Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc (Kim Phuc). Of the young and old fleeing Saigon along Route 1 on June 8, 1972, Kim became the face of tragedy in the Vietnam War. That morning, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces dropped napalm bombs on the village of Trang Bang. The U.S. suspected the previously attacked village was occupied by North Vietnamese forces (Viet Cong).
Completely naked and running from an inferno that reached 1,200 degrees Celsius (or 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit), Kim reached nearby soldiers, crying, Nóng quá, nóng quá (“too hot, too hot”). The soliders attempted to bring relief by pouring water on her burning flesh. But water intensified the pain, causing Kim to lose consciousness. She was taken to an area hospital and later placed in the morgue where doctors expected she would die. Kim survived the injuries and 17 surgical procedures that followed.
Kim’s Challenge …
Filled with what she described as hatred for the people who dropped the bombs and left her “ugly”, Kim went on a personal campaign to find a purpose for her life. While reading a number of books, she was introduced to The Holy Bible.
And at 19-years-old, Kim accepted Jesus Christ during Christmas of 1982. She went on to study medicine, but the Communist government of South Vietnam removed Kim from college and used her for propaganda. She was later sent on a missions assignment to Cuba, where she met Bui Huy Toan, whom she married in 1992. During their honeymoon flight to Moscow, the couple defected after the aircraft stopped for refueling in Newfoundland.
In 2008, National Public Radio (NPR) featured her story as a part of its This I Believe series, during which Kim reflected on that horrific day in 1972 and her subsequent transformation from hatred on she describes “The Long Road to Forgiveness“:
“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?“
Several passages of Scripture refer to God as a “consuming fire” [Deut. 4:24, Deut. 9:3, Heb. 12:29]. These passages highlight the Holiness of God’s nature that destroys all things unholy. And an a real sense, Kim had encountered a consuming fire within that destroyed the hatred against those connected with the consuming of Trang Bang.
In 1992, Kim was designated a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In this role, she gives a voice to youth who desire to be agents of change throughout the world. In 1997, the former victim of war established the Kim Phuc Foundation in the US, an organization formed with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war. Later, other foundations were set up, with the same name, under an umbrella organization, Kim Phuc Foundation International. A resident of Toronto, Canada along with her husband and two children, Kim has embraced Christianity and the power of faith in Jesus Christ to find the strength to forgive.
Our Challenge …
Terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 unleashed a simmering rage that consumed our contempt for war. The anger is understandable. And yet, it is an anger rooted in irony and a sense of supreme import in God’s design. Does anyone believe a confused elderly citizen or terrified child finds high explosives dropped on them any less evil than those dropped by state-sponsored terrorists? Who, when watching their family turned to dust calculates the humanity in it all based on the launcher of deadly missiles or cluster bombs?
If the people of the world’s most powerful nations can to internalize the dignity and precious nature of all life, we will recognize the countless Kim Phucs who have felt the terror of U.S. bombs. We are a nation that has dropped more bombs on human beings than any other nation known to mankind. And yet, we not only repress the insanity of war, but also relish the idea of declaring it. From a national platform, President George Bush trumpeted, “They will soon hear from us“, and we cheered the warning. The target mattered not. Neither did the untold number of Kims our bomb would disfigure, maim, burn, and kill. We searched for vengeance through violent confrontation as if we had no other available way.
[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”30%”]I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [/pullquote]
In the name of justice, America has promoted unjust wars, toppled sovereign governments, and deposed leaders like few other civilized nations. The U.S. has unilaterally decided that it knows what is best for all other nations and all other people of the world, and we often find ourselves ready to impose our conclusions on others through military conquest. In the post-9/11 America, war became a video game. Embedded journalists who concerned themselves with access more so than telling the awful horrors of “Shock and Awe”. War became carefully crafted news productions accented by state-of-the-art computer graphics.
A dear relative, whose name I will not mention, shared stories of our War in Afghanistan. He was required to go into areas that our nation had bombed. He recalled in one incident, watching a young boy walking down a road with his scrotum severely damaged and hanging from his body. In another incident, he saw a child clinging to life with half his head blown away. This is the reality of needless war. War that fail to resolve underlying conflicts, but rather stores up inter-generational histories that will ignite as for future conflicts. War fails to satisfy the thirst for revenge, but exposes even the most powerful nations to losses of financial resources and lives.
Kim Phuc is the reality of war. She was the collateral damage that emerged out of the flames of war. We rarely see the faceless children who live in villages we destroy by war and now, by drone bombs dropped on villages in Pakistan and Yemen. The collateral damage today is hidden from the American public and the American psyche. Destruction discussed as statistics and not very accurate statistics at that.
Kim Phuc lives with what, to most of us, is little more than paranoia incited by national security alerts, endless terror warnings, and rumors of war. Kim’s brand of Christianity is the authentic brand. Not some politically-charged imposter of Christianity found in John Hagee’s “nuke em” theology that disguises familiar drumbeats of war. For a nation that readily asserts its faith-based [Christian] values, it is but false pretense to frame ourselves as “warring peacemakers”. Friend made by force are future foes waiting for opportunities. God finds no pleasure in nations supposedly “one under” Him, exporting warfare as a means of sustaining its selfish interests. Christianity, while recognizing governments, finds no peace in histories of son watching mothers die in deadly blasts. Christianity is not a lie that would have us to believe we are “good” in our actions that maim and kill. Whether that lie comes from Neo-Cons, television evangelists, or the President of the United States, it is a lie, nonetheless. Foolishness at-best and outright hypocrisy at-worst.
Whether our rhetoric is targeted at North Korea, Syria, or Iran, our leaders in Washington might learn from Kim Phuc how to transform evil into good.
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FOR MORE ON THIS STORY
Kim Phuc delivering a message to The Way Community Church.
Kim’s message, When Forgiveness Hurts, includes powerful footage. At the 37.28 mark, Kim Phuc meets one of the U.S. veterans (Rev. John Plummer) involved with dropping the napalm bombs on the village on June 8, 1972.
Tiffany Hagler-Geard, Historic ‘Napalm Girl’ Pulitzer Image Marks Its 40th Anniversary, June 8, 2012, ABC News. The article contains photos from the June 8, 1972 bombing of Trang Bang. Click here.
Nancy K. Miller, The Girl in the Photograph: The Vietnam War and the Making of National Memory, Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, Feb. 24, 2004. (2004). Click here.
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