A Radical Proposal for Healing: The Invocation of a National People’s Truth Commission

September 1, 2000

A commission to reveal the U.S. Government’s historical complicity in state terrorism, both at home and abroad, while covering up such activities with fallacious pretexts and ‘plausible deniability’

by S. Brian Willson
1999, Revised Sept. 2000

"Only memory, however unhappy, can dignify our public policy. As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward. In other words, our moral integrity and political wisdom require that we study the past so as to prevent its indignities from recurring."

–Klemens von Klemperer, Professor of History,
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1985

"It takes tremendous energy–in sheer wastage of the lives of human beings at the periphery of the on-going experiment–in order to keep the illusion of an America Free from History going….One of the appalling consequences of American history lessons is the desiccation of any sense of communal responsibility for the initiatives undertaken in our name. We exist outside history and outside the present world as well, in a kind of eerie detachment."

–Laurence Weschler, "Running From History, Running on Empty,"
In These Times, Nov. 12-18, 1987

"…orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body….This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink….The party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison….The past is whatever the Party chooses to make it….It will be seen that the control of the past depends above all on the training of memory."

–George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

"It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systematic, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them. Nobody ever has."

–Harold Pinter, British poet, playwright and actor, 1998

"You in the [United] States must say, at some point, ‘We need something like a truth and reconciliation commission,’ and say, ‘What is the pain that is sitting in the pit of our tummy?’"

–South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the 1995-1998
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, 1998

When Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), visited the U.S. in l998, he recommended that the United States was very much in need of its own Truth Commission. I agree. Contemporary U.S. policies, domestic and foreign, cultural mores and values, and traditions, all represent the presence of the past. The past is never behind us. This is, of course, not unique to the U.S. I have been struck by the contents of the Historical Clarification Commission that issued its report in February 1999 in Guatemala (The Guatemala Truth Commission), the Truth Commission in El Salvador that issued its report in March l993, and the TRC in South Africa appointed in l995, which issued its final report in October l998. Each of these mechanisms was created to facilitate healing processes through acknowledgment of systematic harms committed within their respective societies after years of repressive terrorist class and race wars that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the government of the United States was either overtly or covertly involved in a variety of ways in supporting repressive forces in these countries. These Truth Commissions spent substantial time reviewing a chronological overview of the patterns of repression and identifying those responsible, both from inside and outside their respective countries. Who authorized, financed, and executed policies of terror and death, for example? What are the patterns of victim profiles? What were the publicly pronounced pretexts for justifying or denying patterns of repression? Who was responsible for creating these rationales and covering up the crimes? The record of human rights abuses for the first time was systematically documented and available for open deliberation, and became part of a profound reconciliation process. Just as their name indicates, the purpose of these commissions was to tell the truth as a basis for healing.

Martin Luther King declared that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He understood that we are all interconnected, just as all life in the universe is, and that sooner or later the harms we inflict upon others will return home to haunt us as well. I believe that virtually every human being who comes to understand how one’s behavior, or the policies of one’s government, is harming other human beings or sacred life, would want that behavior or policy to be terminated. A Truth Commission would be an effort to sensitize the U.S. American people to our authentic history. This includes reaching out to political representatives, people who operate the bureaucracies and institutions of government, the wealthy and those who profit from corporate forces, and most importantly, the people at the grassroots throughout the nation, to the violent assaults that have been committed by our government and corporations for more than two centuries harming people and ecosystems here at home as well as abroad. Massive national denial has enabled "Manifest Destiny," and its characteristics of arrogance and greed, to prevail ad nauseum.

A number of essays of mine have attempted to disclose the uncensored version of our history, a history of a civilization built on three holocausts that have deleteriously effected people, and their lands and resources, all over the globe. When this history is occasionally referenced to it is merely considered part of an unfortunate past with little or no bearing on our contemporary behavior, values, and policies. I repeat here British poet and playwright Harold Pinter’s summary of U.S. global policy: "Kiss my ass or I’ll kick your head in." He learned about these matters by studying the history of his own country’s imperialism. He further states that "The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systemic, clinical, remorseless and fully documented but nobody talks about them. Nobody ever has." This is a very damning indictment of the U.S. civilization but for those of us who have closely examined U.S. history it is not an overstatement. Tragically so! Now that the U.S. is experiencing post-Cold War global triumphalism, the world is in the most dangerous predicament ever. The U.S., possessing more than half of all the world’s chemical, biological, nuclear, and conventional weapons, and being the largest arms seller/provider in the world, and believing that it possesses a providentially endowed civilization with a corresponding superior political/economic ideology, has become a monster. It insists that everyone, everywhere, adopt our (western) model where everything (and everybody) is a commodity for sale
at the cheapest price. Nothing is sacred! And it does so with virtual total impunity operating outside the boundaries of international law while defying the guiding principles of international institutions intended to settle disputes through peaceful discussions and collective actions, rather than through unilateral aggression. More mysteriously, its model is creating severe cultural, ecological, social, genetic, and psychological breakdowns to the detriment of all of the people on the earth and the ecosystem upon which life is indispensably dependent.

British ecologist David Edwards articulates how western capitalist systems are dependent upon preservation of the three Buddhist "poisons": (1) greed for profit at any cost in terms of human suffering; (2) hatred and intolerance of any foreign obstacles to profit; and (3) ignorance and denial of the intimate, dependent link between western corporations (and the governments that protect them) and "Third World"repressive regimes, no matter whether they have been "democratically" elected or are self- appointed dictators. If we are to have a world based on sacredness, respect, and justice, as foundations for peace and genuine security (win-win), then clearly some radical changes in consciousness, values and policies must occur. Change happens when people or cultures acknowledge their history and awareness of how that history has hurt and damaged so many. And now it has become obvious, even to the imperialists who are honestly assessing the consequences of global capitalism on the Earth’s ecosystem, that every living being is threatened by the continuation of this model of "savage" capitalism, a term used by Soviet thinker Solzhenitsyn after he had found refuge in the U.S. state of Vermont a number of years ago. A profound healing process is urgently in order, and it can begin with acknowledgment of how the U.S. civilization was really founded and how it has really sustained itself, and just how harmful our civilization has been, both here and abroad, and that it severely threatens the future for all of us. Then we, as a nation, can begin to share in the grief, and the reconciliation, as we ask, over and over again, for forgiveness. The time is ripe, despite our apparent arrogance gone mad, for creation of a national U.S. Truth Commission to facilitate our healing process before more harm, perhaps irreversible harm, to the livability for our species on the Planet, is committed.

One of the indispensable components of healing and wholeness, therefore of awareness and health, is acknowledgment of one’s crimes, or sins if that is the word of choice, or harm done to others. In other words, honesty–honesty with feelings, memories, actions and interactions and the consequences of one’s actions–is the basis for permanent integrity and trust. This is as applicable to cultures and nation-states as it is to individuals. Without this step, harmful behavior, and denial about the behavior’s consequences, continues over and over again. Closely associated with acknowledgment is the asking for forgiveness, of saying one is sorry to those harmed. If this is genuine, usually expressed with the tears of periods of wailing, many deep feelings are expressed over time, and behavior dramatically changes. This leads to reconciliation, and deep emotional relief. If acknowledgment and the asking of forgiveness does not happen, then the harmful patterns continue since they tend to become entrenched, generally invisible to or not understood by the participant. Ironically, however, the behavior generally feels comfortable because of its familiarity and the day-to-day habits and "defense mechanisms" historically associated with it. But it is pathological, often dangerous, and precludes absolutely any possibilities for achieving peace through genuine respect (justice), an essential foundation for healthy communications and security itself. Behavioral tendencies seem to reflect energy fields that have been transmitted from one generation to the next.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the popular Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has declared on a number of occasions that the military veterans of the United States, especially the morally pained Vietnam veterans, have an important role in leading a healing process for U.S. America. I have had many discussions over the years with Vietnam veterans and other war veterans all over this country, and it is clear that many of us have been faced with a profound choice: either exist with our sometimes seemingly unbearable moral pain by seeking forms of denial through one addiction or another as an alternative to suicide, or, in the alternative, to participate in some kind of healing process if we desire lives of meaning and truth. In this spirit, I have brainstormed with some of my colleagues about initiating discussions with people at the grassroots revealing an uncensored version of U.S. domestic and foreign history. Such discussions might shock some, but denial about our real history and nature is a serious roadblock to a genuine change in U.S. values and policies. This would include, of course, the history of repression directed at various sectors of the U.S. population, not limited to the genocide of the Indigenous or to the kidnapped Africans (i.e. to those who survived the ordeal of the Middle Passage which resulted in a genocide of its own), but to women, participants in labor struggles, anti-war and peace movements, socialists, communists, prisoners, the poor, etc.

An idea such as this is, of course, is not unprecedented. I have never forgotten an example during the Vietnam War. Though not a military veteran, Don Luce had worked in Vietnam as a civilian for nearly l0 years, from the late l950s to late l960s, and had gotten to know the Vietnamese well, even speaking fluently their language. He resigned his position as director of International Volunteer Services (IVS) in 1967 in protest of the bombings of both the north and the south, the continued creation of refugees, the defoliation campaigns, and the use of free fire zones to kill massive numbers of civilians. During the latter part of that War, Luce, a trained agriculturalist who grew up on a dairy farm in E. Calais, Vermont, took a bus on the road to towns all over the United States in an effort to enable the people to see the Vietnamese as very much like us, sharing similar joys and hardships, etc. He wanted the U.S. people to understand the Vietnamese as people, not merely as statistics. He traveled with photos, slides, movies, artwork, crafts, written materials, historical documents, etc. He mounted many of these exhibits on panels and displayed them in shopping centers, schools, churches, town halls and commons, and generally wherever he was able. Discussions and meetings occurred all over this country for the nearly three years that his Indochina Mobile Education Project was on the road. His efforts demonstrated how a commitment and sacrifice to reveal basic truths about U.S. policies (mostly unknown to the people of the United States) can effect popular consciousness through presenting facts from first hand experiences. Luce had first come to my attention in July 1970, eleven months after my departure from Vietnam and just prior to my separation from the U.S. Air Force, when he was able to lead two U.S. Congresspersons and a Congressional aide to the dungeon cells known as the "tiger cages." The aide was Thomas Harkin, himself a veteran of the Vietnam war, and who many years later became a U.S. Senator from Iowa., a position he has held since 1985.

The Commission’s mission would be to chronicle a genuine people’s history of the United States. [See Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980).] This would include documenting the more than 400 military interventions into more than 100 countries over a 200-year period and the more than 6,000 covert operations around the world destabilizing numerous popular movements and governments. It would include, of course
, the holocaust history of our European ancestor’s treatment of the Indigenous Americans and of the kidnapped Africans who survived their ordeal only to become chattel slaves, and the twentieth Century record of global interventions, killing countless millions, including our current overt and covert meddlings. It would provide a more people’s oriented (versus traditional academic) analysis of how and why this has happened, and how it affects us, spiritually, mentally, psychologically, emotionally, politically, and even genetically. A U.S. Truth Commission would be part of a national healing process, assisting our nation and culture in becoming earnest in its desire to be part of a peaceful presence on the Planet, shared with 210 nations and 6 billion people. Creation of such a mechanism would result only because many organizations such as churches, community groups, schools, peace organizations, and military veterans, etc., and notable individuals, would take up the cause. Especially important is reaching out to the college community of students and teachers and asking the question: Do you think the U.S. needs a Truth Commission to help our nation become part of a peaceful process rather than continually aggressing to preserve a greed model? This traveling chronicler of truth-telling would be an important part of a process for steering "America" toward a new century of humility, respect for others, and an understanding of the sacred interconnectedness of all life. Greed, violence, and arrogance as cultural characteristics would have to be forfeited, and that requires that we understand how those traits have hurt us, and continue to hurt us.

As we know from history one never knows what might become of small efforts that contain the seeds of truth and love amidst the sea of insanity and violence. Life is unpredictable, no matter how much analysis we attempt from "objective" circumstances. Our integrity, consciences, and survival are at stake as human beings on Planet Earth. Creation of a U.S. Truth Commission and the idea of it being sponsored and/or initiated by people such as U.S. military veterans, historians, and clergy, among other constituencies, is presented here in the hopes of generating a movement for truth-telling in a nation steeped in denial.

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