Every country has its own history of war and violence. For some it is a victorious one, for some it is a combination of occupations and independences, but for all it is a traumatic history of death, fallen humans and lost souls. Different cultures and societies have dealt with this trauma differently: some have written it in their collective memory as an odyssey to freedom, some use it as one of the cornerstones of nationality, some recreate it to remember horrible times in contrast to the current state of being, for some it is still an ongoing state of being.
Heonik Kwon’s book “Ghosts of War in Vietnam” deals with the aftermath of Vietnam’s wars with the colonial powers and with the USA, all happening during the past century, this book deals with what is happening in the cultural and religious sphere of the Vietnamese people, how they are dealing with these traumatic experiences. Kwon is concentrating on the religious and spiritual side of it, on the “ghostly side effect” of the war. By Vietnamese customs the dead demand to be buried correctly and commemorated properly by the living to remain safely on the other side of the living world. Due to the wars a lot of soldiers and civilians either died in a violent and “abnormal” way, or were not buried properly, or did not even receive any kind of burial. These dead are until now wondering up in the world of living and in some cases disturbing them.
The book is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with different aspects of the relationship between the living and the dead. Kwon starts off by explaining the difference between the spirits which occupy the Vietnamese culture, and also what kind of traumatic and violent incidents have occurred in Vietnam during the last century. There are chapters about the general idea of the “death on the street”, an unnatural death not happening at home, a violent death called chet duong. Due to the huge amounts of the dead, there is also a question of mass graves or no graves at all for the fallen fighters. This is seen by the locals as the cause for the ghosts of soldiers to wonder around among the living and create problems. This is connected to the state’s politics of burial of war heroes and monuments. As the last war with the USA has also an inner conflict between different political and ideological parties inside the country, some of the dead could not be buried properly, post-war government could not allow their burial neither in the war-cemetery nor by local religious ceremonies.
The book also contains chapters about new religious deities, extensive fieldwork with young girl’s case, who became a medium for one of the wondering ghosts, about foreign soldiers ghosts, who join the ones in need of veneration and conciliation. The book finishes with a chapter about the financial connection the ghosts have with the living. All of these stories could be thoroughly researched separately, with different methodologies and by different humanities. But it is the way Kwon narrates those aspects together that makes this book really enjoyable. There is a common theme of blurring borders that may happen between two forms, alive and dead, local and foreign, spiritual and material, the list may go own.
What makes this book a complete success in my opinion, is the way Heonik Kwon approaches the issue of supernatural, how he makes this book sound convincing. It does not feel for a single moment that these spirits do not exist, nor is there a feeling like he is trying to forcefully convince the reader in the existence of these spirits, there is a mutual respect which is lacking in so many other areas of humanities and life in general. This respect goes toward the Vietnamese and their cultural-social environment, where these spirits roam. This respect goes also toward the general academic circle, or other societies and cultures in general, which might not agree with the reality of these spirits. He tells a story the way it is told to him, the way he hears, sees, and experiences it. Whether these spirits are real or not, plays no significant role in the behavior of the local people, his story concentrates on what has caused this phenomenon, real historical events and actions of real people, and how these spirits are affecting the behavior of real people, how they spend their money and time, how this phenomenon is affecting the other “unreal” entities, like the state for instance. The cultural phenomenon of spirits is a real thing, whether the spirits are real is up to the reader and readers perspective and choice.
“Ghosts of War in Vietnam” is a remarkable book, and should be read by anyone interested in this specific subject or the relationship of spirituality and the state, religion in transition and so on. I am personally interested in reading Heonik Kwon’s new books, as it seems that by the end of the book, he is even more interested of stepping out of the binary dichotomy of public-private, communism-capitalism, south-north etc., into a completely new space of non-binary ‘thirdness’, keep your mind open to notice it develop throughout the book.