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Forgiveness Can Change a Life, a World

Policy: It is a concept that government should embrace, not just relegate to religious and personal domains.

May 25, 1997|MICHAEL HENDERSON | Michael Henderson is the author of "The Forgiveness Factor--Stories of Hope in a World of Conflict" (Grosvenor)

When he performs his regimental chaplain's duties at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington on Monday, the Rev. John Plummer will for the first time since that war be much freer, as he told me, "to think about the other names who are represented on the Wall than my own concerns." And thereby hangs a moving tale.

At the memorial last Veterans Day, a Vietnamese woman, Kim Phuc, laid a wreath. She was last seen by the American public 25 years earlier in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo as a 9-year-old girl running down a road trying to escape the American napalm bombing of her village of Trang Bang. "Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved my life and gave me faith and hope," she said. "If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace."

She didn't know that the officer who ordered the air strike on her village was in the crowd. John Plummer had believed that there were no civilians in Trang Bang. When he saw the photograph the next morning in the armed forces paper, "Stars and Stripes," he was knocked to his knees. The photograph had haunted his dreams, through all the years, as his life changed, as he coped with drink and divorces, and starting over, was ordained.

On that Veterans Day, Plummer wrote her a note, "Kim, I am that man," and gave it to a police officer to deliver to her. A few minutes later they met.

"She just opened her arms to me," he says. "All I could say was, 'I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry.' " She said, "I forgive, I forgive." Now the two are regularly in touch with each other.

Plummer's nightmares have ceased and, responding to calls from around the country, he feels he has a new ministry to those who have not found the closure that he has. Plummer was reluctant at first to have the story told, not being particularly proud of it. "But now she has forgiven me," he says, "I am happy to talk about it."

Can Plummer's experience be valid for other veterans? Can nations, like individuals, move beyond the cycle of blame and guilt? And is forgiveness the key? For a long time, concepts like apology, forgiveness, repentance and the like have been relegated, especially by policymakers, to the personal or religious domain. But there are indications that even hard-nosed practitioners of politics and diplomacy are beginning to recognize that such concepts, sometimes derided as "soft and squishy," play more of a part than they realized.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has in her in-tray a letter from a number of experienced men and women who have served U.S. diplomacy, urging her to set up a task force through which the department can work with nongovernmental organizations with track records in reconciliation and forgiveness.

John V. McDonald, who served as ambassador under several administrations and now heads the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, says that 10 years ago when he was asked to speak about forgiveness in public affairs, he was dumbfounded: "I looked in all the literature. There was nothing there." Now he can tell you of numerous books on the subject and the growing interest of policymakers. In recent months, alongside the horrifying newspaper stories from central Africa or the former Yugoslavia or our inner cities are stories that employ the word forgiveness, whether it is the end of the civil war in Guatemala, the visit of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the Czech Republic or the apology by President Clinton to those who were exploited in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

We have seen progress in tearing down the Berlin Wall and ending the Cold War, in the ushering in of a new South Africa, in the growing numbers of countries turning to democracy. As we remember the dead of this century's wars, I think of the words of the Dalai Lama, "If this century has been a century of war and conflict, the next will be the century of dialogue," and of Pope John Paul II, "The tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new spring of the human spirit."

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