A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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Should Cambodia Pay War Debts to the United States?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the U.S. is seeking $500 million in repayment from Cambodia for a Vietnam War-era loan, primarily in the form of excess maize. According to the SMH:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

As the article also pointed out, many people across the political spectrum are outraged by the request, given the role the U.S. played in bombing Cambodia. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, from 1965-73 U.S. planes dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs over the eastern part of the country. This was part of a larger war meant to deny communist troops and supplies from North Vietnam from reaching the South via Laos and Cambodia.

Although casualty estimates from war are notoriously difficult, U.S. bombing was estimated to have killed 50,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many of them civilians. Furthermore, historians such as Kiernan have argued that without the bombing, the Khmer Rouge might not have grown as much as it did, with people radicalized against U.S. brutality and into the arms of the K.R. Their rise to power, of course, led to more atrocities and genocide only a few years later. 

Given all of that, it seems preposterous, or at least tone-deaf, for the U.S. to request repayment. And it’s not just Cambodians who think so. Also noted in the SMH article was a quote from James Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, who was near Cambodia during the war: 

“Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

 

U.S. bombing of Cambodia from 1965-1973 (by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan). Source.

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The Dignity and Future of the People of Laos

Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).

Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”

I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.

I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.

Reconciling “Unbridgeable Differences” in Vietnam

Last week, U.S. Sec of State 

A fourth and final lesson of the Vietnam conflict is playing out before our eyes: that with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled. The fact that Mr. Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.

Looking to the future, we know that mutual interests, above all else, will drive our partnership with Vietnam. But it is strengthened, as well, by the natural affinities between our societies. These include family ties, a tendency toward optimism, a fierce desire for freedom and independence and a hard-earned appreciation that peace is far, far preferable to war.

 

Perhaps this is another reminder that the conditions of the present are not permanent. Nations and individuals who are currently at odds may find themselves as future allies. All is flux.

“It’s never too late” to do the right thing: UXO in Laos

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on Sunday, foreshadowing a visit by President Obama sometime this autumn. It will be the first ever visit by a U.S. President to Laos. There are probably several reasons for the visit, including strengthening ties, checking Chinese power in the region, etc. Most relevant to me is the hope that more will be done to alleviate some of the damage done during the war years, especially by removing leftover unexploded ordnance (UXO).

CNN article mentions two emotions that Americans might feel toward President Obama’s position towards Laos: guilt and optimism. It quotes Channapha Khamvongsa, who founded he NGO Legacies of War, which works to raise awareness of UXO in Laos.  Continue reading

One Example of Agent Orange’s Legacy

This film — Chau, Beyond the Lines  has been nominated for an Academy award in the category of short documentary.  I’m not particularly interested in such awards, but in this case I’m grateful to learn of this film and that it raises awareness of how the effects of the Vietnam War continue to linger. 

Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015

Congolese children play on a destroyed military tank in Kibumba, DRC. Prime Collective.

Congolese children play on a destroyed military tank in Kibumba, DRC. Source: Prime Collective.

These were the most viewed posts of the year. It wasn’t the biggest year for this blog in terms of number of visitors, but there were a few highlights. Themes included war, human frailty, sex and love. I ranked them below, with #1 being the most read.

 

13) …And They Shall Beat Their Tanks into Playgrounds (Mar 24th, 70 words) 

   A simple collection of photos that I thought would inspire hope. “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

 

12) Thoughts on PTS and “Moral Injuries”  (Jun 24th, 898 words)

    “If there is any good news, perhaps it’s that individuals who suffer a moral injury must, almost by definition, have some deep reservations about certain acts of violence. After all, one’s sense of morality cannot be injured if it didn’t exist in the first place. Secondly, the concept of ‘injury’ implies that healing is possible.”

 

11) Did the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Affect Child Growth? (Jun 1st, 705 words)

   Yes. A look at some old data.

 

10) Courage and the Past (Apr 20th, 710 words)

   “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  ― James Baldwin

 

9) Confronting Human Frailty (Mar 4th, 557 words)

   Seeking lessons from the Tragic and Utopian perspectives of human nature.

 

8) “The Fundamental Connection That We All Share” (Jul 28th, 222 words)

   Very short post on President Barack Obama’s observing famous fossils in human evolution. All people have evolved from our common origins. We’re all connected.  

 

7) “To Tame the Savageness of Man” (Aug 4th, 981 words)

   Another attempt at finding hope.Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” –Robert F. Kennedy, on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968)

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