I first became aware of the work of Jonathan Schell through his two excellent books of reportage on the Vietnam War, entitled The Village of Ben Suc (A Vintage Book, V-431) and The Military Half: An Account of Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin Schell utilizes a most effective technique to convey the horror of war: a very flat affect, in the style of Joe Web's "Just the facts, mam..." He manages to capture the rationales of those who do the killing, and after 40 years, I recall, and even quote his descriptions of helicopter pilots who felt they had skills and techniques to differentiate "hard-core VC" from "innocent peasants" as they flew over, at 200 mph. Of the lakes of ink that have been spilled attempting to capture the experience of the Vietnam War, these two books will always remain in my top ten. Sadly, I note that my reviews at Amazon are the only ones posted on either book.
"In the Fate of the Earth," as the title suggests, Schell goes global. No longer is he addressing a dirty little war half way around the world, fought by a slender percentage of the American population, and viewed by the vast majority on their TV sets, over dinner. The war that Schell fears, a nuclear holocaust, is one that would come crashing into everyone's living room, TV or no. The book was written in the Cold War period, 1982, when the Soviet Union and the United States had thousands of nuclear armed missiles pointed at each other. The military doctrine of the time went by the suitable acronym, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction.) The rationale, as it were, assumed the "players" were rational, and would never "push the button" since they would know it meant their own death as well.
Alamogordo, New Mexico is in the first sentence in Schell's book, and I live roughly half-way between nearby Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and Los Alamos, NM, where man's mind "created it," with a primary tool being mathematics, and the black board. Schell's first chapter is entitled "A Republic of Insects and Grass," suitable, since that is about all that would be left if the button was pressed. In his flat, scholarly style, without real histrionics, he describes what the world would look like if the holocaust came to pass. Not for the "fun read" crowd for sure. Regrettably, this possible outcome is considered all too infrequently. Fittingly, Schell quotes Kafka: "There is infinite hope, but not for us."
In his second chapter Schell moves deep into eschatology. Not only is all mankind wiped out, but "they can't get up when the film stops, and try again." Mankind, and its achievements on earth are gone forever, beyond recall. Schell does pose the arguments against a heightened concern, due to no second acts (p. 117), and then proceeds to critique them. To me, it is only so much "icing on the cake." I'm still in the school that if everyone is killed, that alone should be reason enough, and to devote a third of the book to more philosophical musings about the eternal emptiness is, well, redundant.
Schell presents a strong polemic against nuclear weapons, as well as a call for action. He concludes with: "...as I trust and believe, we will awaken to the truth of our peril, a truth as great as life itself, and, like a person who has swallowed a lethal poison but shakes off his stupor at the last moment and vomits the poison up, we will break through the layers of our denials, put aside our fainthearted excuses, and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons."
Thirty years on, and his trust might be shaken. It hasn't happened. The Soviet Union has collapsed, which lessens the possibilities of the Big Holocaust, but on the other hand, there has been a proliferation of nuclear weapons, expanding the possibilities for a World War I beginning, in which a smaller country uses its weapons first, and a tit-for-tat "chain reaction" occurs, involving all the major powers. I see where Schell continues to try to focus our attention on the problem of extinction via nuclear weapons in a recent book entitled The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (American Empire Project). Bravo for his efforts in fighting "the good fight." Though this book can be a bit redundant, perhaps it needs to be, because there is no real action yet that would justify Schell's "trust." 5-stars.