On Forgiveness and Reconciliation

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.

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3 Responses to On Forgiveness and Reconciliation

  1. jetsurf says:

    This Guy Below John Plummer is a fake.
    SEE: http://www.ndqsa.com/myth.html

    The Fraud Behind The Girl In The Photo
    Hijacking the history of the Vietnam veteran
    by Ronald N. Timberlake

    “Since Veterans Day of 1996, the world has been told of an American who ordered the bombing of the village of Trang Bang, Viet Nam, that resulted in the famous photo of the naked and terrified little girl running toward the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.

    An informal investigation began and on November 1, 1997, the Commanding General of the minister’s unit in Vietnam was interviewed. Lieutenant General (Retired) James Hollingsworth was the commander of Third Regional Assistance Command (TRAC), the advisor unit to which then-Captain Plummer was assigned. General Hollingsworth stated, in no uncertain terms, that even he could not have done what the minister, a low-level staff officer, claimed to have done. A crucial portion of the minister’s story includes details of radio conversations with the American advisor at the scene of the fighting. These 82-kilometer transmissions were incredible because of the technical difficulty of short-range line-of-sight FM radio communications alone, but during that stage of the war, Vietnamization was in full effect. A terrible battle was raging past its second month at An Loc. The minister’s entire chain of command has stated that the American advisors had been pulled from the less strategic areas to replace advisors lost at An Loc. There was no American advisor at Trang Bang to make those radio calls that Rev. Plummer describes so vividly and dramatically. The pilot who actually dropped the bombs was located. A Vietnamese now living in the US, he was surprised that an American claimed participation in the tragic accident that remains a source of embarrassment to him. ”


    Vietnam Vet Says Napalm Story `Misinterpreted’
    December 18, 1997|By TOM BOWMAN The Baltimore Sun

    She is a grim icon of the Vietnam War: a 9-year-old girl running down a village road, napalm scorching all but her scream, her agony portrayed on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

    At a Veterans Day ceremony last year in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Kim Phuc said that if she ever meets the pilot who dropped the bomb she would urge him to join her in working for world peace.

    “I am that man,” John Plummer hastily wrote on a scrap of paper that was passed up to her. Minutes later the former Army captain was embracing Phuc, sobbing that he was sorry. Phuc responded, “I forgive you.”

    A heart-rending tale, one that has since gained heavy media attention. But Plummer’s part in it isn’t true. Neither Plummer nor any other American piloted the plane that day, June 8, 1972. The pilot was a South Vietnamese air force officer.

    Since the ceremony at the memorial wall, Plummer, 50, a Methodist minister in rural Purcellville, Va., has revised his tale, though continuing to exaggerate it.

    Appearing on ABC’S Nightline in June, he told Ted Koppel that he “ordered” the raid on Phuc’s village of Trang Bang. An October cover story under his byline in Guideposts, an international religious magazine, referred to “the attack I had called.”

    In fact, the North Carolina native flew helicopters, not fixed-wing aircraft of the type that dropped the napalm, though at the time he was in a staff job. Nor did he have the authority to order his own country’s planes into action, let alone South Vietnamese aircraft, say his former superiors. Plummer, they say, was a low-level staff officer. The entire operation was run by South Vietnam’s military, with Americans playing only an advisory role.

    In an interview at the church where he is pastor, Plummer conceded he was neither the pilot nor the one who ordered the attack. He said he never intended to deceive anyone but was caught up in the emotion at the Wall.

    He attributed his later comments _ to Nightline and others _ about ordering the attack to “semantics,” saying the Guideposts article contained words he did not write.

    Plummer said he continues to have a “very real feeling” that he was responsible.

    “I think I could have been misinterpreted, but I did not intentionally misrepresent my role,” Plummer said.

    Phuc, living in Toronto and representing the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization as a goodwill ambassador, did not return messages seeking comment.

    • daniel.lende says:

      Clarkin includes discussion of Plummer’s role in the original post, including what you mention here. I didn’t include that specific part of the overall post, as I wanted to focus on Clarkin’s ideas about reconciliation and forgiveness, not the controversy over Plummer. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: 2011 Review « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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