Vietnam: Dead Souls

The Vietnamese say, “There are no enemies in cemeteries.” After reading Heonik Kwon’s fascinating, important, and sometimes incomprehensible book, we might add, “All apparitions are equal.” The most unexpected passages in Kwon’s book refer to the hunt for MIAs, missing in action American servicemen. For many years, urged on by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, the retrieval of those missing dead has been such a sensitive political issue that, during his visit to Hanoi in November 2006, President Bush paid only one call outside his official duties. He visited the American MIA office devoted to recovering the remains of American war dead.

What Bush almost certainly did not know was that since the late 1990s, Hanoi, eager to get onto a more positive footing with Washington, was not only helping to find the MIAs—of whom there were only a few thousand, compared with hundreds of thousands of missing Vietnamese—but was employing at least one traditional “spirit master,” called Chien, to find the dead.

“In this system,” writes Heonik Kwon, a social anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh,

the mission usually begins with a communication with the missing dead to ask for the location of their bodies before the costly field trip to the site is initiated. This communication is done by traditional magical means and requires mediation by certain ritual specialists…. The provincial political leaders had a keen interest in the result of [Chien’s] expeditions, and Chien, knowing this, was engaged in an intensive prayer activity to his spirit master for a successful Vietnamese-American joint MIA mission.

Kwon does not record whether this ritual succeeded in finding American remains, although Chien is said to have had some success with Vietnamese MIAs. Nor is this the only surprise. Employing a spiritualist like Chien was contrary to Hanoi’s Marxist materialism, and indeed for years the authorities strove to curtail, if not wholly stop, such communication with the dead, partly because it was seen as superstitious, but also because it conflicted with nationalist celebrations of all the heroic dead, whether found or not, which excluded those who were not “revolutionary martyrs.”

In 1994, Kwon began visiting the villages in the area where the My Lai massacre occurred in 1968, along with another large-scale killing by American and South Korean forces. Two years ago he published his original and well-written After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai.1 Like the Tet offensive, My Lai was a turning point, as most Americans, shamed and disgusted, began abandoning their support for the war. What Kwon found was that between 1966 and 1968,

A systematic mass killing of civilians by ground troops was sweeping across a vast area of the central region, and the indiscriminate bombing of populated areas had become routine…. Two key military allies to the former South Vietnam, the United States and the Republic of Korea [where Kwon was born], were responsible for the atrocities…. It took only a few hours to annihilate each village; it…

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