Reconciliation & the Second Indochina War, II

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama


I wrote this post, titled Reconciliation, Biology, & the 2nd Indochina War, about a year ago, and I consider it one of the more meaningful things on this site. It addresses:

(1) Examples of profound case studies in reconciliation and making peace with the past (Kim Phuc and John Plummer; the My Lai massacre, Pham Thanh Cong, and William Calley; various national-level apologies for past injustices).

(2) The significance, evolution, and neurobiology of guilt and forgiveness.

(3) Lingering injustices and problems caused by the war, as well as a few reasons for optimism. 

Admittedly, it is a bit long, and if you don’t make it to the end, it concludes on a hopeful note:

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.”

However, in a thoughtful discussion I had on this blog with two people with a lot of experience in Laos –  Robert Cooper and Mike Boddington – optimism is necessary, although by itself it will only take us so far. At some point, action and pragmatism are necessary.

There are still many open wounds leftover from the war, and I’ve been particularly concerned with the lingering damage caused by the U.S. bombing campaign in Laos decades ago. As one of the more recent examples, a month ago in Savannkhet province, four children were killed, while another two children and one woman were injured after a cluster bomb was detonated while they were huddled around a backyard fireplace. A few weeks before that incident, an entire village in Borikhamxay province in Laos was ordered evacuated after a 2,000 pound bomb was unexpectedly unearthed during road construction. It was reported that several buildings – a primary school, a temple, and several homes – were damaged after the bomb was intentionally detonated by a clearance team, despite it being covered with four thousand sandbags.

On a pragmatic note, below are a few organizations dedicated to removing unexploded ordnance and alleviating the damage caused by the war. Please check them out. They do good work.

Cope Laos Link

Legacies of War Link

Mines Advisory Group Link

Cluster Munition Coalition Link

3 thoughts on “Reconciliation & the Second Indochina War, II

  1. Pingback: Anthropology - A plea for engagement | Anthropology Report

  2. Patrick, I too enjoyed the discussion. I think it remains within moral boundaries to enjoy discussing the bestiality and complexity of man. A Muslim can feel good when he gives some small change to a beggar unable to work because his hand has been chopped off for theft. The American taxpayer can pay a million++ dollars to keep behind bars for the rest of his life a man who failed to repay people who had invested in him in the hope of getting rich quick — a man who, if released, could in theory help repay those who lost out — publicity means he could never repeat his scam. Justice systems should be associated with civilised society and making it work through compensations by the guilty party to the victim(s), not revenge. Both above examples are revenge only (even Islamic law allows for compensation or revenge). To be credible justice has to be seen to be done and it has to be fair i.e. the same laws should apply to everyone, people should be informed of the law and no man or nation should be above the law. Equality before the law is Implicit in the idea of justice, whether that justice is village, state, national or international. At this time in history, America uses its military might to set and break the rules of international justice. It is not the first nation to do this, but all the other nations had only brief spells controlling the military, economic, legal and moral high ground, and they did not have atomic bombs. America will follow where other nations have failed before — that is a historic certainty. The new element is only that America can if it wishes take the rest of the world down with it. Can we afford to wait and see if America goes meekly into the night?

    America holds the largest stockpile of atomic and other bombs in the world yet seeks to prevent Iran from building its first atomic bomb (presuming it is doing so). Am I alone in seeing a horrifying paradox in America stating it will not rule out anything to stop Iran obtaining the bomb? Presumably that means America might bomb Iran to stop Iran developing bombs. I don’t like atomic bombs. They should not have been made but they were: the question now is how to get rid of them, not how to ensure mutual destruction. Hope that magic or God will ensure atomic bombs will never (again) be used is unrealistic — our history tells us that when Man has a weapon, he uses it. Sensible Americans question that America has a right to a monopoly on fear and know that monopoly to be a mirage; they know that any superiority is as temporary as any boxing champion’s career. Whether these Americans condone it or not, political power does indeed grow from the barrel of a gun…or the bomb-bay. If America wants to be safe from nuclear attack, start to destroy America’s bombs — not just limit the production of new ones — and verify this by international inspectors — including Iranian, Korean etc, It can lead the world instead of terrifying it. An American atomic bomb on Iran will simply martyr Iranians onto the fast track to paradise.

    There is absolutely no difference at all between an American atomic bomb and an Iranian atomic bomb. Just as there is no substantive difference between 9/11 and My Lai, except that in one genocide most victims were American and in the other all were Vietnamese. I don’t go along with revenge motives as a basis for civilisation and rule of law — but Osama bin Laden did get shot dead, the perpetrators of My Lai had a few restrictions placed on them that basically meant they should drink their beer at home for awhile. When a legal system so clearly fails to provide justice in anything like equal measure it cannot be considered civilised, fair and universal; it foregoes the right to respect. Rule of law becomes rule by fear. That, unfortunately, seems to be the point America is at.

  3. Hi Robert,

    Agreed. I’m not a fan of nuclear weapons, or selective/intermittent justice, either. The combination of human fallibility and weapons capable of leveling entire cities is not a good one. Simple probability suggests that even with safeguards in place, it is almost inevitable that they will be used again. And it seems unlikely, at least in the current global situation we’re in, that the genie can be put back into the bottle.

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