Mark Danner reflects on the journalistic legacy of Jonathan Schell and what it means to be a reporter during a speech given at the Asian Society in New York.
It is astonishing how voices can imprint themselves upon us, how by their sound and music they can reach places that images cannot. I came to love Jonathan Schell’s voice long before I knew his name. During the early 1970’s I was an adolescent living in provincial Utica, New York and I had become obsessed with the Vietnam War and its consequences. I followed the Watergate hearings on television with such obsessiveness that my parents began to worry about me. My mother would gaze at me in perplexity and intone: “Go out and play!” One night my father pulled me away from the television and, hoping to distract me, took me to the Utica Public Library. There I found sitting on a long table in the vast reading room a single copy of The New Yorker, a magazine I’d never seen. The first writing in it was a short unsigned essay about Richard Nixon’s famous “silent majority” speech of 1969, treating with shocking clarity and icy contempt the Nixon Administration’s attack on demonstrators against the Vietnam war. It was an astonishing piece. The beauty of the prose, the clarity of analysis, the authority of tone, left me breathless. The clear-eyed vision of it electrified me. The driving idea animating its limpid, sensible sentences was that if you simply looked at public events closely enough, with a rational, determined, patriotic, mildly indignant gaze, you would come to understand them, and if you could reproduce this sensible, clear-eyed gaze in prose you could tell others how to understand them as well. At the time it didn’t occur to me that a single writer had written this. It seemed the voice of God speaking. It was only later, before I came to The New Yorker as a staff writer myself, that I realized that the Comments were actually written by individual writers. It was only much later that I learned that this inimitable voice belonged to a particular writer and I began to read him. His name was Jonathan Schell.
Jonathan Schell did his work armed with the newspaper, the Constitution and his own two eyes. I realized the marvel of that only much later when I became a writer myself. There’s a voluptuous pleasure in being a reporter. When you’re far away from confusing events you can have the luxury of being certain about them, of believing that you understand them completely. In one form or another ideology serves as your guide, convincing you that you understand implicitly what is happening. The marvel comes when you touch down in a complicated, violent, contradictory, murderous place. Suddenly all is darkness. You’re inundated by a blizzard of sense impressions, what you see, what you hear, what people tell you, and after a few days suddenly you confront the fact that you know nothing. Suddenly you realize that understanding what is happening can only come from you – from building patiently a structure founded on what you’ve actually seen and heard. That is the voluptuous, gorgeous moment — for me, an immensely enjoyable moment. It is plain from reading Jonathan’s early work in particular that he knew the voluptuousness of that moment: of coming to that sudden, vertiginous realization that he knew nothing at all and of realizing that he had to go out and see things for himself and report as clearly as possible what he had seen.
The difficulty of doing this simple thing cannot be exaggerated. Reporters, like most people, move in packs. Reporters tell one another what they’re seeing, what they’ve seen, what they should see. We all tell one another how to see the world. To actually succeed in seeing it yourself, uniquely, is a triumph: a triumph of purpose and a triumph of will.
One of the pieces in the pages that follow, “The Village of Ben Suc,” exemplifies this method. And it shows the method that must have come from somewhere deep in Jonathan’s soul, for –incredibly – this was his first published piece. He had gone to Vietnam as a recent college graduate, bearing credentials from his college newspaper. He had never reported before. He was wholly untried and untrained, and he produced for The New Yorker an example of war reporting that immediately became, and has remained, a classic of the genre.
In the description that follows the village of Ben Suc is being “cleared.” US soldiers, with whom Jonathan has flown into the village by helicopter, have begun emptying the village of people and taking them away to a camp, before destroying their homes. Jonathan is sitting with several soldiers by the side of the road in the outskirts of the village:
The sky, which had been overcast, began to show streaks of blue, and a light wind stirred the trees. The bombing, the machine-gunning from helicopters, the shelling, and the rocket firing continued steadily. Suddenly a Vietnamese man on a bicycle appeared, pedaling rapidly along the road from the direction of the village. He was wearing the collarless, pajama like black garment that is both the customary dress of the Vietnamese peasant and the uniform of the National Liberation Front, and although he was riding away from the center of the village — a move forbidden by the voices from the helicopters — he had, it appeared, already run by a long gauntlet of American soldiers without being stopped. But when he had ridden about twenty yards past the point where he first came in sight, there was a burst of machine-gun fire from a copse thirty yards in front of him, joined immediately by a burst form a vegetable field to one side, and he was hurled off his bicycle into a ditch a yard from the road. The bicycle crashed into a side embankment. The man with the Minolta camera, who had done the firing from the vegetable patch, stood up after about a minute and walked over to the ditch, followed by one of the engineers. The Vietnamese in the ditch appeared to be about twenty, and he lay on his side without moving, blood flowing from his face, which, with the eyes open, was half buried in the dirt at the bottom of the ditch. The engineer leaned down, felt the man’s wrist, and said, “He’s dead.” The two men — both companions of mine on No. 47 — stood still for a while, with folded arms, and stared down at the dead man’s face, as though they were giving him a chance to say something. Then the engineer said, with a tone of finality, “That’s a V.C. for you. He’s a V.C., all right. That’s what they wear. He was leaving town.” He had to have some reason.
The two men walked back to a ridge in the vegetable field and sat down on it, looking off into the distance in a puzzled way and no longer bothering to keep low. The man who had fired spoke suddenly as though coming out of deep thought. I saw this guy coming down the road on a bicycle,” he said. “And I thought, you know, is this it? Do I shoot? Then some guy over there in the bushes opened up, so I cut loose.”
The engineer raised his eyes in the manner of someone who has made a strange discovery and said, “I’m not worried. You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a dead guy, and I don’t feel bad. I just don’t, that’s all.” Then, with a hard edge of defiance in his voice, he added, “Actually, I’m glad. I’m glad we killed the little V.C.”
Now this is a simple passage. It consists purely of description and the recording of dialogue. But it does something complicated. While arguing no editorial point it proves a profound reality. It shows you – without telling you — that this is a murder.
He forces upon us this reality by simply describing in a wholly uninflected way what happens in front of him. Perhaps it was Leo Tolstoy who first made conscious use of this technique. Ostranenie, the critic Viktor Shklovsky called it: “estrangement.” To make what is familiar strange, to “defamiliarize” it. “The purpose of art,” Shklovsky wrote, “is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar.’” Describe what happens in front of you in an absolutely blank, clear, mechanical way and in so doing lead the reader to question what’s happened, what’s beneath those everyday things, what’s really going on behind them. In doing this in “The Village of Ben Suc,” Jonathan shows that this is not just a particular murder, a quiet murder, an unrecorded murder that no one will ever talk about or know about. He shows us, in depicting without comment the murder and the vast destruction of which it is a part, the impossibility of this particular war. One can’t read “The Village of Ben Suc” without coming away with the strong impression that the war is going to fail, that the American effort in Vietnam is doomed. The piece, among many other things, was an act of prophesy. He was twenty-four years old.
Jonathan Schell was an American Jeremiah. Along with his prophetic streak, he had a patriotic streak that was very strong, and along with that a streak of humanism that told him that if you could just get people to see what’s really going on, if you can knife through the great ocean of lies and reveal what’s really happening, whether it is in Vietnam, in Iraq, or in the country’s nuclear silos – name the subject – if you can simply show people what is really happening, they will join together to do what is right. That’s a deeply patriotic notion for it bespeaks ultimate faith in the vision and fairness of his fellow citizens. Implicit in it is faith in an old-fashioned notion of citizenship in which reporters reveal wrongdoing, the Congress and the press investigates it, and the courts punish and expiate it. Revelation. Investigation. Expiation. The Watergate scandal of the mid-Seventies, which was in effect the public reckoning with the corruption and scandal and mass murder of the Vietnam War, exemplified this virtuous cycle. Watergate was the great American processional: the American Oresteia. Like the Oresteia of Agammenon and Orestes and the others, it was about the creation of a certain model of public rectitude and justice. That was why I was so captivated by those televised hearings as a fifteen-year-old. They showed the American coming to justice. The journalist revealed, the Congress and the courts investigated and then a president resigned and people went to jail. Americans, through our institutions, beginning with our reporters – our truth tellers – brought out into the light what was corrupt and poisonous and excised it from the body politic.
From his first reporting as a 24-year-old in Vietnam through his many books and articles over four decades and more, Jonathan Schell remained a truth teller, his work animated by this simple patriotic vision of what his country was and what it could be. Though he wrote about many other things, notably nuclear weapons and non-violent political change, Vietnam and its aftermath remained central to his vision. The misbegotten war and its reckoning in the great civic pageant that was Watergate exemplified both the horrors of what the country could do with its unmatched power and the redemption that its unique institutions could bring in response. From our vantage, after 9/11 and the Iraq War and Forever War that have followed, Vietnam and the civic correction Watergate brought appear more the exception than the rule. We will see. It is our great loss that Jonathan Schell, who died in 2014 at the age of seventy, is no longer here to make that judgment. We can be deeply thankful for what he left behind, so resonant in these pages: that sensible, modest, ardent and inimitable voice.
–Mark Danner, Tivoli, NY
Mark Danner is a writer who has covered war and political conflict for three decades, reporting from Central America, Haiti, the Balkans and the Middle East. Among his books are The Massacre at El Mozote, Stripping Bare the Body, and Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.