Patrick Clarkin, an anthropologist at UMass Boston, has a powerful new post, Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War.
It is as much a meditation on war and forgiveness, as it is a biocultural exploration of the how’s and why’s of reconciliation.
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)…
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).
Clarkin goes on to ask: Why does the need to reconcile carry so much emotional weight, and why can it last for so long?
Clarkin approaches this question first as a biological anthropologist, looking at comparative work among primates, and then turning to neuroanthropology:
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…
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.
Clarkin then brings the discussion back to war, global politics, and forgiveness.
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.
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…
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.
I’ve only given a taste of the overall post, which goes more in-depth with research and ideas, as well as grounding itself in the politics and everyday dynamics of life. It’s a strong piece of anthropology.
Link to Patrick Clarkin’s Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War.