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.
The debate continues as to whether war extends deep into human pre-history. This tends to break down into two camps: (1) the “deep roots” advocates, who argue that inter-group aggression extends to the origins of our species (or perhaps even earlier), and (2) those who propose that hunter-gatherers were essentially peaceful until the advent of agriculture.
On his website “Why Evolution is True,” Jerry Coyne has been summarizing the various critiques that deep-rooters like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer have been piling on against the science writer John Horgan, who has argued that war is a recent innovation.
I think the reason for all the confusion is that the best way to resolve the debate is to have a systematic review of the archaeological record. Of course, that is very hard to do, since there are gaps in what we know about the past, and not all humans leave traces of their existence. But the public debates often encourage cherry-picking of the data, sometimes highlighting prehistoric groups that show signs of intergroup violence (and they did exist), or at other times highlighting peaceful groups (so did they!). Rarely is there a systematic, big-picture approach.
In an essay I wrote last year, “Genocidal Altruists,” I took a different approach, arguing that our ancestors were complex. I cited the archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli, who actually did attempt a systematic review. To quote myself…
There isn’t much to add. The scale of the destruction is difficult to comprehend.
A friend of mine, Hugh Gusterson, wrote this imaginary speech that President Obama might consider delivering if he should decide to visit Hiroshima. Hugh is a very thoughtful person and I thought he did an excellent job here. It doesn’t look like his essay was shared very widely, so I thought I would repost it here…
“The White House is reportedly trying to decide whether President Obama should visit Hiroshima before he leaves office. He should go. And, since he is a very busy man, I’ve written his speech for him:”
A recent paper in the journal PLoS One examined growth patterns of 982 refugee children (age 0-10 yrs) from 35 countries who were resettled in the state of Washington (Dawson-Hahn et al 2016). Using height and weight measured at the time of their overseas health examination, the authors calculated rates of stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), and overweight/obesity as markers of a child’s nutritional status. These statistics were also compared to low-income children in Washington.
To me, the most important part of the results was that rates of substandard growth were quite high among refugees. Overall, refugee children aged 0-5 years old were more likely to be wasted and stunted, and less likely to be obese in comparison to low-income children in Washington.
Figure 1 from Dawson-Hahn et al
“Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?” – Frederick Douglass, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855, Chapter XI)
The war in Syria has to end, eventually. However, the tragic reality is that the damage is likely to last for decades.
Woman and child in Douma, Syria in Dec 2014. (AFP Photo/ Abd Doumany)
Yesterday, The New York Times reported that in the past few days “tens of thousands of civilians” have fled the city of Aleppo as the Syrian military, aided by Russian jets, have tried to reclaim the area. This is only the latest wave of civilians being forcibly displaced by the war. Altogether, the UN estimates that more than half of Syrians have been displaced from their homes at least once. Some of these have crossed into other countries, while the rest remain internally displaced.
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).
A 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