Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reconciliation or Amnesty?

John 20:21-23 (New Living Translation)

“He spoke to them again and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven.”

On Sunday last Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled a twenty-eight point “national reconciliation plan.” As soon as the plan was announced American politicians and pundits began to weigh in. The response was, like much of what happens in Washington these days, generally along party lines. The Democrats, who support time-tables for withdrawal and “amnesty” for illegal aliens, are dead set against the al-Maliki plan. Most representative of the Democratic point of view is Senator Carl Levin of Michigan:

“For heaven's sake, we liberated that country. We got rid of a horrific dictator. We’ve paid a tremendous price. More than 2,500 Americans have given up their lives. The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable.”

I suppose it could be argued that the Democrats are being true to their principles, whatever they may be. The olive branch offered in the Senate’s immigration plan may not compare well with the plan offered by the Iraqi government. But I’m skeptical. It looks more like political positioning than expression of principle to me.

Prime Minister al-Maliki responded to the criticism by saying that:

“The launch of this national reconciliation initiative should not be read as a reward for the killers and criminals or acceptance of their actions. No, one thousand times no. There can be no agreement with them unless they face justice.”

I’m not entirely sure what to think. I want this war prosecuted to a just, victorious end. I want democracy to succeed in Iraq. I don’t want amnesty offered to terrorists. But, I also want the blood-letting to end.

Is al-Maliki’s plan a good step on the road to reconciliation or is it a sham that offers nothing but carte blanche for terrorists to continue the mayhem?

For me, the answers to those questions come from history.

This morning I spent some time re-reading a small portion of Jim McPherson’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” It deals with the dialogue between Grant, the victor, and Lee, the vanquished, at Appomattox in April of 1865:

“Then in McLean’s parlor the son of an Ohio tanner dictated surrender terms to the scion of the First Family of Virginia.”

“The terms were generous: officers and men could go home “not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” This clause had great significance. Serving as a model of the subsequent surrender of other Confederate armies, it guaranteed southern soldiers immunity from prosecution for treason. Lee asked another favor. In the Confederate army, he explained, enlisted men and cavalry and artillery owned their own horses; could they keep them. Yes, said Grant; privates as well as officers who claimed to own horses could take them home “to put a crop in to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.” “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” said Lee, and “will do much toward conciliating our people.” After signing the papers, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As he shook hands with Grant’s military secretary, Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded, “We are all Americans.”

In a war where hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died at the hands of their Confederate opposites there were, no doubt, thousands and thousands of grievances and unsettled scores. Yet, Grant was magnanimous in victory, and so was Abraham Lincoln, as evidenced by these beautiful words from his second inaugural:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Was Grant’s gesture amnesty or was it an attempt to reconcile? Did Lincoln’s words justify the Confederacy’s secession or did they offer reconciliation and peace? You be the judge.

In December of 1941, imperial Japan, in an act of naked aggression, attacked the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Americans died that day and a bloody war followed. Hundreds of thousands more of America’s bravest fell during that war. On the other side of the world thousands of Americans died in order to liberate Europe from the grip of fascism. When the war ended America embarked on an ambitious plan to reconstruct Europe and to bring Japan and Germany back into the family of nations. Did we do the wrong thing by doing so? Surely it can’t be argued that we did. Today, Germany and Japan are vibrant democracies. Today, Japan is one of the world’s great economies. Today Germany and Japan are among our trusted allies. They have indeed been reconciled into the family of nations.

I served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. Unlike thousands of others who served there with me, I came back home safely. The only injuries I received were to my memory. Others who returned, like Senator John McCain, came home with the visible scars of years at the Hanoi Hilton. If any man had grievances with the North Vietnamese, it was McCain. Yet, he was one of the first of America’s leaders to call for normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. Did his recommendation justify the wounds inflicted on him years earlier? No, no, a thousand times no!

During the Vietnam years there was a little known program called “Chieu Hoi” (translated “Open Arms”). The aim of the program was to reconcile Viet Cong guerillas back into South Vietnamese society. It was enormously successful, bringing almost 200,000 former enemies back in to the mainstream of South Vietnamese life in the years it was offered.

I’m sure that anti-Vietnam detractors could argue that the program made little difference in the end. After all, we lost. But, it wasn’t “Chieu Hoi” that caused our defeat; it was American political will. That, however, is an argument for another time. The fact is, “Chieu Hoi” was a successful reconciliation program.

The beauty of the program was its simplicity. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were offered freedom passes, an opportunity to lay down their arms. In return, they would be given education, training in new vocational skills, a small amount of seed money, and the opportunity to help South Vietnam’s build a nation. It was, if you will, what some might call an amnesty plan.

How successful was the program? The following excerpt from a captured 1966 Viet Cong document sheds some light on it:

“The impact of increased enemy military operations and ‘Chieu Hoi’ programs has, on the whole, resulted in lowering morale of some ideologically backward men, who often listen to enemy radio broadcasts, keep in their pockets enemy leaflets, and wait to be issued weapons. This attitude on their part has generated an atmosphere of doubt and mistrust among our military ranks.”

Did this program change the minds of hard core Viet Cong cadres? No. But it did have a great impact on hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted little more than an opportunity to live in peace and build a good life. Could Iraq’s reconciliation plan have a powerful negative effect on the plans of hard core terrorists there? Could it offer an opportunity for others to reconcile themselves to the society they left? I think it’s possible. If our aim in Iraq is victory and the most visible sign of that victory would be a stable democracy, then I say al-Maliki’s plan deserves more than the scorn many Democrats and conservative pundits are heaping on it.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I would gladly meet Osama bin Laden or any of Iraq’s terrorists, one on one, one on two, or one on fifty. I would consider it a singular honor to bring, as the President has said, justice to the enemy. But, that said, I do support the Iraqi Prime Minister’s attempt to bring reconciliation to his war-torn country.

In a few months Nancy and I will be hosting a young Vietnamese woman who will be attending Emporia State University. It’s a three year commitment for us. In the conversations we’ve had to date I’ve found that a great deal of healing has taken place since the 1970’s. It seems that Americans and all things American are greatly admired there these days. I wouldn’t have dreamed that such a thing could happen back in 1965 and 1966 or in seventy-five when Saigon fell to the communists. I’m looking forward to being a small part of the reconciliation between my country and Thom’s. There’s much I believe I’ll learn, as will she.

Reconciliation works! It brought us back together as a nation a century and a half ago. It turned enemies into allies three generations ago. It has exorcised many of the demons of the Vietnam War. And, it can work in Iraq. That’s why I support the al-Maliki plan.

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