Heonik Kwon: The Ghosts of the American War in Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

[Heonik Kwon teaches social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His book, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai (University of California Press, 2006), received the Inaugural Clifford Geertz Prize of the Society for Anthropology of Religion, the American Anthropological Association. His new book is Ghosts of War in Vietnam (Cambridge University Press, 2008).]

Abstract: The spiritual remains of the unknown war dead take on a vital presence in popular Vietnamese religious culture and their everyday ritual life. They are also a powerful means of historical narration and reflection in contemporary Vietnam. This article introduces some of their vigorous actions and claims for social justice, and explores how we can make sense of their existence in the terms of sociology of religion.


The Vietnamese call what the outside world refers to as the Vietnam War “the American War,” and many of them believe that the ghosts of those who died tragic deaths in this war abound in their living environment. While a generation has passed since the war ended in 1975, stories of apparitions and other assertive actions by these ghosts of war are common in rural communities. The places associated with a history of fierce battle or large-scale civilian killing are believed to harbor a mass of grievous and hungry ghosts; the rumors of spirit possession generate intense curiosity in the community about the spirit’s identity and the meaning of the event. Consider one of the commonplace stories of an apparition from a rural area in the coastal central region.

A man saw his late wife and children in the early morning on his way to the paddy. This was in the spring of 1993, and by this time some villagers had begun to remove the remains of their relatives from improper shallow wartime graves to newly prepared family graveyards. The apparition was at the site of the man’s old house. The house was burned down during the tragic incident of a village massacre in early 1968, which destroyed his family. His wife, seated on a stone, greeted him somewhat scornfully. The three children were hidden behind her back, afraid that their parents might start quarreling.

The meaning of the apparition was immediately clear to the man: he must rebury the remains of his lost family without delay. If he had no means to do so, according to the local interpretation of the apparition, the spirits would help him find a way. The man decided to spend the small sum of money that he had saved in the past years from selling coconuts and negotiated to obtain a loan from a neighbor. At that moment, a wealthy businesswoman and a relative of his wife arrived from a distant city and offered to share the cost of reburial. On the day of the reburial, the woman told the visitors how the family of spirits had appeared to her in a dream and urged her to pay a visit to their home.

Whereas these spectral identities and their vigorous actions are common in villages and towns of Vietnam, their stories have rarely appeared in the public media. Like any modern nation-state, the state apparatus of Vietnam has looked down upon them as remnants of old superstitions and a sign of backwardness. John Law, the mid-nineteenth century English writer, compiled a large number of stories of haunted houses that were then popular in European cities and set out to debunk them one by one. He hoped to prove through this exercise that the stories resulted from the delusion of the uneducated mind, and he proposed that the law and the government exercise their power to eradicate this “madness of crowds.”[1] The postcolonial Vietnamese state has made enormous administrative and political efforts to pursue this militant enlightenment way of thinking to battle against the traditional ritual customs and religious imaginations, first in the north after the independence of 1945 and then in the southern and central regions after the unification of the country in 1975.

The political campaigns focused on substituting the commemoration of heroic war dead for the traditional cult of ancestors. The memorabilia of war martyrs and revolutionary leaders replaced the ancestral tablets in the domestic space; the communal ancestral temples and other religious sites were closed down and these gave way to the people’s assembly hall. In the latter, ordinary citizens and their administrative leaders discussed community affairs and production quotas surrounded by the vestiges of the American War, in a structurally similar way to how peasants and village notables earlier talked about rents and the ritual calendar in the village’s communal house surrounded by the relics of the village’s founding ancestors.

The campaigns also strongly rejected any ideas and practices associated with ghosts. Until recently, making offerings to ghosts in public space and trading votive objects were considered criminal and were sometimes punished. Even in recent years when the earlier punitive policy has been moderated, some ghost stories still infuriate state officials. Whereas other ghost stories are allowed in print, literary works that introduce the ghosts of the American War are severely censored.[2] A journalist working for an official newspaper of a central province recently set out to investigate a rumor of spirit possession. His superiors quickly reprimanded him. There was nothing extraordinary about the rumor, which was about a man encountering the ghost of his brother; such incidents can be widely heard across Vietnamese villages and towns. In this particular incident, the man was an acting official in the provincial Communist Party and the ghost happened to be of his elder brother, who was killed in action as a soldier of the former South Vietnamese forces. ...
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