They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, an image simply defies words.
That is the case with the photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing among other terrified children, the clothes and much of her skin burned off her body, in a napalm strike in Trảng Bàng, Vietnam, in 1972.
The sheer terror on her face, on the faces of the other children, the horror of seeing a child running, horribly burned, strips away all the shiny lacquer we paint over the realities of war.
Her story resurfaced last week, when PBS ran a brief interview with Kim Phuc, in which she offered unequivocal forgiveness for all involved in her injuries.
Now living in Canada, Kim Phuc has gone on to live a full life as a mother and selfless servant to others. But the road to overcoming her injuries, and the pain and anger that came with them, was not smooth or easy.
“I went through 17 operations,” she told PBS. “I had to deal with the pain every single day … It built me up with hatred, bitterness, and anger. I just living with the question, Why me? Why that happened to me?”
By 1982, Kim Phuc sank to a place filled by the hearts and minds of so many touched by war. She wanted to take her own life.
I’ve been to that place. So many of those who fought in and suffered from our wars have not returned from that place.
Kim Phuc’s courage and selfless forgiveness of those who hurt her — men like me — made me want to share a bit of my story. I share it with great hesitation, because I do not feel worthy of mingling my words with those who have seen, done and suffered far worse than me.
I never faced an enemy face-to-face. I never faced hardship in battle. I never faced the dangers of battle. I did my killing from a thousand miles away. I launched cruise missiles before breakfast, then went to the gym, a nap and soft-serve ice cream in the officers’ mess. And, I never had to see the faces of those I killed. The closest I came to seeing my victims was the CNN coverage of “Shock and Awe” – a visual orgy of buildings being blown up in the middle of the night, in the opening campaign of the Iraq war.
You can only blow up so many buildings in crowded cities, in the middle of the night, without the probabilities approaching certainty you’ve blown up a few innocent people whose only offense was being in the proximity of the wrong aimpoint at the wrong time-on-target.
For reasons I can’t state here, I know they were more than a few, and they were utterly, helplessly innocent. I never saw them. But every time you see me, they’re there – walking with me, silently.
The closest I ever came to seeing them was in a 2006 documentary on the “Shock and Awe” campaign. I caught it on one of those TVs they hang on the wall at the gym, while jogging on a treadmill.
At first, it was just the usual footage – a night cityscape accented by tracers and the occasional blinding flash of a warhead turning a building, and its inhabitants, into rubble.
Then, the footage took on a vantage point I had not seen before, or since. It was footage from inside the apartment of an Iraqi family, who were unlucky enough to live in the middle of the initial bombing campaign. This particular Iraqi family had a little girl – in the footage she was about the same age as my older daughter at that time. For several long sequences, I watched that little girl screaming and crying uncontrollably, terrified in a way no child ever should be, as the world blew up around her.
I got off that treadmill, rushed to the gym bathroom, and spent a good, long while puking my guts out. Ever since then, all the ghosts I carry with me have worn that little girl’s face.
And, when I saw the PBS piece on Kim Phuc, I didn’t see the iconic photo of that 9-year-old running from the flames in Vietnam. I saw that little Iraqi girl, screaming out her terror in the night.
That is why Kim Phuc’s story is so important to me. Because, in spite of all the pain, terror and hatred she suffered, she found a way to forgive. She told PBS she became a Christian in 1982, and “That faith, it helped me a lot.”
She’s chosen to walk The Way of Christ, and along that way she’s served countless hungry, poor and scared children — children she doesn’t want to feel the pain and horror we inflicted on her in 1972, and years afterward.
Now, against all rational odds, she’s found the courage to forgive those who burned her. Men like me.
“I forgive everyone who caused my suffering, even the pilot, commander, people controlling me,” she told PBS.
There is hope and beauty in that simple sentence. Because, if Kim Phuc can forgive those who burned her, maybe that little Iraqi girl has grown to have the same strength and courage. I can take solace in that. We all can.
But, that solace is selfish and hollow if we don’t learn from Kim Phuc, and follow the example she’s set for us.
What is that example? And how do we follow it? Kim Phuc tells us it’s simply a matter of following the path of love.
“All my journey, I help children, building school, building hospital, orphanage home,” she told PBS. “It’s about relationship. Now I’m working, not because of my duty, not because of my mission, but because of my love.”
She overcame pain, fear and hatred — not by retribution, but by selfless, irrational love.
Maybe if we follow her example, and build more of our courage on love, rather than force and fear, we will create fewer children who need to overcome the scars of war, and fewer broken men and women who have to carry their ghosts.