When Barack Obama arrives in Laos on September 6, he’ll be the first sitting U.S. president to visit that country…
I hope the trip brings light to another dark corner of our history—the bombing of Laos by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Occasionally, we’ll talk about our secret bombing of Cambodia. But rarely do I hear Laos mentioned. Quite an oversight!
If we measure bombing in terms of tonnage dropped, Laos holds the record for endurance: no country has ever been as heavily bombed. The total amount is greater than the combined total dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII.
The bombs that fell on Laos contained smaller bombs—“bombies”. Many of these bombies are still out there, in the ground. Decades later, those bombies can explode when picked up by a child, or hit with a farmer’s plow. The Laotians are still being punished for our crime.
As I see it, when I wound another, I also wound myself. Sometimes I wish I could forget those wounds—forget the mistakes of my past. But I know by revisiting, I can see a little more, I can learn a little more, I can heal a little more. I can’t heal the other, but at least I can heal myself.
I believe that what applies to the individual psyche can also apply to the national psyche. Let me be very clear: what I say is belief and not science. But I think it’s a good belief, because it can lead to good results…
No, I’m not naive: realizing past mistakes will not stop our nation from making those same mistakes again. But by “fessing up”, we can begin the process of healing the wounds caused by our mistakes…
If nothing else, we can better heal the wounds we’ve inflicted on our own national psyche…
But sometimes, we can also help heal the wounds we inflicted on the other.
We can’t replace lives or limbs, but by admitting our wrong, by displaying empathy, by showing respect, by grieving with the other, we can help them heal in mind and heart.
In the past, I’ve not been a big fan of the apology—especially when it comes long after the event. The Church waited a few hundred years before apologizing for the Inquisition. A little too late to help heal those wounds.
Another problem with the apology is it often seems too easy. All you have to do is say “I’m sorry” and you’re off the hook.
But to apologize to Laos this Friday really wouldn’t be so easy. It would take both courage and humility. We wouldn’t be getting off the hook. We would be taking on greater responsibility.
However, if we did apologize and if the apology was sincere, the biggest beneficiary would be our own country.
It would help our purblind nation to see more, and in seeing more, feel more…
…and in feeling more, do much more to help heal a two-sided wound. In this case, it’s not too late.
© 2016, Michael R. Patton
my war for peace: a poetry book