We sometimes evoke the old saying "You can't see the forest for the trees" when we want to suggest that someone is unable to see reality because they are caught up in all the small, busy details of the situation. It's generally not a compliment, but rather a challenge to "please step back and see the big picture for a change."
Our global perspective, heavily influenced as it often is by the mass media, may require the same challenge. In this case, however, the problem might be that we fail to see the details because of the broad stereotypes created for us by the 60-second blurbs passing for news that we get every night on television. Rarely do these reports really help us see the people, especially those of another country.
During a recent trip to Viet Nam, a friend said to me, "Americans still see Viet Nam as a war and not as a people." I think he is correct. We talk about the "Viet Nam War" (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War) as though that phrase defines our relationship to and understanding of this country with its long history and diverse ethnic groups, cultures and traditions. To many of us, Viet Nam is not a people but a war-a war that divided our country and left many wounds that still cry out for healing.
But ours are not the only wounds. The people of Viet Nam continue to live daily with the remnants of the war they never asked for. It is estimated that since 1975, at least 40,000 people, many of them young children, have been killed by unexploded munitions that lay hidden in the rice fields and along country lanes. U.S. forces dumped more than 72 million liters of the deadly Agent Orange on Viet Nam, and some researchers say that more than three million Vietnamese now suffer diseases and birth defects related to exposure to Agent Orange.
It is also estimated that as many as 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers and civilians remain missing since the war's end. For the Vietnamese, it is imperative that the proper rituals be carried out upon the death of a loved one so that they can, indeed, rest in peace. For these 300,000 or so families, the pain of losing a family member is further augmented by the fact that they cannot find the body and provide a proper funeral. Today their sorrow remains as a heavy cloud over their lives.
Mrs. Pham Kim Hy, now over 70, is just such a victim. Her son was killed during a 1972 battle when he was only 20 years old. Even now, she continues to make trips into the mountains where he was stationed, searching through the jungle and excavating possible sites, hoping to find some sign of his remains. For her, and for so many others, the war's anguish never ends.
A Vietnamese man once shared that his healing finally started when he met an American who expressed sorrow for what the U.S. bombing and shelling had done to the people of Viet Nam. Such a simple act, yet with such a profound effect, helped one person begin the process of working through his trauma. Surely, the healing came not only to him, but also to the American who had the strength and courage to seek forgiveness.
We are in need of healing as a nation. Perhaps that healing could start if we would simply stop seeing Viet Nam as a war and rather see the people of Viet Nam as friends who can help us deal with the trauma that still disturbs us so much.
Healing often begins with the search for forgiveness. A broken relationship with God is restored only when we recognize our faults and repent of them. The process of repentance is like a soothing balm. When we recognize how we have harmed others and seek their forgiveness, broken relationships can be restored and our own souls nursed back to health.
Let us stop talking about the "Viet Nam War" or the "Iraq War," and rather let us speak of Vietnamese and Iraqi people-about mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, about human beings dearly loved by God. Their suffering and pain is no less than ours. If we can simply say to them, in all sincerity, that we are sorry for what our country has done, and is doing, to them, bridges can be built and violence dis-empowered. That can be the first step toward healing for all of us.