“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
…………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi
On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons. Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during ‘the Secret War.’ To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons).
The war in Laos, of course, was part of a larger regional conflict referred to as the Second Indochina War (1958-75), more commonly known as the ‘Vietnam War’ in the U.S. or ‘the American War’ in Vietnam. Decades later, many gaping wounds still exist, as the impacts of the war remain deeply embedded in not only the land and infrastructure of Southeast Asia, but also in the bodies and collective psyches of Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Americans scattered across the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that in many ways the war has not ended, although those affected have made enormous efforts to seek reconciliation, justice, or somehow make peace with the past.
In his book “On Apology,” Aaron Lazare (2004) describes numerous anecdotes of individuals and groups who have sought forgiveness or justice for various offenses. One of these, the story of Kim Phuc and John Plummer, pertains to Vietnam. 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). He claimed to have been the coordinator for the attack on Trang Bang, which was conducted by South Vietnamese pilots, though others have stated that records show his involvement was not possible (Washington Post, 1997).
Facts do matter, and it is easy to see how a story of American involvement in bombing Vietnamese children could be (and has been) politicized. But whether Plummer was integral in the attack on Trang Bang is of secondary importance here. 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).
As to what motivated Kim Phuc to forgive, at age 45 she wrote in an essay for NPR:
Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?” (emphasis added)
Another incident from the war entrenched in American consciousness was the massacre at the village of My Lai, which claimed the lives of perhaps up to five hundred Vietnamese civilians. During a 1971 court-martial, a young lieutenant named William Calley was the only person convicted for the atrocity. Though he was quickly pardoned, the events of that day seem to have rankled with him ever since. In August 2009, Calley publicly apologized for the first time for his role in the atrocity, forty-one years after the fact. In his words: “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
As I’ve written before about the case of Joshua Blahyi (‘General Butt Naked’), and his role in the deaths of 20,000 Liberians, some offenses lie outside any normal parameters of forgiveness. Whether any apology from William Calley can ever be sufficient is up to the people of My Lai. Amazingly, some Vietnamese have made overtures to him. Pham Thanh Cong was a boy at the time of the massacre and lost his entire family to a hand grenade and machine gun fire, while he survived with bullet wounds. He is now director of the My Lai Museum and made an offer of reconciliation to Calley:
If the government will allow it, I will invite him here, not to scold him or reprimand him, but to try and understand why he ordered the killing…If he comes here, he and I could become friends. We could confide and talk to each other. We really want him to come back and see the truth.” (emphasis added)
The above examples of Kim Phuc and My Lai are cited not to imply that the atrocities of the war in Vietnam were one-sided. Indeed, atrocity seems to be an inherent component of war. Rather, they stand out because (1) they are two of the more memorable images of the war, and (2) coincidentally, they serve as extraordinary case studies of the human need for apology, forgiveness and resolution, even after decades have passed.
These are not isolated incidents. Other highly significant instances of apology have surfaced since Lazare published his 2004 book. For some people, the sense of remorse is so great that they seek to atone even after death. An Oregon man on death row for murder recently petitioned the state for the right to donate his organs following execution so that he might help others in some way, despite his past crime. Other examples include the Japanese government’s apology for colonizing Korea, the British apology for Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. Senate apologizing to African-Americans for slavery and segregation. And in 2007, the Danish government even apologized for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier. If an apology can be extended (and accepted) after a millennium, then perhaps there is no statute of limitations on reconciliation. Why does the need to reconcile carry so much emotional weight, and why can it last for so long?
Why Guilt and Forgiveness?
On the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s apology for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, former congressman Norman Mineta reflected that “it will always mean more to me than I can ever adequately express.” Why does it mean so much?
Lazare enumerated some of the reasons that offended persons seek apologies: seeing genuine remorse in the offender, reestablishing trust, looking for assurances of safety and shared values, and restoring one’s dignity. Similarly, he notes there are many motives to apologize: empathy for others, guilt for the offense, or shame for failing to adhere to one’s standards. To that list, one could add: a desire to repair a frayed relationship, to avoid sanctions such as ostracization, or simply to demonstrate that they recognize and respect the dignity of the offended.
For individuals, the longing for apology or forgiveness resides somewhere in one’s personal history and synaptic connections of memory. For group-level apologies, the impetus may differ. In explaining why he felt an official apology for slavery was necessary, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin stated: “It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice.”
In the case of Kim Phuc, she attributed her ability to forgive to a religious conversion, and for her this very well may have been instrumental. But the desire for reconciliation must derive at least in part from our social instincts and ‘the better angels of our nature,’ rather than being restricted to any single cultural tradition.2 In “The Origins of Virtue,” Matt Ridley described our evolved emotions primarily as social enhancers. In that sense, they can push us to commit to an action, allowing us to go beyond mere rational calculation when weighing the pros and cons of whether to cooperate:
Rage deters transgressors; guilt makes cheating painful for the cheat; envy represents self-interest; contempt earns respect; shame punishes; compassion elicits reciprocal compassion…And love commits us to a relationship” (Ridley, 1996: 142).
Others, such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt, concur that our socially-oriented emotions are deeply rooted products of evolution, but this is not to say that the visceral level explains all. Young and Saxe (2009) argue that moral judgments are a three-tiered process, including: an intuitive level that cues individuals to reject emotionally aversive harms; a level based on abstract reasoning; and one based on reading the motives of the guilty person (intentional vs. accidental harms). But, as Paul Bloom wrote, “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone” and even begins in infancy, prior to much of our socialization and learning the ethical traditions of any particular culture (Bloom, 2010). Evidence for this comes from preverbal 6 to 10- month olds, who show a strong preference (more than 85%) for helpful vs. uncooperative toy puppets that act out different scenarios (Hamlin et al 2007).
Quick story: when my sons were 5 and 2 years old, I took them to a local pond, where we looked at the ducks and threw rocks (not at the ducks). An errant throw from my younger son struck his older brother in the head, not hard enough to make him cry, but sufficient to make him grimace in pain and rub his head. However, my younger son did cry, and without being scolded or prompted. It was also a novel experience, not something learned by conditioning. Rather, it derived from something internal – perhaps his empathy for his older brother or feeling guilty for causing him pain. At age 2. Aside from his tears and the tiny bump on my older son’s head, it was a proud-papa moment to see empathy in my very young son. (And, yes, I know my kids are not science experiments. But parents can learn a lot from their children too).
It is somewhat comforting to think that nature has built into us a basic sense of right and wrong. While it is true that human behavior varies tremendously and is influenced by culture, this does not make us infinitely malleable. Rather, it makes sense that our species comes equipped with some basic behavioral patterns and tools that allow us to navigate the subtleties of our complex, highly social, primate lives. This is mediated at least in part by our emotions, as we shy from ones that make us feel bad (shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment) and gravitate toward those that make us feel good (pride, acceptance, joy, affection).3 Importantly, these emotions reflect or predict whether we are able to reap the benefits of social cooperation. To some extent, babies seem to get this, and perhaps other primate species do as well.
Among chimpanzees, unrelated individuals who have engaged in physical aggression sometimes reconcile through grooming or embracing (Kutsukake and Castles, 2004). However, this occurs less frequently in wild than captive chimpanzees, perhaps because they have more space simply to avoid their rivals. Stumptail macaques have been described as having high-frequency, low-intensity aggression, but they also have a rich “repertoire of appeasement and reassurance gestures,” including grooming, genital presentation/inspection, submissive facial expressions and vocalizations, mounting, and mouth-to-mouth contact (deWaal and Johanowicz, 1993). Further, in the apes (but not monkeys), uninvolved bystanders sometimes console those on the losing side of physical aggression. This is particularly true when the loser is the victim of unprovoked violence, as opposed to an instigator who’s received comeuppance (deWaal, 2008). Thus, 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.
The benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation can also be seen in computer models of aggressive/peaceful behavior (Bass, 1993). In simulated population models of animal behavior, hyperaggressive individuals (‘hawks’) will thrive at the expense of docile pacifists (‘doves’). However, doves that have a retaliatory streak (‘tit-for-tat’) will fare better in that they incur the benefits from cooperating with each other, while simultaneously keeping hawks from those benefits when they meet. Better still, a ‘generous tit-for-tat’ program will forgive another’s occasional defection and absorb the blow – the logic being that it could be a mistake rather than a character defect or a pattern of behavior. This keeps the door open for future cooperation and all the benefits that entails. These models reinforce the notion that altruism, cooperation, and forgiveness could evolve under natural conditions. Indeed, they have (see Dawkins, 1976; de Waal, 2008; Ridley, 1996).
The Biology of Guilt and Forgiveness
An important corollary question concerns where guilt and forgiveness originate, biologically. Shin et al (2000) looked at PET scans and physiological responses of eight young men in Boston (avg. age of 25) who provided researchers with written descriptions of personal events: one involving the most guilt the participant had ever experienced, and two neutral events. The participants were then read a transcript of their self-described experiences while being scanned and monitored for physiological changes in heart rate, skin conductance (an estimate of emotional arousal in sweat glands), and left lateral frontalis electromyograms (activity in the muscle over the forehead).
As expected, the men reported that subjective feelings of guilt increased when read their transgressions, as did shame, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear. However, researchers found that physiological responses did not differ significantly between the guilt and neutral states. The PET scans revealed that regional cerebral blood flow increased in three paralimbic regions of the brain, including the bilateral anterior temporal poles, anterior cingulate gyrus, and left anterior insular cortex/inferior frontal cortex, while decreases were seen in more posterior portions of the left insular cortex. However, the researchers also noted the difficulty in isolating the experience of guilt from other simultaneously experienced emotions (ex. shame, sadness). Nor was the severity of the guilt-related experiences in these young men revealed.
Other studies (via fMRI studies or in patients with region-specific brain lesions) have implicated different brain regions, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in the experience of guilt (Krajbich et al, 2009 ; Takahashi et al, 2004; Zahn et al, 2009). 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. This could partially explain why guilt is a form of disgust that does not easily dissipate, as seen in the cases of John Plummer and William Calley above. It also points to the necessity for self-forgiveness for one’s psychological health, if absolution from others is not forthcoming. While guilt has important functions in deterring socially unacceptable behavior, it can have a runaway effect which can overwhelm under the proper conditions:
Despite the appeal of (the) rational fallacy, our higher brain areas are not immune to the subcortical influences we share with other creatures. Of course, the interchange between cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, but the flow of traffic remains balanced only in nonstressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of subcortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain are stronger than top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower the downward controls through emotional education and self-mastery, few can ride the whirlwind of unbridled emotions with great skill.” (Panksepp, 2004: 301)
On the other side of the equation, Hayashi et al (2010) looked at the biological correlates of forgiveness using PET scans. Twelve Japanese men were asked to read single-sentence hypothetical scenarios depicting transgressions that were designated either serious (ex. a hungover surgeon botches an operation, a wife sees her husband ‘walking intimately’ with a woman) or minor (ex. a doctor forgets a patient’s name, a tired student is absent from school). The study subjects knew that all perpetrators in the scenarios were guilty. In the stories, perpetrators were then confronted by someone who asked if they did the deed, and they replied honestly or not.
Hayashi et al. hypothesized that more severe transgressions and the dishonesty of the perpetrator would both decrease the chances that a person would be willing to forgive, and that this would be reflected in their neuro-circuitry. As in guilt, the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex was active when they knew the perpetrator was dishonest, and the authors noted the importance of this area of the brain in the ability to read others’ intentions (the “theory of mind” network). Results for severity of the transgression, however, were inconclusive.
As in studies of guilt, those concerning the neuroscience of forgiveness are limited by the fact that participants encounter hypothetical, rather than personal, experiences. I have difficulty imagining that such scenarios could ever simulate the intricacies and the cognitive-emotional journey involved in more trying examples of forgiveness. For people like Kim Phuc and Pham Thanh Cong, absolution did not (and likely could not) happen overnight. It would be fascinating to understand what happens in that journey when they cross some mental threshold that allows them to forgive. However, it is easy to see how logistically difficult it would be to conduct such a study, such as being able to find and recruit willing participants with comparable experiences.
As seen in the above models of hawks, doves, and generous tit-for-tat, forgiveness allows for future cooperation. Some have noted that our neurobiology contains mechanisms which reinforce reciprocal altruism. Rilling et al (2002) found that in 36 women who played multiple rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a game with the option to cooperate or not with a partner), mutual cooperation was associated with brain regions involved in reward processing (via dopamine), including the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus. Further, study participants reported experiencing the most satisfaction in mutual cooperation outcomes, even though this is not the interaction that would give one the most points. That distinction goes to the combination when one accepts, but does not reciprocate, altruism (sort of like taking advantage of a ‘sucker’). Perhaps the reason for this is that maximizing immediate gains is less important than facilitating trust, with the accompanying payoffs from sustainable cooperation. At some level, our brains seem to get this.
On the other hand, unreciprocated cooperation is linked with robust activation of the anterior insula in the cooperator (that feeling of disgust, again) (Rilling et al 2008). Although these are merely game scenarios, it is not too great a leap to see how this applies to ‘real life.’ A lack of cooperation could lead to a cycle of resentment, if not broken through reconciliation.
Reconciliation in Southeast Asia
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; lingering health problems from early malnutrition in Hmong refugees; maltreatment of Hmong refugees by the Thai military, who forcibly repatriated them to Laos in 2009 against the wishes of the international community; the fact that Cambodia and Laos remain two of the poorest countries in the world; and high rates of poverty in Hmong, Lao, and Cambodians in the U.S. .
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. In 2009, the Department of Veteran Affairs reduced obstacles to sick and disabled veterans receiving benefits for a number of ailments linked to Agent Orange. Last June, a joint-group of U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers, organized by the Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute, recommended that the U.S. government and private companies pay $300 million for cleaning the remnants of Agent Orange and for medical care for affected and disabled Vietnamese. The following month, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hinted in a visit to Hanoi that the U.S. would do more to honor those recommendations. So far, one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge has been tried and found guilty. Every year, more than half a million Viet Kieu, Laotians, and Cambodians refugees living in the United States and other countries visit their former homelands, fostering economic and cultural ties as micro-ambassadors.
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.
1) Manophet Lonebuffalo is an excellent guide and a wonderful person who teaches English to hundreds of children and teenagers in Phonsavanh.
2) Abraham Lincoln’s Profound first inaugural address: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
3) These have long been recognized as essential components of social living. According to Mencius, a person without a sense of shame was no longer human.
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