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War is so Twentieth Century.

The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People By Jonathan Schell Metropolitan Books. 433 pages. $27.50.

Nuclear abolitionist and Nation contributor Jonathan Schell sets out in his latest book to remake the world--no less--while at the same time giving an abbreviated global history of modern warfare and nonviolence. Not surprisingly, the book ultimately founders on its ambitions, which is a pity, since it contains a lot of fascinating material.

"In these pages, I will try to look past history's feints and tricks," Schell announces in the book's opening pages, as he pledges to "pose afresh the issue of war and peace, of annihilation and survival."

Focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Schell discusses how military conflict reached its apex, while at the same time a countervailing force--nonviolence--came into being.

"In the mountainous slag heaps of twentieth-century history, they are the flecks of gold that the twenty-first century must sift out and put to use," he states.

Schell's approach is too schematic, and his discussion about how military warfare is giving way to nonviolence can be seen as too Pollyannaish, especially given recent events.

Also marring Schell's book is his overly ambitious scope. Not satisfied merely to analyze the history of war and nonviolence, he also takes on the nature of the nation-state, the international political system, and the dynamics of the global economy.

In the first section of the book, Schell charts out a history of modern warfare. Unfortunately, he gets bogged down in an uninteresting analysis of military strategist Karl von Clausewitz and the impact of his ideas. Schell attempts to rehabilitate Clausewitz from his image as a warmonger. Clausewitz was actually in favor of subordinating war to political ends and hence limiting it, Schell argues.

He also traces the contribution of science, the industrial revolution, and imperialism to the evolution of war. These trends, he says, culminated in the total warfare of the First and the Second World Wars. Schell's linear historical approach toward warfare--which in reality has had a much more complex, messy trajectory--may elicit howls of protest from experts in the field.

Schell is on firmer ground when he discusses the atomic bomb and its role in war. This is not astonishing, since Schell has made a name for himself over the past few decades as an ardent nuclear abolitionist. He makes full use of his expertise, giving lengthy space to a discussion of nuclear war: "The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima reverberated in every domain of human existence.... In our present context, its most important consequence was that it rendered the global war system unworkable beyond any hope of repair."

Schell also discusses the development of "people's war"--nationalist guerrilla movements in poorer nations. Their "methods of warfare" were "in their own way ... scarcely less 'absolute' than the total war of the great powers, and in the long run, were to prove the more successful invention," he writes. "These were the methods of people's war."

This, Schell says, manifested itself most prototypically in the Chinese, the Algerian, and the Vietnamese revolutions, where entire populations were involved in a struggle for power, and where even nuclear weapons (such as for the United States in Vietnam) were useless.

Both nuclear deterrence and people's wars marked a departure from conventional warfare, he argues. And by toying with terrible consequences, both ironically pointed toward a nonviolent future: "In reaching each of these ambiguous extremes, 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."

But Schell's metaphors are somewhat inappropriate here. It's unclear who the "climbers" in this case are, but if he is referring to the proponents of people's wars, such as Mao Zedong, or nuclear deterrence, such as Henry Kissinger, they weren't particularly interested in "turning their steps down the other side."

When Schell takes a look at e other side--nonviolence--he provides the most absorbing material in his book. He properly stresses what too few have noted: the effectiveness of non-violence.

"The two kinds of power contend in the same world for the upper hand, and the seemingly weaker one can, it turns out, defeat the seemingly stronger, as the downfall of the British Raj and the Soviet Union showed," he writes.

The man, Schell says, who upended prevailing theories of war and social change was, of course, Gandhi. Schell's discussion of Gandhi and his spiritual and political inspirations is commendable, even if it contains some minor errors. (Contrary to Schell's assertion, India did challenge British power significantly before Gandhi: on a wide scale, in the War of 1857, for example, as well as periodic local rebellions. And India achieved independence in 1947, not 1948.) Still, Schell gets to the roots of Gandhi's thought: "All government, he steadily believed, depends for its existence on the cooperation of the governed. If that cooperation is withdrawn, the government will be helpless."

Schell also draws interesting parallels between Gandhi and late twentieth century Eastern European dissidents such as Vaclav Havel. And he claims that Hannah Arendt owes a large and almost entirely unacknowledged debt to Gandhi.

The force of nonviolence that Gandhi unleashed reached a climax, Schell writes, with the collapse of the Soviet empire.

"The nonviolent popular resistance that brought down the Berlin Wall was as historically consequential--as final an arbiter--as either of the two world wars," he says. "It ended Soviet communism and its shadow, the specter of 'international communism.' It finished off an empire whose origins predated the communists. It initiated the creation of more than a dozen new countries. It was the equivalent of a third world war except in one particular--it was not a war."

By lavishing so much attention on Gandhi, however, Schell slights other pioneers of nonviolence. One is Abdul Ghaffar ("Badshah") Khan, also known as the "Frontier Gandhi." Khan, a friend of Gandhi, founded a movement called the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) in the 1920s in the frontier region of present-day Pakistan to nonviolently drive out the British and as a tool for social reform. Schell's omission is more glaring because Khan derived his inspiration from a religion--Islam--that some malign today as intrinsically violent. Surely, Khan's life and work have some relevance for both the theory and the practice of nonviolence.

Schell also neglects to mention Cesar Chavez and Aung San Suu Kyi, among others.

And his treatment of Martin Luther King Jr. is not fresh, either. Other historians have gone over the King-Gandhi territory, and Schell adds nothing new here, or in his account of the civil rights movement. But Schell does have a pithy line or two.

"Under a totalitarian system, non-violence is revolutionary; under a democratic system it is an agent of reform," he writes. "For the one it is lethal, for the other curative, as it was for the United States in the time of the civil rights movement."

One contribution Schell does make is to reveal the nonviolent components of the American, French, and Russian revolutions. Schell claims that all of these revolutions were much more nonviolent, at least initially, than generally thought to be and that violence took over at a much later stage.

He quotes Leon Trotsky (sounding a lot like Gandhi, as Schell points out) on the Russian Revolution: "Not the ability of the masses to kill others but their great readiness them selves to die--this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular uprising.... I don't know of any examples in history in which such enormous masses participated and which took place so bloodlessly."

Schell argues that if a liberal democratic state is to live up to its ideals, it must become a nonviolent state. From here, Schell expands his vision toward building a nonviolent international order: "Why should domestic governments alone be founded on nonviolent principles? Why stop at national borders? Shouldn't a system of cooperative power, the key to resolving disputes without violence, be extended to the limits of the Earth?"

Schell provides a list of sweeping proposals to remake the world. He picks four issues as the most important: disarmament, reworking the concept of sovereignty to end wars of self-determination, prohibiting crimes against humanity, and a democratic league to help support global democracy.

All of this sounds utopian, especially given the Bush Administration's militarism, as well as the conflicts that are roiling Africa and other parts of the world. Schell recognizes the hazards of the Bush approach, although he does not let this dim his hopefulness.

"For Americans, the choice is at once between two Americas and between two futures for the international order," he says. "An imperial America," and "a republican America."

Schell provides little by way of practical advice as to how the United States, let alone the world, can find its footing along the nonviolent path. What he leaves the reader with is some lofty rhetoric, along with some valuable insights.

Too bad that Schell did not have more manageable aspirations for the book, since it would have been a more interesting one.

Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The Progressive. He is working on a book on the legacy of Gandhi for other practitioners of pacifism.
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Author:Pal, Amitabh
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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