War. The thunder of bombs, the wail of the wounded, the sharp smell of fear. "It's something you never get used to," muttered a U.S. Marine classmate returning from Vietnam; especially when the weight of responsibility falls directly on you.
I felt it years ago as a marine lieutenant, knowing that the lives of 50 men were in my hands. Later, in the White House, I never lost the brooding realization that every decision I influenced could mean life or death to soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.
But the most wrenching sense of responsibility hit one morning when I climbed into the back seat of the White House limousine, opened the newspaper, and saw a photo of a nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl running naked down the street, the jellied napalm searing her skin after a bomb attack ordered by a U.S. commander. The little girl's arms were stretched out as though in supplication, her face contorted in a scream of pain and terror.
The image earned the photographer a Pulitzer Prize and helped turn the heart of a nation against the war. But for me, there was no escaping a sense of personal responsibility. The photo was scorched permanently into my memory, whispering the haunting question: Was I responsible for policies that led to this small child's agony?
In the years that followed, my life and that of the little girl strangely converged. Her name was Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and she was rushed to the hospital by the photographer, where she was treated for third-degree burns. Her wounds were so severe that every time they were cleaned and dressed the pain caused her to lose consciousness.
Later, the Communist Vietnamese government discovered that she was the "girl in the picture" and paraded her endlessly in anti-American propaganda. ...1