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Vietnam: Dead Souls

The Boat

by Nam Le
Knopf, 272 pp., $22.95

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 has taken more than thirty years to revive the ruins.

For Vietnamese these massacres involved an additional tragedy that few Americans understood. In traditional Vietnamese belief, until a dead person is buried correctly, that is, very close to home, his or her ghost wanders aimlessly. Many Vietnamese told Kwon that they see and hear these homeless dead. After the war, when some of the remains were recovered from the often unmarked mass graves into which they had been shoveled, the Communist authorities were reluctant to have them buried again in the traditional religious manner; the Communist officials preferred that they be buried as heroic dead in military cemeteries, wanting to link them to great heroes of Vietnam’s centuries of battles with foreign invaders.

No matter which side Vietnamese fought on, once they were dead, and especially if they were missing, what was important for their families was that they were now “wandering souls.” Moreover, Kwon wrote in After the Massacre, many who died were not involved in fighting. The already precarious distinction between combatants and civilian noncombatants became dangerously and tragically irrelevant to some operations in hazardous or confused areas. American soldiers assigned to these places said, “Children also spy,” and “Anything you see is all Vietcong.” A war widow said, “If I knew the location of my husband’s grave, I would visit it before Tet and invite his spirit to join us. I’d offer food and fruit to nourish his spirit. But where do I go?”

In his new book Kwon considers a much wider geographical region in central Vietnam and his subject, too, is much wider. Ghosts of War in Vietnam, unique and revealing as it is, is marred, I’m sorry to say, by the author’s use of social science jargon that distracts from his subject: the many implications of death in Vietnam.2 There are also lapses in English. An editor should have corrected such phrases as “expeditionary forces swarmed the presidential palace.”

But overall Kwon has much to say of interest. In the welter of recent books describing strategies, tactics, and battles large and small in Vietnam, often with comparisons to Iraq, few tell us what the Vietnamese were and are like. Some Vietnamese novels have gone far to remedy that lapse, as do occasional biographies like Sophie Quinn-Judge’s Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941,3 and David Elliott’s two-volume regional investigation, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975.4 After reading such books I wondered, how did the Vietnamese win? Kwon does well to remind us that for the Vietnamese this was seen as the American War—on them. In 1965, near the Vietnamese border with Cambodia, I was watching a village puppet show with John Paul Vann, a maverick American official. On the little stage Vietnamese were knocking foreigners about. “That’s us they’re hitting,” Vann observed.

One explanation for the Vietnamese victory, despite their enormous suffering, must have been the tenacity which, despite their frightful losses to the American military machine, enabled them to hang on, survive, and drive the Americans away. Another kind of tenacity is what lay behind their need to deal with their dead and, indeed, American and French dead, in ways forbidden by the Communist Party.

Vietnamese believe the war dead exist somewhere, whether they are properly buried or not, even if their bones are sometimes jumbled with those of many others. Unless they are family members who have died close to their family, they are, as Kwon says, “the categorical opposite of ancestors, and as such they become strangers to the local community when this community enacts a ritual unity with its ancestral memory.” Ghosts are conceived as wandering along the margins of this and the other world, having died a “bad death in the street,” unlike ancestors who died “a good death at home” and are permanently settled in their own genealogically ordered and familiar space. Many Vietnamese, Kwon says, have a shrine inside their homes to ancestors and another, almost outside, to ghosts not necessarily connected to that family. Visitors are careful to pay their respects to both.

Ghosts, Kwon makes very plain, are real to Vietnamese as beings who have died “bad deaths.” Of course there have always been ghosts, because there were always Vietnamese who died far from home, but the French and the Americans, especially the latter, caused many Vietnamese, both soldiers and civilians, on both sides, to die in strange places. Therefore, there are a great many ghosts. Most families in the region Kwon investigated have relatives who disappeared during the war. We know from David Elliott’s volumes that thousands of people fled to cities to escape either Vietcong atrocities or the savage sweeps of American forces like the Ninth Division, or, as Kwon has shown, the killings by South Korean units. In the region where Elliott worked with the Rand Corporation the Americans were seen as the enemy. Details from the interviews he and others conducted for a Rand survey explain why. In one hamlet “70 percent of the women in the hamlet are widowed. Many people died during the American counteroffensive [after Tet in] 1968.” In another hamlet “there are 100 widows…all in the age bracket 20–30. The older men don’t get killed off.”

In 1968, General William Westmoreland’s successor, Creighton Abrams, commanded “Speedy Express” in My Tho province. According to Elliott, in six months the US Ninth Division killed over 10,000 Vietnamese, most of them civilians. He observes as well that “the civilian casualties of Speedy Express were a consequence of official policy.”5 A Ninth Division brigade commander was described by a senior officer as “psychologically…unbalanced. He was a super fanatic on body count…. You could almost see the saliva dripping out of the corners of his mouth. An awful lot of the bodies were civilians.”

In Kwon’s account:

The mass graves of civilian massacres, where bodies unrelated in kinship are enmeshed together, defy the wishes of their relatives for…reburial, and so do the many soldiers and civilians of the people’s war whose bodies are still missing from home burial…. It is not uncommon that families commemorate these tragic war dead [who include soldiers who fought for Saigon as well as French or American soldiers] at the shrine for ghosts rather than at that for ancestors…hoping that the invited groups of ghosts would include the spirits of their lost spouse, children, or siblings.

Kwon found that many mothers had sons on both sides who died fighting.

Despite the Party’s stipulations forbidding the recognition of ghosts, many Vietnamese, Party members or not, see, hear, and where possible make offerings to ghosts. They make no distinction between the ghosts of the wartime enemies and those from their own side. There are no enemies in cemeteries, as the Vietnamese say. In Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War,6 a soldier asserts that the ghosts of war “do not give a damn about wars,” and forget why they happened, a notion that is offensive to the intensely nationalist Vietnamese Communist Party. A driver who has been collecting the remains of Vietnamese MIAs for years says:

This is the Jungle of Screaming Souls. It looks empty and innocent, but in fact it’s crowded. There are so many ghosts and devils all over this battleground. Not a night goes by without them waking me up to have a talk. It terrifies me. All kinds of ghosts, new soldiers, old soldiers, soldiers from the 10th Division, the 2nd Division,…sometimes women, and every now and again some southern souls from Saigon.

Kwon describes a ghost world in which soldiers who fought on opposite sides walk along the same paths, where villagers see them. (Kwon suggests his own skeptical attitude toward such beliefs when he describes “the imaginary actions of war ghosts.”)

Even the survivors of the My Lai massacre make no distinction in their sacrifices, whether to “the ghosts of foreign combatants killed in action or those of Vietnamese civilian casualties of war.” But while encounters with ghosts are common across Vietnam, Kwon states, the controlled press does not discuss them. The “state apparatus of Vietnam looks down on them as remnants of old superstitions and a sign of cultural backwardness and moral laxity.” A law has been passed forbidding such beliefs.

Already during the French war the Communist authorities in the north substituted “the commemoration of heroic war dead (from the armed struggle against French colonial occupation) for the traditional worship of ancestors and other community guardian spirits.” Then as now “they aimed to build a united ritual community of the nation, and this idea was extended to the liberated southern regions after 1975.” Even today, with these restrictive policies relaxed, “some ghost stories still infuriate the Vietnamese state bureaucracy…. The literary works that introduce the ghosts of the American War are severely censored.” A reporter described a minor Party official who was rumored to have encountered the ghost of his brother, who had died fighting in the Saigon army. The journalist was “quickly reprimanded.”

But Hanoi, as we have seen, is reviewing its policies on the dead, as when it employed Chien, the traditional spiritualist, to help in the discovery of American MIAs. Throughout the 1990s, Kwon writes, “there has been a steady increase” in the number “of bodies unearthed throughout Vietnam.” Under the reforms of the last two decades, roads, private houses, public buildings, and factories jointly owned with foreigners have uncovered burial sites. Many human bones have already been moved from the shallow graves “to sumptuously prepared new family graveyards.” Since the mid-1990s there has, in fact, Kwon writes, been a “mass exodus of human remains,” as “the place of the dead was affected by [the] wave of economic upturn…. The renovation of ancestral tombs…has been a central element in economic development,” and

many old village ghost shrines were rebuilt in the 1990s. Lavishly decorated in diverse forms, they rapidly grew in size and number, and by the end of the decade, they had become the most numerous, esthetically audacious built places in some coastal villages of Quang Nam province. A variety of votive objects are offered at these places, and lots of money, printed for this particular purpose, is regularly burned as part of the offering. This growth in the demonstrative economic life of ghosts continues today.

In a forthcoming book, David Elliott writes that the regime had quite different ideas about remembering the dead:

For the decades of the revolutionary conflicts and their aftermath, the Vietnamese state had tried to use a variety of devices such as public monuments to impose its views of what constituted heroic sacrifice, and which of the deceased were true and worthy members of the authentic Vietnamese community. The goal was to achieve a cultural uniformity and internalization of the Party’s goals and values which would reinforce the political unity desired by the Party.7

As Kwon, Elliott, and others discovered, however, the state began to lose its capacity to define which members of the community of the deceased were “worthy” and authentic. Elliott observed that “a vast cultural transformation was set in motion which challenged the capacity of the Party and State to shape Vietnamese values in the way they had been able to do during wartime.”8

In his earlier book Kwon wrote:

The dead were the first to benefit from the economic reform. This first phase brought a large number of displaced remains of the war dead to the family-held graveyards, and this encouraged the development of practical collaboration and moral unity within the families. It prepared the moral and organizational grounds for the revival of unity that was to be crystallized in the community-wide activities for the renovation of the ancestral temples…. The temple, in other words, restored the past for the living and secured the future for the dead.

Sophie Quinn-Judge is somewhat skeptical about the implications of the more flexible official attitude toward ceremonies involving ghosts. As she recently wrote to me:

Although the ghost phenomenon may have once humanized Vietnamese society and forced the Party to back off on some ideological controls, it is now just one more popular custom among many others that the Party tolerates. They don’t really know what they want people to believe, in spite of some talk about making the teaching of Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought more interesting and relevant.

All this suggests how much Americans still have to learn about a small country that wore them and the French down and ultimately defeated them. But the incomprehension of the Vietnamese by successive American governments would turn to astonishment at what to me is Kwon’s most telling anecdote. It demonstrates far more than forgiveness. A retired Vietnamese army officer told Kwon of what had happened when the postwar unit he was commanding encountered the ghost of a foreign soldier. His men burned incense and asked him to invite a ritual specialist. The officer scolded his men for their lack of discipline, walked to the spot where the apparition was last seen, and urinated on it.

The ghost was not seen again, but now the officer began suffering from headaches and a stutter. It was suggested that he enter the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. “It turned out that the foreign ghost had been outraged [by] the officer’s behavior.” On the advice of a spiritual expert, a body was exhumed and found to be an American officer, shot through the head, whose remains were sent back to the United States. The Vietnamese officer immediately recovered, left the army, and with the help of the apparition, it was believed, became the owner of a prosperous motorcycle repair shop. He told Kwon that the “American officer nearly defeated me, an officer in the Vietnamese Army, long after the war’s end. The bullet we shot through his head almost drove me insane.” An elderly relative intervened. “Nephew, one does not fight with the dead. American or Vietnamese, the dead should be respected. No one should deliberately urinate on their resting places.” That is the point Heonik Kwon wants to make.

Nam Le, the young author of The Boat, was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. Only the first and last short stories in his very good first collection have anything to do with Vietnam. In the first, there is a brief but horrifying account of the My Lai massacre. The final story, “The Boat,” is about a group of Vietnamese who after many tribulations in Vietnam escape in an overcrowded, rotten boat. One night there

came from every direction the sound of people whispering, hundreds of people, thousands, the musical fall and rise of their native tongue…. Everyone had heard about these places. They had ventured into the fields of the dead, those plots of ocean where thousands had capsized with their scows and drowned.

We know from Heonik Kwon that some of those ghosts may eventually appear somewhere in Vietnam, but those who had drowned, the narrator says, were devoured by sharks—so there would never be a burial.

  1. 1

    University of California Press, 2006.

  2. 2

    Most readers who are not social scientists will not understand passages like this: “Alterity is in the making of identity, not outside of it, and all forms of exclusion are at once ‘inclusive exclusions,’ meaning that the definition of the outsider affects the constitution of the interior social order.”

  3. 3

    University of California Press, 2002.

  4. 4

    M.E. Sharpe, 2003; reviewed in The New York Review, October 9, 2003.

  5. 5

    In a new comprehensive analysis of US war crimes in Vietnam, Deborah Nelson draws on hitherto secret Army allegations, White House documents, and interviews with veterans. The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about US War Crimes (Basic Books, 2008).

  6. 6

    Translated by Phan Thanh Hao (Pantheon, 1995); reviewed in The New York Review, September 21, 1995.

  7. 7

    David W.P. Elliott, Changing Worlds: Vietnam Adapts to the Post–Cold War Era (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), pp. 494–495 of prepublication draft.

  8. 8

    Elliott, Changing Worlds.

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