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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 26, 2008
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The ghosts of the American War
By Heonik Kwon

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 spiritís 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-19th 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". The post-colonial 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.

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.

Several observers have highlighted the conceptual relationship between heroes and ancestors in discussing Vietnam's recent political history. The state hierarchy put great emphasis on controlling commemorative practices and propagated a genealogy of heroic resistance wars, situating deaths in the American War within a line of descent from the earlier armed struggle against the French colonial power and in further genealogical depth leading to the legendary heroes of ancient victories. Every local administrative unit in Vietnam has a war martyrs' cemetery built at the center of the community's public space. In each, "The Ancestral Land Remembers Your Sacrifice" is inscribed on the gothic memorial located at the center of the place. Pelley notes that this construction of national memory shifted the focus of commemoration from the traditional social units of family and village toward the state.

According to Malarney, the process was equally about bringing the state into the living space of the family and the community, ensuring that people felt and experienced the national memory within their most intimate domains of life. For these scholars, the contemporary situation reverses the earlier trend in that the focus of commemoration is now shifting from the state back to traditional local social units. Malarney observes that ancestral rites, having been a locus for state action in revolutionary Vietnam, became a principal site for a contest of power between the state and the family after 1989. For Luong, the demise of the centrally-controlled socialist economy resulted in the revival of ancestral rituals as a way of strengthening the moral basis of the family - the principal unit in the new economic environment of privatization and market competition.

These observations commonly draw on examples from the northern region in discussing Vietnam's ritual politics. In southern and central Vietnam (the former South Vietnam), the revival of ancestor worship has added complexity compared to the equivalent process in the north, and this relates to a variance between the two regions in the historical experience of the recent war. The idea of a "national experience of war" is a myth, as Mosse writes with reference to the European experience of the World Wars, particularly for a civil war. The war from 1960 to 1975 was clearly a legitimate war for national liberation from the viewpoint of northern Vietnam, which regarded it in continuum with the earlier anti-colonial struggle against France, whereas communities in southern Vietnam were not entirely united on this stated objective of the American War and they were driven to fight against it as well as in support of it.

Against this background of a bipolar conflict waged in the form of a vicious civil war with heavy foreign interventions, I will argue that changes in the ritual politics involving family and state cannot be adequately assessed if we limit our analytical attention to the domain of ancestor worship. The postwar institution of heroic war death relegated a significant part of genealogical memory to a politically engendered status of ghosts in the southern regions, one excluded from the new political community of the nation-state and, by extension, alienated from the family and community-based commemorations that were engulfed by the politics of national memory. The memories of the war dead, which were excluded from the post-war institutions of commemoration, were not merely those of fallen soldiers on the wrong side of the war, such as the party officialís brother. As I discuss elsewhere, the huge civilian sacrifice to the war also faced many difficulties in the hero-centered post-war politics of memory.

It is therefore necessary to consider the revival of ancestral worship in this region within a relational framework with ritual actions for ghosts rather than merely in connection with the dominant institution of hero worship.

This article argues that the political transition from hero worship to ancestor worship should be assessed within the relational moral symbolic structure of ancestors and ghosts, of which ancestor worship is only a part. To this end, it critically reviews a theory of ancestral worship that relegates ghosts to a socially marginal and analytically irrelevant category. If the ritual attention to ghosts partly defines how the practice of ancestor worship becomes truly distinctive from the institution of hero worship, the vitality of ghosts has profound implications for communities in southern and central Vietnam when it concerns the ghosts of the American War.

The American War
The Vietnamese call the Vietnam-America conflict the American War (1960-1975), partly to distinguish it from the preceding French War, in a similar way that the Vietnam War (1965-1975) is referenced to the war before it in Korea (1950-1953) in the history of the Cold War. Americans, Young observes, remember the Vietnam War mainly as conflicts among Americans: "The Vietnam war, in short, was a civil war, but - and this may puzzle Vietnamese, who are currently discovering the extent to which it was a civil war for them - it was an American civil war".

The radical division of the nation as to the objective and the conduct of the war has a lot to do with how American memory of this war came to take on the metaphor of "Vietnam ghost", which is perceived to "continue to haunt American culture" and to return to the public consciousness in the wake of a new international conflict. Young writes, "More divisive than any conflict Americans have engaged in since the Civil War, the Vietnam War raised questions about the nation's very identity. These questions have not been settled. The battle over interpreting the Vietnam War is a battle over interpreting America and it continues to the present day."

The historian is absolutely right also to raise the point that the Vietnamese, a generation after the war formally ended, are discovering the hitherto unpublicized domestic dimensions of what they were taught to be a clear, united self-defense against foreign aggressors.

Young adds that death in Vietnam, for Americans, meant mainly

Continued 1 2 3 4 5 

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