Solatium

PAYMENTS proposed to the families of the passengers of the downed Iranian plane, Flight 655, have precedent in the Vietnam war. The United States paid money routinely when innocent victims were caught in cross fire or struck by vehicles. The payments were termed solatium, and they were designed to show not that the US took blame for the accident, but simply that we were sorry that such things happened at all. In 1969, I was an officer in the 1st Air Cavalry stationed about halfway between Saigon and the Cambodian border. I had been trained as a linguist. Thus, whenever Vietnamese civilians were injured I was dispatched with a driver to find the family if I could, and if not, find the village elder. I took an envelope of piasters, the South Vietnamese currency, with me and a mimeographed statement in Vietnamese which explained what the money meant. It was hardly pleasant duty. At the time I felt like a fool, because I thought the money was an insult.

Sometimes the casualty was a child who had stepped in front of a claymore or had run in front of a personnel carrier. Once an American unit had opened fire on a South Vietnamese Popular Forces squad patrolling their own village. This was, of course, a mistake, but the Popular Forces were wearing native dress, the same as the Viet Cong wore.

The worst case in my experience involved the local woodcutters who continued working in the forests around Phuoc Vinh right in among American units and the North Vietnamese. To make a living they had no choice. The entire area was full of tunnels and bunkers. When North Vietnamese mortar shells fell from the sky or the American artillery opened up, the woodcutters dropped their chain saws and headed for the nearest abandoned tunnel. After a barrage an American medic spotted a woodcutter coming out of a tunnel opening. The man had no saw in his hand, and the medic assumed the worst. A trained infantryman might have waited until he was sure who he was shooting at, but the medic was too scared to think. He shot the man.

The woodcutter's body was brought back to the village of Nuoc Vang and given to his wife and parents. I was sent to talk to them and pay them some money. When I got there the initial shock of the loss had worn off. The widow sat outside her house staring at nothing in the fading afternoon sunlight. The man's body was inside the house and several people were putting together a coffin in the main clearing of the village. I made my explanation to the widow's father and tried to hand her the money. She wouldn't take it at first; she wouldn't even look at it. After a moment her father said something to her, and she listlessly accepted the envelope. I said again that we were sorry and that it was an accident and that we hoped the money would help her in the future. Then I gratefully left.

In the envelope was less than a hundred dollars' worth of piasters, a sum the Army had decided was proper. Of course, it wasn't. No amount would have been enough. But if that were true, then the money was for something else. It was to bring solace, to assuage the pain of a loss that could not be regained. There was no admission of guilt on our part, nor was there any forgiveness on the widow's part in accepting the money. We showed that we wanted to do something even if we couldn't do anything, and she showed that she understood.

The parallel between this small event 20 years ago and Flight 655 is admittedly uneven. People caught between warring factions, who are simply trying to survive, have to accept the risk. A solatium payment to the surviving family doesn't admit guilt. It admits sorrow. Sorrow that such things happen, that mistakes happen in war, that wars start in the first place. It's a human thing to feel sorrow, and the urge to assuage the pain you've caused another person should be acted on. Considering the billions spent for inhuman actions, it's a small enough cost.

Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's cartoonist.

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