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Issue Date:  November 5, 2004

By Ira Chernus
Orbis Books, 230 pages, $20
By Jonathan Schell
Metropolitan Books, 433 pages, $27.50
By Lawrence Wittner
Stanford University Press, 657 pages, $32.95
Books on nonviolence offer a prescription for sanity


As the planet’s leading warrior nation, one whose military has invaded more than 20 countries since 1945, has a Congress that allots half of the discretionary federal tax revenues to war, has routinely elected military men as its presidents, has military bases in all parts of the world, is the globe’s largest maker and seller of weapons, and unfailingly prosecutes or jails those who conscientiously object a mite too strongly to it all, small wonder then that the nonviolent movement has been cast as a fringe movement.

But the casting requires an avoidance of both the past and present. In American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, joins a long list of authors -- Staughton Lind, Michael Nagler, Anne Montgomery, among others -- who probe beyond the headlines and political debate that accept governmental violence as inevitable and just. For Chernus, “the nonviolence tradition runs quietly, like an underground stream, through U.S. history. Its effects have been less visible than the tradition of war and violence. But its effects may some day prove to be more lasting. A Chinese leader was once asked to assess the effects of the French Revolution. Though it was nearly 200 years after the event, he wisely replied: ‘It is too soon to tell.’ The same may be true of the men and women who led America’s nonviolence movements.”

Focusing on people who acted on the idea and ideals of nonviolence, not merely intellectually dabbled in them, Chernus includes the Anabaptists, Quakers, anarchists, Catholic Workers and activists such as Adin Ballou, Barbara Deming, Henry David Thoreau, A.J. Muste and Dorothy Day. The only misstep is the inclusion of Reinhold Niebuhr, a touter of Augustine and a man who believed that violence is necessary to obtain justice. That makes him a leader of the movement? Except for squandering 16 pages on Niebuhr -- OK, professors are entitled to an off day now and then -- Chernus is a sound, nuanced and factual guide to the philosophy of nonviolence and the commitments of those who live by it. Like the idea he writes about, Chernus’s effort should be treasured.

During the 1960s and through the ’80s, William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, reserved space in the country’s best magazine for one of its finest writers, Jonathan Schell. In clearheaded prose and persuasive argument, Schell, then in his early 30s, shattered illusion after illusion about militarism, from the Vietnam War to the threat of nuclear annihilation. His books included The Village of Ben Suc, The Real War and, perhaps his best known, The Fate of the Earth.

Few contemporary writers have produced so grounded a literature of peace. It continues with The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People. A blend of history, politics and the philosophies of nonviolent conflict resolution, it exhibits Schell’s belief that “forms of nonviolent action can serve effectively in the place of violence at every level of political affairs.” Is that another dreamy fantasy from the antiwar left? Not if recent evidence counts. In only the past 20 years, seven brutal or corrupt regimes were overthrown by organized nonviolent campaigns: in Poland, Chile, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, South Africa and Georgia. Two decades ago, who would have predicted that tyrants would be removed because risk-taking citizens with no guns, tanks, bombs or armies took action? Yet it happened.

Schell is not a pacifist, which places him in the company of peace writers Thomas Merton and Howard Zinn, and not with all-the-way pacifists David McReynolds, Arthur Laffin, A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan or David Dellinger. Schell points to “situations, both historical and imaginary, in which it was clear that I would support the use of force or myself use it.” But isn’t this the “violence as a last resort” argument we keep hearing from one war machine or another?

That aside -- save for another day a debate on whether part-time pacifism is viable -- Jonathan Schell’s voice is unique in explaining the failures of peace through strength and the successes of strength through peace.

Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany, has not had the access to the mass media that Schell enjoys. But his scholarship and patient digging has brought to the public an enduring body of work. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present is the final part of a trilogy that includes One World or None and Resisting the Bomb. Amid the thoroughness of Wittner’s 18 chapters, 1,751 footnotes, 108 interviews and 35 pages of bibliography is a deft and readable account of how a coalition of public and private citizens has kept the ever-itchy nuclear finger from being pulled.

Refreshingly, Wittner has a talent for debunking, which isn’t hard considering the mountains of governmental bunk piled high these past 30 years. Of the notion that the United States brought down the Soviet Union, Wittner writes: “Chalking up a great overseas victory for U.S. military power plays well among Americans, and especially among ardent nationalists -- people who like to wave flags, pledge allegiance, and sing ‘God Bless America.’ George H.W. Bush’s claims during the 1992 campaign that he had ‘won the Cold War’ are perfectly understandable, even though, as Bill Clinton responded, Bush was behaving like ‘the rooster who took credit for the dawn.’ Asked about Bush’s 1992 claims that the Soviet Union had simply crumpled before U.S. military might, Gorbachev responded: ‘I suppose these are necessary things in a campaign. But if this is serious, then it is a very big delusion.’ ”

Wittner himself appears to be delusion-free about the chances for nuclear disarmament. “Are the people of the world capable of altering their traditional institutions of governance to meet this challenge? ... If one looked solely at their long record of war, plunder and other human folly, one might conclude they are not. But an examination of the history of the nuclear disarmament movement inspires a greater respect for human potential. Indeed, defying the national barriers and the murderous traditions of the past, millions of people have joined hands to build a safer, saner world.”

The building goes on, supported by authors who know of no worthier issue to write about.

Colman McCarthy, who has written for NCR since 1966, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C., and is currently teaching courses on nonviolence at eight schools.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 2004

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