Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (May 29, 2017)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons).

The war in Laos, of course, was part of a larger regional conflict referred to as the Second Indochina War (1958-75), more commonly known as the ‘Vietnam War’ in the U.S. or ‘the American War’ in Vietnam. Decades later, many gaping wounds still exist, as the impacts of the war remain deeply embedded in not only the land and infrastructure of Southeast Asia, but also in the bodies and collective psyches of Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Americans scattered across the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that in many ways the war has not ended, although those affected have made enormous efforts to seek reconciliation, justice, or somehow make peace with the past.

Kim Phuc and others fleeing Trang Bang, June 1972 (photos by Nick Ut).

.. In his book “On Apology,” Aaron Lazare (2004) describes numerous anecdotes of individuals and groups who have sought forgiveness or justice for various offenses. One of these, the story of Kim Phuc and John Plummer, pertains to Vietnam. The tragic photos and video of 9-year-old Kim – naked and severely burned – and other children fleeing the napalm-strafed village of Trang Bang have long been iconic images of the war. Plummer was a young American officer in Bien Hoa responsible for coordinating an average of 130 American and 60 South Vietnamese air strikes per day (Chong 1999: 80-3). He claimed to have been the coordinator for the attack on Trang Bang, which was conducted by South Vietnamese pilots, though others have stated that records show his involvement was not possible (Washington Post, 1997). Facts do matter, and it is easy to see how a story of American involvement in bombing Vietnamese children could be (and has been) politicized. But whether Plummer was integral in the attack on Trang Bang is of secondary importance here. What is relevant is Kim’s very real physical and emotional suffering, the fact that Plummer believed he was responsible and carried a burden of guilt for more than two decades, and that she forgave him when they met in Washington, DC in 1996, twenty-four years later. Lazare’s description of Plummer is telling as to what motivates some people to seek forgiveness:

Plummer was not under prosecution: The victim did not even know his identity. He was not trying to manipulate the situation or escape punishment for his actions. The pain he felt was internal – he simply lacked inner peace. On his own account, apologizing face-to-face and receiving forgiveness seems to have silenced the screams and given him peace” (Lazare, 2004: 182).

As to what motivated Kim Phuc to forgive, at age 45 she wrote in an essay for NPR:

Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?(emphasis added)

Another incident from the war entrenched in American consciousness was the massacre at the village of My Lai, which claimed the lives of perhaps up to five hundred Vietnamese civilians. During a 1971 court-martial, a young lieutenant named William Calley was the only person convicted for the atrocity. Though he was quickly pardoned, the events of that day seem to have rankled with him ever since. In August 2009, Calley publicly apologized for the first time for his role in the atrocity, forty-one years after the fact. In his words: “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” As I’ve written before about the case of Joshua Blahyi (‘General Butt Naked’), and his role in the deaths of 20,000 Liberians, some offenses lie outside any normal parameters of forgiveness. Whether any apology from William Calley can ever be sufficient is up to the people of My Lai. Amazingly, some Vietnamese have made overtures to him. Pham Thanh Cong was a boy at the time of the massacre and lost his entire family to a hand grenade and machine gun fire, while he survived with bullet wounds. He is now director of the My Lai Museum and made an offer of reconciliation to Calley:

If the government will allow it, I will invite him here, not to scold him or reprimand him, but to try and understand why he ordered the killing…If he comes here, he and I could become friends. We could confide and talk to each other. We really want him to come back and see the truth.” (emphasis added)

The above examples of Kim Phuc and My Lai are cited not to imply that the atrocities of the war in Vietnam were one-sided. Indeed, atrocity seems to be an inherent component of war. Rather, they stand out because (1) they are two of the more memorable images of the war, and (2) coincidentally, they serve as extraordinary case studies of the human need for apology, forgiveness and resolution, even after decades have passed. These are not isolated incidents. Other highly significant instances of apology have surfaced since Lazare published his 2004 book. For some people, the sense of remorse is so great that they seek to atone even after death. An Oregon man on death row for murder recently petitioned the state for the right to donate his organs following execution so that he might help others in some way, despite his past crime. Other examples include the Japanese government’s apology for colonizing Korea, the British apology for Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. Senate apologizing to African-Americans for slavery and segregation. And in 2007, the Danish government even apologized for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier. If an apology can be extended (and accepted) after a millennium, then perhaps there is no statute of limitations on reconciliation. Why does the need to reconcile carry so much emotional weight, and why can it last for so long?

Why Guilt and Forgiveness?

On the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s apology for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, former congressman Norman Mineta reflected that “it will always mean more to me than I can ever adequately express.” Why do such gestures carry so much meaning? Lazare enumerated some of the reasons that offended individuals seek apologies: to see genuine remorse in the offender, to reestablish trust, to seek assurances of safety and shared values, and to restore one’s dignity. Similarly, he notes there are many motives to apologize: empathy for others, guilt for the offense, or shame for failing to adhere to one’s standards. To that list, one could add: a desire to repair a frayed relationship, to avoid sanctions such as ostracization, or simply to demonstrate that they recognize and respect the dignity of the offended.

For individuals, the longing for apology or forgiveness resides somewhere in one’s personal history and synaptic connections of memory. For group-level apologies, the impetus may differ. In explaining why he felt an official apology for slavery was necessary, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin stated: “It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice.” In the case of Kim Phuc, she attributed her ability to forgive to a religious conversion, and for her this very well may have been instrumental. But the desire for reconciliation must derive at least in part from our social instincts and ‘the better angels of our nature,’ rather than being restricted to any single cultural tradition.2 In “The Origins of Virtue,” Matt Ridley described our evolved emotions primarily as social enhancers. In that sense, they can push us to commit to an action, allowing us to go beyond mere rational calculation when weighing the pros and cons of whether to cooperate:

Rage deters transgressors; guilt makes cheating painful for the cheat; envy represents self-interest; contempt earns respect; shame punishes; compassion elicits reciprocal compassion…And love commits us to a relationship” (Ridley, 1996: 142).

Others, such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt, concur that our socially-oriented emotions are deeply rooted products of evolution, but this is not to say that the visceral level explains all. Young and Saxe (2009) argue that moral judgments are a three-tiered process, including: an intuitive level that cues individuals to reject emotionally aversive harms; a level based on abstract reasoning; and one based on reading the motives of the guilty person (intentional vs. accidental harms). But, as Paul Bloom wrote, “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone” and even begins in infancy, prior to much of our socialization and learning the ethical traditions of any particular culture (Bloom, 2010). Evidence for this comes from preverbal 6 to 10- month olds, who show a strong preference (more than 85%) for helpful vs. uncooperative toy puppets that act out different scenarios (Hamlin et al 2007).


My sons in another water-related scenario, at the WWII monument in D.C. This time, no rocks were thrown and no child was hurt.

Quick story: when my sons were 5 and 2 years old, I took them to a local pond, where we looked at the ducks and threw rocks (not at the ducks). An errant throw from my younger son struck his older brother in the head, not hard enough to make him cry, but sufficient to make him grimace in pain and rub his head. However, my younger son did cry, and without being scolded or prompted. It was also a novel experience, not something learned by conditioning. Rather, his tears derived from something internal – perhaps his empathy for his older brother or feeling guilty for causing him pain. At age 2. Aside from his tears and the tiny bump on my older son’s head, it was a proud-papa moment to see empathy in my very young son. (And, yes, I know my kids are not science experiments. But parents can learn a lot from their children too).

It is somewhat comforting to think that nature has built into us a basic sense of right and wrong. While it is true that human behavior varies tremendously and is influenced by culture, this does not make us infinitely malleable. Rather, it makes sense that our species comes equipped with some basic behavioral patterns and tools that allow us to navigate the subtleties of our complex, highly social, primate lives. This is mediated at least in part by our emotions, as we shy from ones that make us feel bad (shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment) and gravitate toward those that make us feel good (pride, acceptance, joy, affection).3 Importantly, these emotions reflect or predict whether we are able to reap the benefits of social cooperation. To some extent, babies seem to get this, and perhaps other primate species do as well. Among chimpanzees, unrelated individuals who have engaged in physical aggression sometimes reconcile through grooming or embracing (Kutsukake and Castles, 2004). However, this occurs less frequently in wild than captive chimpanzees, perhaps because they have more space simply to avoid their rivals. Stumptail macaques have been described as having high-frequency, low-intensity aggression, but they also have a rich “repertoire of appeasement and reassurance gestures,” including grooming, genital presentation/inspection, submissive facial expressions and vocalizations, mounting, and mouth-to-mouth contact (deWaal and Johanowicz, 1993). Further, in the apes (but not monkeys), uninvolved bystanders sometimes console those on the losing side of physical aggression. This is particularly true when the loser is the victim of unprovoked violence, as opposed to an instigator who’s received comeuppance (deWaal, 2008). Thus, the building blocks of reconciliation and consolation are present in non-human primates (even when aggression does not directly involve them), allowing them to maintain group cohesion.

A juvenile chimpanzee consoling an adult male just defeated in a fight with a rival (photo by Frans de Waal)

The benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation can also be seen in computer models of aggressive/peaceful behavior (Bass, 1993). In simulated population models of animal behavior, hyperaggressive individuals (‘hawks’) will thrive at the expense of docile pacifists (‘doves’). However, doves that have a retaliatory streak (‘tit-for-tat’) will fare better in that they incur the benefits from cooperating with each other, while simultaneously keeping hawks from those benefits when they meet. Better still, a ‘generous tit-for-tat’ program will forgive another’s occasional defection and absorb the blow – the logic being that it could be a mistake rather than a character defect or a pattern of behavior. This keeps the door open for future cooperation and all the benefits that entails. These models reinforce the notion that altruism, cooperation, and forgiveness could evolve under natural conditions. Indeed, they have (see Dawkins, 1976; de Waal, 2008; Ridley, 1996).

The Biology of Guilt and Forgiveness 

An important corollary question concerns where guilt and forgiveness originate, biologically. Shin et al (2000) looked at PET scans and physiological responses of eight young men in Boston (avg. age of 25) who provided researchers with written descriptions of personal events: one involving the most guilt the participant had ever experienced, and two neutral events. The participants were then read a transcript of their self-described experiences while being scanned and monitored for physiological changes in heart rate, skin conductance (an estimate of emotional arousal in sweat glands), and left lateral frontalis electromyograms (activity in the muscle over the forehead). As expected, the men reported that subjective feelings of guilt increased when read their transgressions, as did shame, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear. However, researchers found that physiological responses did not differ significantly between the guilt and neutral states. The PET scans revealed that regional cerebral blood flow increased in three paralimbic regions of the brain, including the bilateral anterior temporal poles, anterior cingulate gyrus, and left anterior insular cortex/inferior frontal cortex, while decreases were seen in more posterior portions of the left insular cortex. However, the researchers also noted the difficulty in isolating the experience of guilt from other simultaneously experienced emotions (ex. shame, sadness). Nor was the severity of the guilt-related experiences in these young men revealed.

Blood flow increases in the guilt state from PET scan results (A) anterior temporal poles, (B) anterior cingulate gyrus, (C) left anterior insular cortex/inferior frontal gyrus (from Shin et al.)

Other studies (via fMRI studies or in patients with region-specific brain lesions) have implicated different brain regions, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in the experience of guilt (Krajbich et al, 2009 ; Takahashi et al, 2004; Zahn et al, 2009). It’s logical that multiple regions would be involved in complex emotions, lying along an axis spanning higher order and lower order brain function. It’s also likely that guilt may not even be a single entity; perhaps we face linguistic constraints when attempting to translate our emotions into symbolic, spoken words. Certainly, studying guilt must also be context dependent; for example, whether a guilt-inducing scenario was actually experienced by study subjects or is merely hypothetical, as well as the degree of guilt (an overdue library book vs. murder). Finally, it is also essential to consider how a behavior fits into cultural norms. What is taboo in one culture may be the norm in another, and guilt will follow accordingly. Shin’s finding that the left anterior insular cortex was involved in guilt could be important, as the insula is often involved in feelings of disgust to aversive stimuli, be they visual, gustatory, or moral. Phillips et al (2003: 508) speculated that its involvement in guilt could be akin to “self-directed disgust.” However, while we can always walk away from disgusting food, smells, images, or people, we do not have the option of walking away from ourselves. This could partially explain why guilt is a form of disgust that does not easily dissipate, as seen in the cases of John Plummer and William Calley above. It also points to the necessity for self-forgiveness for one’s psychological health, if absolution from others is not forthcoming. While guilt has important functions in deterring socially unacceptable behavior, it can have a runaway effect which can overwhelm under the proper conditions:

Despite the appeal of (the) rational fallacy, our higher brain areas are not immune to the subcortical influences we share with other creatures. Of course, the interchange between cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, but the flow of traffic remains balanced only in nonstressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of subcortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain are stronger than top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower the downward controls through emotional education and self-mastery, few can ride the whirlwind of unbridled emotions with great skill.” (Panksepp, 2004: 301)

On the other side of the equation, Hayashi et al (2010) looked at the biological correlates of forgiveness using PET scans. Twelve Japanese men were asked to read single-sentence hypothetical scenarios depicting transgressions that were designated either serious (ex. a hungover surgeon botches an operation, a wife sees her husband ‘walking intimately’ with a woman) or minor (ex. a doctor forgets a patient’s name, a tired student is absent from school). The study subjects knew that all perpetrators in the scenarios were guilty. In the stories, perpetrators were then confronted by someone who asked if they did the deed, and they replied honestly or not. Hayashi et al. hypothesized that more severe transgressions and the dishonesty of the perpetrator would both decrease the chances that a person would be willing to forgive, and that this would be reflected in their neuro-circuitry. As in guilt, the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex was active when they knew the perpetrator was dishonest, and the authors noted the importance of this area of the brain in the ability to read others’ intentions (the “theory of mind” network). Results for severity of the transgression, however, were inconclusive. As in studies of guilt, those concerning the neuroscience of forgiveness are limited by the fact that participants encounter hypothetical, rather than personal, experiences. I have difficulty imagining that such scenarios could ever simulate the intricacies and the cognitive-emotional journey involved in more trying examples of forgiveness. For people like Kim Phuc and Pham Thanh Cong, absolution did not (and likely could not) happen overnight. It would be fascinating to understand what happens in that journey when they cross some mental threshold that allows them to forgive. However, it is easy to see how logistically difficult it would be to conduct such a study, such as being able to find and recruit willing participants with comparable experiences. As seen in the above models of hawks, doves, and generous tit-for-tat, forgiveness allows for future cooperation. Some have noted that our neurobiology contains mechanisms which reinforce reciprocal altruism. Rilling et al (2002) found that in 36 women who played multiple rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a game with the option to cooperate or not with a partner), mutual cooperation was associated with brain regions involved in reward processing (via dopamine), including the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus. Further, study participants reported experiencing the most satisfaction in mutual cooperation outcomes, even though this is not the interaction that would give one the most points. That distinction goes to the combination when one accepts, but does not reciprocate, altruism (sort of like taking advantage of a ‘sucker’). Perhaps the reason for this is that maximizing immediate gains is less important than facilitating trust, with the accompanying payoffs from sustainable cooperation. At some level, our brains seem to get this. On the other hand, unreciprocated cooperation is linked with robust activation of the anterior insula in the cooperator (that feeling of disgust, again) (Rilling et al 2008). Although these are merely game scenarios, it is not too great a leap to see how this applies to ‘real life.’ A lack of cooperation could lead to a cycle of resentment, if not broken through reconciliation.

Reconciliation in Southeast Asia

The above lessons from case studies of forgiveness, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience underline the need to repair the damage leftover from the Second Indochina War. As a start, efforts to normalize international relations between the U.S. and Vietnam and Laos have progressed since the war ended.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with General Vo Nguyen Giap in a reconciliation trip to Hanoi, 1995 (Washington Post).

However, serious challenges remain: High rates of psychological trauma in veterans and refugees; broken families created by death and separation; the remnants of unexploded ordnance (UXO) which cause hundreds of deaths and injuries annually; low rates of UXO survivors receiving a prosthesis;  the carcinogenic effects of Agent Orange dioxins in veterans and in southern Vietnamese; lingering health problems from early malnutrition in Hmong refugees; maltreatment of Hmong refugees by the Thai military, who forcibly repatriated them to Laos in 2009 against the wishes of the international community; the fact that Cambodia and Laos remain two of the poorest countries in the world; and high rates of poverty in Hmong, Lao, and Cambodians in the U.S. .

On the bright side, there are glimmers of hope for reconciliation. Last year, Rep. Mike Honda (D- California) called for the U.S. to increase financial support for UXO removal in Laos from $2.7 to $7 million annually. Organizations such as Soldiers Heart organize trips for American veterans to return to Vietnam to facilitate healing and reconciliation with Vietnamese veterans and civilians. In 2009, the Department of Veteran Affairs reduced obstacles to sick and disabled veterans receiving benefits for a number of ailments linked to Agent Orange. Last June, a joint-group of U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers, organized by the Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute, recommended that the U.S. government and private companies pay $300 million for cleaning the remnants of Agent Orange and for medical care for affected and disabled Vietnamese. The following month, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hinted in a visit to Hanoi that the U.S. would do more to honor those recommendations. So far, one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge has been tried and found guilty. Every year, more than half a million Viet Kieu, Laotians, and Cambodians refugees living in the United States and other countries visit their former homelands, fostering economic and cultural ties as micro-ambassadors. Because of the war, a great deal of pain was created in Southeast Asia, throughout the refugee diaspora, and among veterans.  Unfortunately, justice and reconciliation are often slow and incomplete. Yet there is always hope. Our biology cries out for them. ….

American vets and Vietnamese hosts (from

.. _____________

Notes: 1) Manophet Lonebuffalo is an excellent guide and a wonderful person who teaches English to hundreds of children and teenagers in Phonsavanh. .. 2) Abraham Lincoln’s Profound first inaugural address: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” .. 3) These have long been recognized as essential components of social living. According to Mencius, a person without a sense of shame was no longer human. .


Bass TA. 1993. Forgiveness math. Discover. May 1. (Link)

Bloom P. 2010. The moral life of babies. The New York Times Magazine. May 5. (Link)

Chong D. 1999. The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. Penguin Books.

Dawkins R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford Univ Press.

de Waal FBM. 2008. Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology 59: 279-300.

de Waal FBM, Johanowicz DL. 1993. Modification of reconciliation behavior through social experience: An experiment with two macaque species. Child Development 64: 897–908.

Hamlin J, Wynn K, and Bloom P. 2007. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature 450: 557-9. (Link)

Hayashi A, Abe N, Ueno A, Shigemune Y, Mori E, Tashiro M, Fujii T. 2010. Neural correlates of forgiveness for moral transgressions involving deception. Brain Research1332:90-9. (Link)

Krajbich I, Adolphs R, Tranel D, Denburg NL, Camerer CF. 2009. Economic games quantify diminished sense of guilt in patients with damage to the prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience 29: 2188-92. (Link)

Kutsukake N, Castles DL. 2004. Reconciliation and postconflict third-party affiliation among wild chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. Primates 45:157–65. Lazare A. 2004. On Apology. Oxford University Press.

Panksepp J. 2004. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford Univ Press.

Phillips ML, Drevets WC, Rauch SL, Lane R. 2003. Neurobiology of emotion perception I: the neural basis of normal emotion perception. Biol Psychiatry 54(5):504-14. (Link)

Ridley M. 1996. The Origins of Virtue. Penguin Books.

Rilling J, Gutman D, Zeh T, Pagnoni G, Berns G, Kilts C. 2002. A neural basis for social cooperation. Neuron 35: 395-405. (Link)

Rilling JK, Goldsmith DR, Glenn AL et al. 2008. The neural correlates of the affective response to unreciprocated cooperation. Neuropsychologia 46: 1256-66.  (Link)

SEARAC (Southeast Asia Resources Action Center). 2004. Southeast Asian American Statistical Profile. (Link).

Shin LM, Dougherty DD, Orr SP, et al. 2000. Activation of anterior paralimbic structures during guilt-related script-driven imagery. Biological Psychiatry 48 (1): 43-50. (Link)

Takahashi H, Yahata N, Koeda M, Matsuda T, Asai K, Okubo Y. 2004. Brain activation associated with evaluative processes of guilt and embarrassment: an fMRI study. Neuroimage 23:967-74. (Link)

Washington Post. 1997. Vets challenge minister’s account of napalm attack; VA man says he ordered strike that led to photo. Dec 19.

Young L, Saxe R. 2009. Innocent intentions: A correlation between forgiveness for accidental harm and neural activity. Neuropsychologia 47(10): 2065-72. (Link)

Zahn R, Moll J, Paiva M, Garrido G, Krueger F, Huey ED, Grafman J. 2009. The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI. Cerebral Cortex. 19(2):276-83. (Link)

21 thoughts on “Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

  1. Pingback: Making Peace with the Past « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  2. Pingback: Laos: The Not So Secret War « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  3. I find what you are writing about to be very interesting. I write a great deal about forgiveness and have interviewed Kim Phuc and John Plummer in the book.I also teach about the biology of forgiveness and do this work in war zones which is why I found what you wrote about to be fascinating. Please keep me posted on more of your writings.

    • Hi Eileen, thank you very much for the kind words. This topic isn’t exactly my specialty, but I am interested in general in the biology of cooperation and conflict, as well as what happens to health in times of war. I will definitely take a look at your book to learn more from your work and insights. I’m intrigued that you got to interview Kim Phuc and Plummer, and wonder what they were like in person. I’ll keep you posted about any related topics. Thanks again. -Patrick

  4. Pingback: Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914 « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  5. No doubt there is a nobility in apology and forgiveness. And it is part of Man’s make-up. So are the horrors that lead to both. And so are the political manipulations of both, particularly in Asiatic culture. But worst of all is the fact that Man constantly repeats and amplifies the need for apology and forgiveness.

    War and Peace. Apology and Forgiveness. Do it all again.

    • Hi Robert,

      One more reason I’m optimistic is the fact that cooperation exists at some level all in the world. Other species cooperate, from vampire bats and dolphins, to chimpanzees and slime molds. Even the trillions of cells in our bodies coalesce to form a more-or-less functioning unit, and interact with trillions more bacteria that co-evolved to operate within ourselves. Individual humans merge to form bands, tribes, cities, and nations. Nations trade with each other, sign treaties, exchange ambassadors, and form supra-national organizations like the UN (however inept it may be).

      To Robert Wright, cooperation exists because mutually beneficial relationships are inherently superior to mutually destructive ones. He called this idea ‘non-zero sumness.’

  6. Dear Patrick
    If you receive this (or something similar) twice, it is because I am having a bad computer day.

    I have done no more than glance at what you (and others) have posted here, because I am rushing to complete many things before departing to UK today. But I wnt to register my interest before departing.

    This is a subject that concerns me enormously, as witness that in 2010 I established an organisation called the International Institute for Human Accountability (IIHA). Although established, it has never become operational because it requires taking grave responsibility and a huge personal commitment and the time must be right. Early in 2011, I was engaged on a consultancy that absorbed much of my time and took me away from this.

    Abstract: In the face of numerous violations of international humanitarian law, committed with apparent impunity, it is proposed to establish a register of crimes against humanity and war crimes carried out since January 1st 1946 The objectives of the register will be to encourage those who perpetrated such crimes to apologise for them and seek forgiveness. The process of forgiveness will include consideration of proposed acts of atonement. It is hoped that the existence and wide publication of the register will also act as a deterrent to future crimes The register will be contained in a web-based Wiki database.

    A. Background and Rationale
    Global humankind on the planet Earth entered the post World War II era with a spirit of optimism. Behind us were the dark and evil years of Nazism and fascism and ahead lay hope, prosperity and peace.
    First, the international community had to lay the ghosts of the immediate past and the millions of dead from the Holocaust and other pogroms. This was done to a large extent through the trials at Nuremburg and Tokyo .
    From there on, the global community attempted to establish the foundations for a peaceful and prosperous future for the world. This was done through three major instruments:
    1. The foundation of the United Nations and the adoption of its Charter
    2. The development of international conventions to which all, or a majority, agreed
    3. The institution of international aid, especially through the Marshal Plan and the Bretton Woods Accords
    Down the years since then, the global community has seen fit to introduce additional instruments that build on and around those three core pillars. Most especially, we have seen a carefully orchestrated set of international treaties and conventions directed at a great variety of issues, such as the conduct of war, genocide, disarmament, refugees, women’s rights, children’s rights, racial discrimination, refugees, employment, endangered species, the environment, and many others.
    Enforcement has been through:
    • various branches of the United Nations, most specifically, as far as war is concerned, the Security Council which is able to sanction hostilities or prevail against them, and which is able to condemn wrongful acts through resolution
    • reporting on a regular basis (such as the annual reports of the Human Rights Commission)
    • official monitoring by organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), charged with supervising the Geneva Conventions
    • the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague , a UN organ: most recently, we have seen the development of the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the Treaty of Rome, for trial of war crimes, but this is moving very slowly and handling very few cases
    • the publicity activities of organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others which seek to publicise transgressions against human rights and international laws – more shaming than enforcement
    • public denouncement/exploration of crimes, such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
    • denouncement in the media.
    An industry has been generated which should be capable of pursuing the implementation of these instruments.
    Over the period since WW II, with an ever-growing body of international conventions, treaties and laws, observance has become less rigorous. Other genocides have followed the Holocaust and acts of international aggression take place with regularity, whilst the provisions of some treaties are less enforced – such as the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel or Degrading Treatment, which has been set aside without consequence, together with the provisions of the Geneva system, as quaint and obsolete.
    The perpetrators of genocide and democide have been, significantly, small or less developed countries: the promoters of international aggression have been large and powerful countries. In the former case, the latter nations have taken action to bring the offenders to justice or to heel; in the latter case, the offenders have simply ignored protest and continued with their transgressions.
    Indeed, the United States, not being a signatory to the Treaty of Rome, has taken action to secure immunity from prosecution of any US national by any nation through the ICC, by concluding bi-lateral agreements with many countries that are signatories. This was after it had tried and failed to get such immunity from prosecution written into the Treaty of Rome, when revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq effectively sank that attempt .
    There seems little prospect of the officers or executives of any major nation being arraigned on any of these matters. Since some major countries do not recognise much of the jurisdiction – either the instruments or the institutions – and are able to manipulate those in which they are signatories, any recourse through the legal system seems unlikely.
    The question then arises whether it is a satisfactory situation that various countries, chiefly having the attribute of might on their side, appear to be able to ignore internationally agreed arrangements that are designed to lead to a better, more peaceful and more civilised world.
    The proposition of this document, and of the proposed International Institute for Human Accountability (IIHA), is that it is not.
    If a large majority of countries of the world and their citizens, seeking to live in peace and enjoy relative prosperity, wish to secure protection from major countries pursuing acts of aggression and other proscribed activities , what recourse do they have?
    It is the purpose of IIHA to secure wide publicity for these acts through a variety of measures. It is not part of the purpose to seek recourse through the courts, which is both expensive and slow. It is proposed that exposure to shame will be the deterrent .
    B Proposed IIHA Actions
    IIHA will establish the following:
    1. an inventory or register of crimes against humanity and war crimes
    2. the inventory will contain three report grades of such crimes:
    (a) reports, as deposited by contributors
    (b) reports with verifications, witness statements, statements of other parties to the event
    (c) confirmed or verified crimes
    3. each report will consist of:
    (a) a description of the activity complained of, including those against whom the action was perpetrated
    (b) details of dates, locations and actions
    (c) the nations, groups and/or individuals implicated
    (d) any action taken against the perpetrators
    (e) if possible, the law, convention or code against which the action offends
    (f) visual media, such as films/photographs from video cameras and mobile telephones
    4. all reports will be logged on the register provided that the action complained of contravened normally accepted international laws or codes in force or normally accepted at the time that it was perpetrated
    5. for the present, only crimes committed from 1st January 1946 onwards will be registered
    6. the register will be maintained on a Wiki-type web-based database under the control of a webmaster and legal expert, with the advice of the executive (the team) ; all complainants will be able to write their reports directly onto the register, in the same manner as a Wikipedia entry
    7. each report will initially go to a holding place where the team will be able to examine it, interview those who have placed it there, call upon supporting documents, and question any witnesses or other interested parties, including the party complained of
    8. the team will then determine whether to place the entry on the register and, if so where to allocate it (under item #2 above)
    9. IIHA will develop an understanding of best practice in making the contents of the reports widely known to governments, law enforcement organisations, including ICC and ICJ, the UN, ICRC, and international human rights organisations, as well as the international media
    10. one option may be to get an annual Human Accountability Day announced by the UN, when special attention will be paid to new and outstanding crimes
    11. in addition, there may be an artist-in-residence who will draw on the register to make work for on-line dissemination or to display
    12. the register will also contain a record of works of art (films, photographs, paintings, books, articles, poems) created in response to various crimes
    13. it will not be the purpose of IIHA to secure prosecution of the wrongdoers, although that may occur.
    C. Outcome and Deliverables
    IIHA will seek to secure an apology from the nation, organisation and/or individual(s) named in the report. The process is seen as encompassing the following steps: acknowledgement, apology, forgiveness, reparation. The apology will be accepted if:
    • It is acceptable to the individuals/organisations/nations sinned against
    • The terms of the apology are set down and agreed between the parties
    • Those to whom the apology has been made respond with a confirming act that, on the basis of the apology being given in the deepest good faith, they reciprocally forgive the perpetrators.
    Currently, the process of apology is seen comprising:
    1. a written statement, from the perpetrator, of the offense committed and acknowledgement of its illegality
    2. an agreement that the offending nation/group/individual(s) will never commit such a crime again
    3. ratification of any international treaties, conventions or other instruments which covers such activity and which has not be ratified by the offending nation
    4. agreement with those offended against on any reparation to be made, such reparation to be conveyed into escrow with agreed terms for its release for the benefit of those who have suffered wrong
    The first step towards an apology may be the acknowledgement, which may take the form of a statement that the facts recorded in the register are not disputed.
    These matters will be set down in the record as an IIHA Resolution. How that will affect liability or future action in other places is not certain. It may be that part of the arrangement for apology and forgiveness will be an agreement that no legal action will be pursued, or that such action will only be taken against a limited number of people or in a limited manner. On the one hand, there has to be advantage to the transgressor in apologising whilst the complainant must still be satisfied that the transgressor is not going this route simply to obtain a light reprieve, and that the apology is not sincere and meaningful.
    D. Establishment of IIHA
    IIHA can be established anywhere, although registration in a place which carries international jurisdiction (Geneva, The Hague, Brussels) may have advantage, or Guernica would have a symbolic significance, as it has requested recognition as a World Capital for Peace. Iceland is also under consideration since it is preparing legislation to give haven to whistleblowers.
    This document is being circulated to a limited number of people with a view to canvassing views on:
    • feasibility of the proposal
    • how it can be improved
    • how it can be implemented
    • who should be involved
    On the latter, it is suggested that there should be:
    • a Governing Council of people able to advise on international law, human rights, fundraising, management of internet-based activities, financial control, and other skills, able to meet on a regular basis by internet (video Skype is becoming helpful in these events, and is low-cost)
    • an Advisory Council of people familiar with the issues of war crimes and crimes against humanity associated with, for example, ICRC, ICC, ICJ, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, as well as those who have undertaken work, as individuals, in exposing international crimes
    • A specialist International Legal Panel may be established to ensure excellence in quality control
    • Specialist Country Panels may be established
    • A group of Friends of IIHA may be established, or IIHA may become a membership-based organisation
    A simple business plan has been prepared with an assessment of the likely cost of the venture (about $120,000 in year 1 and $200,000 in year 2). A website is currently being established at a cost of about $3,000, being met by the promoter. A web-constructor is advanced on the work of establishing the site. Help with funding/funding sources would be greatly welcomed.
    An initial list of crimes committed will be drawn up with preliminary details against the heads set out under B.2 and B.3 above.
    Further examples of apologies will be sought.

    The IIHA is being promoted by Michael A B Boddington MBE, a British national who lives and works in Lao PDR, where he is closely associated with assistance to victims of unexploded ordnance and other people with disabilities. He has established several for-profit organisations and NGOs, most especially POWER International and COPE. For four years, he has been a consultant on victim assistance to the Lao UXO National Regulatory Authority, and was awarded the MBE in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to victims of unexploded ordnance in the Lao PDR.
    He is assisted in the work of starting IIHA by Dirk Koolmees, a Dutch national who is expert at establishing and running websites, as well as being an artist with an enviable portfolio of sculpture and video-art to his name. Dirk has lived in Jamaica, Uganda, Zambia, Indonesia, Laos and the Netherlands.
    The following individuals have agreed to become supporters of the IIHA. This term conveys no more than that they support the idea. Upon formal establishment, they may or may not become members of the Governing Council, the Friends of IIHA, the International Law Advisory Board, or a Country Panel .
    These people are from all walks of life: they have demonstrated their commitment to peace and reconciliation through the ways that they have lived their lives and the benefits that they have brought to those who have been wronged.
    Fred Branfman
    A US volunteer in the Lao educational system in 1968-71, Fred Branfman stumbled upon the US bombing campaign in Laos by accident, and it changed his life. He collected information about the personal and community impact of the bombing, from Lao farmers and villagers, and published their essays and pictures in Voices from the Plain of Jars. He has written other books on the SE Asian conflict and presented evidence to Congressional committees. After a lifetime of peace activism, he lives with his wife Zsuzsa in Belgrade.
    Paul Brown
    A British national and consulting clinical and organisational psychologist with an international practice that takes him around the world. He is Visiting Professor in Organisational Neuroscience at London South Bank University and in Individual and Organisational Psychology at Nottingham Law School, and an invited lecturer at the Royal College of Defence Studies. He has a deep understanding of the processes of apology and forgiveness.
    William Blum
    Former US Department of State employee turned writer/journalist, who has written Rogue State and Killing Hope, two books about US overt and covert aggression in the world and the countries that that aggression has been directed to. He circulates a monthly e-mail newsletter named ‘The Anti-Empire Report.’
    Paul Castleman
    A US citizen and former Chairman of the Board of Lincoln Technologies, computer software developers for medical research. He is a long-time activist in the nuclear arms-control movement, and serves as Secretary-Treasurer for the Board of Directors of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He was the founder of the Management Corps for the Emerging East which helped the former Soviet states move towards a market economy.
    Zak Ebrahim
    A US citizen whose father, in 1990, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defence League, and was prosecuted for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre. The impact of these events, and of the life that he has experienced since then, has been to create in him a strong desire to be an instrument of peace and reconciliation in the world. ‘I hope that, in telling my life story, I can show others that no one is doomed to choosing a path of violence.’
    Kathy Kelly
    A US citizen, peace activist, writer, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Non-Violence and three-times Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. She has been a lifelong war-tax resister, and has been jailed for her non-violent beliefs and work more than 60 times. She is currently the subject of proceedings for trespassing on Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, in protest against the use of unmanned drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
    Nadia McLaren
    An Australian citizen, based in Adelaide, pre-eminently a civil society activist, as well as being an ecologist concerned with how natural, social, knowledge and psychological systems interact, Nadia is an independent consultant and a director of Green Cross Australia, a Councilor with the Australian Conservation Foundation, a VIP with the Global Action Plan and a long-term associate of the Union of International Associations.
    Fiona Kam Meadley
    A Malaysian national of Chinese descent, resident in UK, she studied law and has worked in Africa and Asia as a development worker. She is now an artist ‘anticipating apocalypse she searches for survivors and blueprints in the margins of society.’ She initiated War and Peace, a programme of artists’ films with discussions, in the UK, exploring the links between conflict, freedom and justice and is researching how visual culture can engage with the process of peace building. She is a Quaker and acts as their advocate for Children and Young People. She is also a trustee of a leading British contemporary art gallery (the Arnolfini).
    Marilyn Mehlmann
    Is a British subject who has long lived in Sweden from whence she travels the world in pursuit of community-based approaches to sustainable development with Global Action Plan, of which she is Secretary General. Her many appointments (Vice President and Executive Council member of the Union of International Associations, Partner with Fenix Group, Advisor with People-Centred Development Forum, Advisor with Gaia University) all reflect her abiding expertise in capturing human energies and skills for people-focussed development.
    Thomas Nash
    A New Zealander who has made the banishment of cluster munitions his major achievement. At the age of 21, he joined the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Disarmament Mission in Geneva, working on the Convention on Conventional Weapons and gaining responsibility for the Mine Ban Treaty. This led to broader work in Canada, and thence to the Cluster Munitions Coalition through which he has been substantially responsible for formulating and steering through the historic Convention on Cluster Munitions.
    Jan Pronk
    A Dutch politician and diplomat, he served as Minister for Development Cooperation and Minister for Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment in the Dutch government, and was special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of Mission for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (2004-06). He is currently Professor of Theory and Practice of International Development at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague.
    Chuck Searcy
    A US citizen and Vietnam veteran who has lived in Vietnam for the last 15 years, seeking to find ways of righting the huge damage done by the US during the Second Indochina War. As a soldier in the US military in southern Viet Nam, he saw the war first hand. Now, his mission is one of reconciliation. He was in Saigon from 1967-68 with the US army, returning in 1995 to work on humanitarian programmes with the Swedish Children’s Hospital and Bach Mai Hospital, helping children with disabilities. In 2000 he started a project with the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Fund, to help the government with land mine clearance and unexploded ordinance.
    Anthony Smith CBE
    A British broadcaster, author and academic, who was President of Magdalen College, Oxford, between 1988 and 2005. He was made CBE in 1987 He was Chairman of the Writers & Scholars Educational Trust, (which produces Index on Censorship), and currently serves as Patron of the London Film School, Trustee of the Prince of Wales’s School of Traditional Arts, and as a Board Member of the British Institute of Florence, of the Choir of the Sixteen and of the Medical Research Foundation. He is chair of the Hill Foundation and of the Oxford-Russia Fund, both of which provide scholarships for Russian students to study at Oxford University and within Russia.
    Hans-Christof von Sponeck
    A German national and one of the first conscientious objectors in the Federal Republic of Germany, he joined the UN in 1968 and worked in various countries before becoming UN Assistant Secretary general and, in 19098, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, which post he resigned in 2000 in protest at the UN policy of economic sanctions, accusing the system of violating the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and causing the deaths of thousands of Iraqis. In 2000 he was awarded the Coventry Peace Prize. He has received numerous awards for his peace work and remains active in the peace movement.
    Yosh Yamanaka
    A United States citizen of Japanese extraction, and a judge in the administrative law division of the State of California. In 2005, as Director of ALPHA-LA he led a movement against the admission of Japan to a seat on the UN Security Council until such time as Japan apologised for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was a Director for 2007-2008 of the Pacifica Foundation, operators of Pacifica Radio and is currently a Board Member.

    14TH DECEMBER 2010

  7. I see that the footnotes, which contain important information, have been deleted from the copy above. Can I send you the original document by e-mail, so that you can post it with the footnotes?

    Kine regards


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