the problem. There’s no other solution that I can see that even conceptually comes to grips with the problem. This is the cutting edge of the military question now.

Because war became mass-destruction in 1945, or Great Power war became mass-destruction, so mass-destruction is the most urgent issue. Now it’s spreading into the hands of more and more people, so we need to address this problem of dissemination. And in my view, a political answer, difficult as it is to achieve, is the only conceivable one.


Poetry and the End of the World

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

We have these nuclear weapons, these bloody brutal horrible wars waged all over the world. What is the role of poetry, in this situation?

Poetry traditionally has addressed war in two ways. The first is the glamour of warfare, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the heroism of warfare, celebrating war, celebrating the cause, the sacrifice and so on.

The other of course is the horror of war: such as  Wilfred Owen’s poems about the First World War.

The greatest poems can encompass both. I think “The Iliad” does that, and there’s a wonderful essay by the French philosopher Simone Weil called “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in which she describes the poem in exactly this light.

Obviously, war is still with us in both of those senses in various forms. But now it’s got this new aspect, that is, the element of mass-destruction, more specifically, the danger that our species will blow itself off the face of the earth with these weapons. Since 1945, that has been the fundamental human question posed by so-called warfare, if you want to call a nuclear war a war at all.

What did poets have to say about that? Poets face the very same difficulties that every human being, policy makers or ordinary people, have face, which is, “How do you think about the end of the world?”

The problem is that the end of the world is nothing. What is there to write about? What is there to say about that? How do you come to grips with it? The famous phrase, “thinking about the unthinkable” has, at its root, this problem.

I’ve looked and there really isn’t very much outstanding poetry that addresses this problem. There are a few poems that do, or, I would say, they don’t come to terms with it so much as grapple with it.

They come up against this central problem, which is this nothingness. How do you describe that? What does a poet have to say about the end of everything that poetry is about, whether love or war? Here’s the end of all of that, what do they say? How do they come to grips with it? That’s a new riddle for poetry, just as it’s a new riddle for all of us.

What was the role of poets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in terms of the censorship that was going on?

It’s pretty rare that true poetry is written very quickly in response to a public event. I may have missed it, but I’m not aware of great poems that were written on the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’d love to see those poems if they exist.

The question on the table is one for poetry, and that’s what I’ve just been talking about, which is facing the possible self-extinction of our species.

If poetry is about war, if poetry is about love, if poetry is about time, then all of these are eclipsed, taken off the table, in the extinction of our species. The very roots of poetry, the very point of it, of language, the continuation of language, the existence of a future generation to read what the poet writes.

In Shakespeare’s sonnet, he’s constantly saying to his beloved, “Your beauty is fading, but it will be preserved in my lines.” This is a theme of poetry. But if nobody is there to read the poems, then the beauty is not preserved.

As I say, I’m aware of very few poems that have tackled these questions at that level, but they all find themselves coming up against this emptiness of a kind that we’ve never known before or been faced with before, trying to deal with it.

How about Robert Lowell?

Robert Lowell is one of the few poets who has addressed it, at least in one poem, “The Fall of 1961,” which is a wonderful poem. He talks about “all autumn, the chafe and jar of nuclear war” and I’m not sure why, but those words, “chafe” and “jar,” which are surprising words, surprising language—but then poetry should present us with fresh and surprising language—resonates with nuclear danger in a way that I’m powerless to explain.

Maybe it's something to do with the abrasion of living through that time, which is, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis. But he also says, “We talked our extinction to death” which is a very nice, very powerful line. Somehow it helps to capture the futility of the whole business.


Toward a Future without Violence


This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

What did you hope to accomplish with your book The Unconquerable World?

When you write a reflective book, you don't know what you want to accomplish when you set out. It is a kind of a process of discovery, in which you find your way to whatever it is that you’re going to discover or offer. That certainly was the case here.

Looking back on it, I would say that the heart of what I found my way to is that violence has become utterly self-defeating, as manifested and symbolized by the fact that we actually threaten to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth with it.

It is bankrupt, it is no way to go, if it ever was such a way to go. Whatever utility or virtues it may once have had have been utterly lost, and so we need a new way of doing things. We need to find another way of conducting our business, another way of fighting, if you will.

The wonderful thing, and the most important thing about what I seek to offer here, is that such a way has been found. It’s rudimentary, but it’s historically real.

It’s exemplified by Gandhi’s movement against the British in India, but also by the Eastern European resistance movements against Soviet rule, and here in the United States by Martin Luther King’s movement.

It's broader than specifically non-violent direct action, because that is a part of what for me, at least, was a discovery.

In human affairs, a kind of power is acting, a political power as distinct from a military power, that can actually overmatch and defeat violence and has repeatedly done so. It’s not a magic thing, it’s not a panacea--it involves suffering and struggle. It sometimes succeeds, it sometimes fails, but it is a way to go. It’s something to try; it’s something to develop at this impasse with respect to violence.

We should turn away from violence. We should start to turn away from it comprehensively, and start turning towards these other ways of doing things. And these other ways are not only a matter of direct action, but also, from my point of view, of democratic government: the liberties, the rights, the checks and balances.

Democrative government is an institutional expression of the same kind of power that arises when people agree with one another on common purposes and resolve to act together to conduct their affairs in a lawful manner; without torture in the basement, without gunfire at the local television station, without a coup d’etat to bring the next regime into power.

Is there a role for the military in this future?

I’m very pacifistic, as you can see, but I’m not a pacifist. I can conceive of situations in which the use of force is necessary, or where I would accept it, or advocate it, or do it myself even. I think that in situations of crimes against humanity, genocide for example, that it could be necessary for the international community to step in very quickly and stop it with force.

Whether we would ever arrive at a world where force would be removed entirely from the picture, well, I wouldn’t know. That's not my point: My point is that we need a sea change.

We need to place our faith, our effort, our inventive energy into these other kinds of action that are more promising, that are more fruitful, that steadily draw down the reliance on force and build up our reliance on these other means.

So are you saying that the enormous expenditures we’re making on military dominance is a waste of effort?

It is absolutely a waste of effort. Our reliance on military power as the mainstay of American policy is a profound mistake.

As I say, I do see a need and a role for force in the world that we live in, but now we impoverish ourselves. And by "impoverish" I don’t only mean economic impoverishment. I mean that we forego the tremendous opportunities that we have to act in other ways, cooperative, helpful ways, with aid, with assistance, in concert with our natural and traditional allies in other countries, to positively address the towering problems the world faces. Instead we seem to be relying almost entirely on military force. I think it’s 180 degrees the wrong direction to go in.

Of course, practically, you may have to do things slowly, you have to do things carefully, you have to change direction gradually. You have to invite other countries to step into the gap. The United States should step back militarily. Maybe some other countries would build up a little bit in order to create the possibility of truly international action and intervention when that is required.

But the emphasis should be on prevention, the emphasis should be on the solution of problems: economic, ecological, matters of justice. There’s plenty we can do other than intervene with military force, but we concentrate solely on the military aspect and forget about all the rest.


Logic and Technologies of Empire

This conversation was excerpted from Jonathan Schell’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.

Do you think any nation or group has even gone to war for anything but a noble reason?

Yes, I think they have. Yes. I think actually the Greeks were very honest with themselves. There's very little cant and nonsense in the Greeks. Thucydides has someone say that the great powers do what they can, and the lesser powers suffer what they must. That's a kind of candor that we will not find today.

They almost certainly did go to war sometimes just frankly to grab somebody's territory or their gold or some such, and were quite frank with themselves about that.

The Romans, on the other hand, tended to dress up their conquests in noble ideals, in the way the United States has done. It is more typical of our time. In our time, it's very difficult just to say, "We want the oil. We're going to go and get it." That may be the truth of the matter, but people can't say it. They have to say it's to self-defense, or it's to bring democracy or defeat evil.

I notice there's a book by Richard Pearl and David Fromm with the amazing title, "The End of Evil." Good luck with that. [laughing] They could start with the evil in their own hearts and then proceed from there. That would be a more promising tack than the one they have in mind.

Let's talk about the establishment of the empire. What was the technology situation when Europe divided up the world?

The possibility of European Imperialism, which did, indeed, conquer and divide up the world among the European powers, was created by the fantastic differential in power that arose when Europe developed the sinews of modern strength and might. The scientific, the industrial, the democratic — the unleashing of democratic energies by the democratic revolutions.

With the whole revolution of modernity having taken place in Europe, when Europeans would arrive in China, in Bombay, in Cairo, in Africa, they had a fantastic military and economic advantage. There was the greatest inequality that we've ever seen in history between one region and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, they succumbed to the temptation to use their superiority in power for purposes of conquest.

Subsequently the peoples in those regions redressed the balance. That's where these new forms of resistance — sometimes nonviolent — arose, as an attempt to solve the problem of what to do when we're faced with the overwhelming military superiority of the modernized West. We in traditional societies, we who don't have the tanks, we who don't have the telegraph, the railroad, the industry, the assembly line, how can we fight? How can we defend ourselves?

It was in that context that these forms of resistance — which I think have offered so much to the world — because now we, too, we in the West, the European civilization, we're faced with the same problem. We face the horror of our own instruments of violence: The weapons of mass destruction. After all, it's invented here. Now we turn around and we face it.

Not only our own arsenals, which could be used to destroy ourselves, but also in the fact that that technology, too, is spread out around the world. And the destructive technology that was developed by the West is now the world's technology, and other nations, poorer, weaker nations, have got their hands on it, and terrorist groups as well.

That's what happened down here at the World Trade Center, after all, is they turned out our own technology against us. They didn't bring over an airliner from Afghanistan. They used our airline to smack into those buildings.

Do you think the people of the U.S. have a sense of the reality of war?

Americans are uniquely deficient in the experience of war. After all, we've never, not since the Civil War, had war on our own soil. I think that's one reason that September 11th — which would be a shock in anybody's book — was a still greater shock for the United States.

After all, in Europe, in their memory, they have suffered millions of casualties. They have seen their cities destroyed. In the United States, we've been on the delivering end of violence for almost a century, much more than on the suffering end. Of course our soldiers have suffered and died, but even there the numbers have been much less. Millions of Russians, some 300 — in the Second World War — some 300,000 Americans, an immense number, but not on the same scale.

And our country, what we now call our homeland, has remained relatively untouched. After all, even Pearl Harbor was not part of the territorial United States when it was attacked.

Do you think the press has not been able to convey these images and realities of war? Do you think there's been any censorship?

Absolutely. I think the press in the Iraq War has absolutely glamorized and sanitized the war. As far as glamorization, you don't have to go beyond Jessica Lynch, the actual creation out of whole cloth, with the aid of the government. It's just a lie. Just a myth. Which she had the good grace to deny when, eventually, when she finally spoke.

And then the sanitation: For instance, when's the last time you saw an estimate of how many Iraqis have been killed? Not in the conventional operation, which also we don't know, some many thousands, but since then. And these constant search-and-destroy operations that are going on. We do hear about how many American casualties there are — one or two a day — but we don't hear about Iraqis are — nobody's keeping count of that. Nobody. They just die in silence.

What role does Poets Against the War have in this kind of contest?

It's been hugely important and hopeful. The peace movement in general and Poets Against the War, in particular, have been hugely important and hopeful developments. Even though these failed to stop the Iraq war from occurring, I think already it's very clear that it's going to be far more difficult for an administration to go to war again with these justifications.

If there hadn't been a strong voice in the world at large and in the United States against the war, if there hadn't been the demonstrations, the Poets Against the War, the other groups and expressions of dissent, we'd be living in a different world today. So although this war was not stopped, I think it's quite possible that the next one has already been stopped. We don't know. We'll see what comes up. We'll see what happens and what public reaction is. But I think it was absolutely critical.

What is the role of Poets Against the War in terms of anticipating another war?

I was talking before about the importance of political as distinct from military power. Here you have a beautiful example of it. The peace movement in the world at large represents, really you could say, the opinion of the human species. And this is borne out in opinion polls. This isn't something I'm making up.

The demonstrators, not in the United States, but in other countries, spoke for their populations as a whole. These were not dissenting demonstrations, these were concurring demonstrations. They concurred with the opinion of most people in their countries and even of their governments, in most cases. So that gives them tremendous weight.

Here in the United States it wasn't so, here, they were in the minority. Nevertheless, the government policy all depends still, because it's still a democracy, a kind of battered one, but still a democracy, on political support at home.

The fact that the world as a whole opposes this policy, and that there's a minority in the United States -- which is edging up towards a majority -- which now is getting further expression in the Democratic primaries, means that the way of stopping this is in view. It hasn't happened, but it's out there.

And do you think they've had any role in terms of future wars?

Yes. I think that already it's become almost impossible for the Administration to wage another such war. At least for the time being. Because the public support is too thin. Not only in the world as a whole, but at home as well.

For instance, if we imagine that they decide that they want to attack Syria now, or attack Iran, as they have discussed doing — or North Korea — I think the public would very likely turn against it immediately. And I think they know that. So it could be that the next war, if there was going to be one, has already been stopped. Hard to say. But it's possible.

Once the momentum has started, and the machine has begun, is it easy to stop? How does this relate to Iraq, as an example?

If we look at Iraq, there’s what I would call a "logic of prestige", which is a part of the logic of war, and that can trap us in situations that otherwise we should get out of. We saw this very clearly in the Vietnam War. It became clear very early on in the war that there was no concrete stake for the United States or for anyone else that could justify the kind of effort that we were making there; the kind of suffering we were enduring and causing.

What really pinned the United States in Vietnam was the fear that if we suffered a defeat in one place, the prestige of the United States would suffer so badly around the world that all kinds of other countries and peoples would take advantage of it and start challenging the US.

This is the logic of prestige, and I think we’re heading into the same kind of situation in Iraq. As I see it, we’re getting to the point of no return. Wwe’re getting to the point there where our efforts only make things worse, for ourselves and for the people there. You might say we have an obligation to them to do something, but if they don’t want us to fulfill that obligation, then where is that obligation? What is it? You don’t have an obligation to force yourself on someone else, that can’t be an obligation.

I'm afraid we’re getting to that point, but that we’re fearful of leaving because of reasons of prestige. In other words, we’re there because we’re there. We have to stay there because we can’t get out, because we can’t lose somewhere, because this would be harmful to the prestige of the United States.