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Grievous Harm Both Here and Abroad


Make a list of all persons harmed, become willing to make amends to all. And make amends to such people whenever possible except when it would injure others.

In 1989, I took part in a spiritual retreat of reconciliation between Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese people organized by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Monks, nuns, veterans, journalists, nurses and others who had been affected by the war spent five days together meditating.

Richard told me privately that he loved the sheer exhilaration of dropping bombs, that sometimes he and his friends would drop LSD just to marvel at the beauty of the fire below. Occasionally, he said, they’d drop a payload on no target in particular with no concern about who might be on the receiving end.

For two days, we sat in small circles telling stories. A monk of impeccable bearing, having listened to so many stories, said, “I am usually in control of my emotions, but I think I will speak now if I can.” He told his story of growing up under the French occupation, the coming of the Americans, taking his vows, attending to the dead and wounded during the frequent bombings. His eyes dry, he withheld nothing of his feelings.

After a few minutes of silence, Richard spoke directly to the monk, “I have never said it: I am so sorry for what we did to your people,” and broke into sobbing. The monk stood up; did a full prostration, forehead to ground before Richard; then rose and held him as he cried. “We Vietnamese also have blood on our hands,” he said.

Eisenhower wrote, “Any failure [to make peace] traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous harm both at home and abroad.” In his simple statement, “I am so sorry,” Richard undid his nation’s arrogance, lack of comprehension and refusal to sacrifice.

We can now appreciate what a cramped little room this mindset of enemymaking was. The intimacy of Richard’s apology opens the door so the soul can be free to learn the craft of peacemaking. All the previous steps have led to this exquisite moment to be repeated again and again. Awareness gives way to the gesture of reconciliation.

We know the list of those we’ve harmed is endless: from the decimation of the original peoples of this land; through slavery; through the bombing of Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg; through the brutality of our relationship with the Arab world. Yet guilt mongering and “Blame America first” is an indulgence we can’t afford. It ensnares the ethical imagination in self-righteousness and paralyzes the necessary labor of reconciliation. How can we stop the violence even as we find ways of reparation?

Every tribe will protect its parameters from enemies. It is the disease of so-called civilization to draw wealth from far-away places, seek to control markets and peoples and amplify defense so it invites war. Robinson Jeffers:

The war that we have carefully
For years provoked
Catches us unprepared, amazed
And indignant.

Currently, fifty percent of our tax dollars serves the Pentagon. One percent goes to foreign aid, two-thirds of which goes specifically to Israel and Egypt. Now that we can think outside of enemymaking, perhaps we can imagine reversing these figures.

Fifty percent of the tax dollar towards a more sustainable world. Beginning with our former enemies, de-mining the Plain of Jars in Laos, cleaning up the tons of depleted uranium in Iraq, allying ourselves with Israel to economically engage a viable Palestinian state, and so on.

Our former enemies first and foremost and then the others, not in the spirit of missionaries dispensing handouts but collaborative, grass roots work that heals the past by addressing the suffering of the present.

And the military budget? No longer inflated by imperial necessity, we have rejoined the community of nations. In a generation, it’s possible that our former enemies will defend us and protect our interests because we’re worth defending.

Inevitably some enemies will remain–the impulse to violence runs deep, and the memory of war can linger for centuries. Peacemaking is never a fait accompli. It is a culture we pass on to our children so they can pass it on to theirs.

MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the coauthor (with Augustine Kandemwa) of Gathering in the Names ( Spring Audio and Journal 2003) and Dreaming the End of the World. The full text of this essay is posted at He can be reached at


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