Recently out of law school I was making a comfortable living in an establishment law firm high above Rockefeller Center in 1966 when I came across a moving series of articles on civilian casualties in Vietnam.
Torn by the graphic description, I introduced myself to Arthur Barsky, the plastic surgeon whose skilled hands repaired the faces of young Japanese women burned by the atomic bomb. Although 72, Dr. Barsky quickly volunteered to travel to Vietnam to see what could be done about the horror, and together we established what was then the largest plastic surgery center in the world to treat Vietnam's war-injured children and train Vietnamese medical personnel.
Thousands of children were treated during the course of the war, including little Phan Thi Kim Phuc, whose photo fleeing a napalm drop screaming and naked continues to horrify all who see it. I often think how unnecessary this all would have been had President Truman followed Roosevelt's decision after WWII to support Ho Chi Minh, who had helped the Allies defeat the Japanese.
Recently Kim Phuc laid a wreath at Maya Lin's Memorial, saying "Even 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 was able to say this even though the pain from her wounds is still almost beyond what she can bear- "I try to keep down my pain, thinking, thinking to control my pain. I ask my husband, Tell me stories, funny stories...."
The ability of Vietnamese such as Kim Phuc to survive and go on in spite of unspeakable adversity has had a profound effect not only on me, but my children as well. My wife was born in Vietnam and since the war, our children have traveled to Vietnam and met their great uncles and aunts who went to war in 1946 and continued defending their country until the U.S.- and China-supported Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1986.
I have learned from the bitter experience I had in Vietnam how important it is to be vigilant - and always question authority. The Vietnam war destroyed the trust I had in my government, which I now see not necessarily as evil, but certainly not the arbiter of what is good or bad. This judgement is the responsibility of individuals who must not be afraid to make themselves heard. If they do, there is always the hope and possibility of change. If they do not, we have given up ourselves as victims to the economic interests that exert so much control over our lives-- rendering some of us superfluous and often thousands of us dead.