2. “The Fatherland Remembers
Commemorating War Dead
in North Vietnam
Shaun Kingsley Malarney
The dead soldier was one of the greatest threats to the legitimacy and authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the first three decades of its existence. Tens of thousands of northern Vietnamese died in military service, first in the French War (1946–54), then in the struggle to unify the country from 1959 to 1975. During these years, the DRV government began to articulate what Hue-Tam Ho Tai refers to in the introduction to this volume as the “official narrative” of war in order to legitimize the war efforts and strengthen the population's will to fight. This narrative, which highlighted Vietnam's history of repelling foreign aggression, also gave extensive attention to dead soldiers so that their deaths would be regarded as noble and meaningful.
This chapter will examine how the experience of warfare and the government agenda to glorify war death affected the social and cultural life of Thinh Liet commune, a northern Vietnamese community located to the south of Hanoi. It will describe the many social and cultural innovations that years of warfare produced, such as the linkages made between past and contemporary struggles, and the creation of new categories of heroes and heroic action. The main objective is to explore the ritual responses to war death that emerged during the American War (1963–75) in Vietnam. As Mark Bradley points out in this volume, the North Vietnamese state employed numerous methods to ennoble war death that included film, war memorials, museums, novels, poetry, and paintings. Among the most important was the government's creation
THE “JUST CAUSE” OF NATIONAL LIBERATION
One of the most important elements in the Vietnamese state's agenda for legitimizing the war attempt was its attempt to draw on the prestige that has historically accrued to those who protected the country from foreign aggression or liberated it from foreign occupation. Over the centuries, the Vietnamese have fought numerous wars, many of which began after outsiders invaded Vietnamese soil. In many of these instances, going into battle and dying to save the nation were portrayed as honorable pursuits. Indeed, fighting for the nation was described in some cases as a “just cause” or “righteous obligation” (chinh nghia). The compelling nature of liberating or protecting Vietnam could be seen in the public veneration of military heroes. The Vietnamese pantheon of great historical figures is composed overwhelmingly of men and women who have battled foreign armies. The Trung Sisters, who defeated a Chinese army in a.d. 39, general Tran Hung Dao, who, through a brilliant stratagem, destroyed the fleet of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century, or Le Loi, who cast out the Ming and then established the Le dynasty in the fifteenth century, are among the most revered figures in Vietnamese history. While official historiography glorifies these heroes, their importance among the people is equally great. The accomplishments or “meritorious work” (cong duc) of some military heroes were such that supernatural qualities have been attributed to them. General Tran Hung Dao is a case in point. Many Vietnamese consider him to have been a “living god” (than song) sent to rescue the Vietnamese. He is referred to frequently by his spirit name, Duc Thanh Tran; his powers carried on after his death, and his spirit, propitiated
In constructing their narrative of warfare, the Vietnamese Communists highlighted and popularized the historical continuities between their contemporary struggles and Vietnam's earlier struggles. The very first armed military unit formed on December 22, 1944, by the Communists in the caves of Cao Bang Province, a humble group of thirty-four individuals with two revolvers and thirty-one rifles, was called the “Tran Hung Dao Platoon” in honor of the great general. Official propaganda also spoke of the great examples of Vietnam's military heroes and the lessons to be learned from them. General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's key military strategist during the French War and the mastermind of the victory at Dien Bien Phu, even declared:
The contemporary ideas of our party, military, and people for the offensive struggle cannot be separated from the traditional military ideas of our people. During our history, all victorious wars of resistance or liberation, whether led by the Trung Sisters [first century], Ly Bon [sixth century], Trieu Quang Phuc [sixth century], Le Loi [fifteenth century], or Nguyen Trai [fifteenth century], have all shared the common characteristic of a continuous offensive aimed at casting off the yoke of feudal domination by foreigners.
Communist leaders also described their struggle as a sacred activity. For example, in an August 1965 speech to an antiaircraft unit in Hanoi, Party General Secretary Le Duan proclaimed, “Saving the nation is a sacred obligation [nghia vu thieng lieng] of the people. … Wearede-termined to fight and win to keep our independence and freedom, to secure our health and happiness, and to build the nation into a wealthy and beautiful Vietnam.” Throughout both wars, the nation and the military necessity of saving and protecting it, were placed in indisputably sacred space. The wars were not simply described as wars (chien tranh)in official discourse. The French War was described as a khoi nghia, rendered in one dictionary as to “rise up in arms (against an oppressive rule).” The American War was described as the “War of National Salvation Against the Americans” (Chien Tranh Chong My Cuu Nuoc). Dying and suffering in the name of such a cause, which was similar to
ARTICULATING THE NEW VIRTUE
The legitimation of Vietnam's military effort extended far beyond the appropriation of the legacy of resisting foreign occupation. One of the most explicit moves in the ideological realm was the creation and elaboration of a new set of definitions for noble and virtuous actions. Prior to the Revolution, official ideology had emphasized the Confucian virtues of devotion to the emperor and the mandarinate. In the Communist state, the act of devotion remained salient; only the objects changed. According to the new definition, the objects of virtuous action became the fatherland (to quoc), the people (nhan dan), the party (dang), and particularly the Revolution (cach mang). Actions carried out in the interest of these four collective entities were virtuous (conversely, actions carried out for the emperor, the mandarinate, or the old order were all stigmatized). The critical element in the construction of the new virtue was the transcendence of selfinterest and the selfless devotion to the collectivity. As Le Duan declared, “The revolutionary differs from the nonrevolutionary in that he knows to forget himself for the service of the collectivity, for the common interest. Before all else he always thinks of the Revolution and the collectivity. He always knows to place the interests of the fatherland, the interests of the collectivity, above the interests of the individual.” “To relentlessly think of one's self, of one's family,” the general secretary commented on another occasion, “is inadequate, selfish.”
The revolutionary formulation of selfless virtue was conjoined with the public glorification of death and personal sacrifice to advance the revolutionary cause. The greatest virtue was achieved with death, a transformation that reached its apotheosis in the concept of “sacrifice” (hi sinh). The word hi sinh predates the Vietnamese Revolution. Semantically, it matched the English-language meaning of sacrifice, that being simply to give up something, usually to gain something else. With the Vietnamese Communists, the semantic domain of hi sinh was recast, and sacrifice was associated with, and virtually restricted to, those who died doing the Revolution's bidding. Sacrifice came to connote giving up one's life in a just cause to protect and improve the collectivity. Party officials provided precise definitions of what constituted sacrifice. “Thus
The willingness to sacrifice was publicly rewarded because a sacrificial death was portrayed as a glorious and noble death, one that further grew in nobility from the willingness and enthusiasm with which it had occurred. It was also a death that was to be eternally remembered and remain an example for those who survived. The glorification of sacrifice was elaborated at the very highest reaches of the party. Discussing the deaths of a number of Party members who were killed or executed by the French, Ho Chi Minh declared, “The blood of the martyrs has made the revolutionary flag dazzlingly red. Their courageous sacrifice has prepared the earth of our nation to bloom into a flower of independence and result in our freedom. Our people must eternally record and remember the meritorious efforts of the martyrs. We must constantly study their courageous spirit to transcend all difficulties and tribulations, and realize the revolutionary work that they have passed on to us.” Death by “sacrifice” placed one into a venerable and heroic category, one that transcended the individual's physical annihilation.
The revolutionary elaboration of “sacrifice” has had important linguistic consequences in everyday conversation as well. The verb “to die” in Vietnamese takes multiple forms, with each particular form providing important social information about the deceased. Common people, for example, are generally said to mat, “to be lost,” or bi chet, to “suffer death.” Elderly people qua doi, or “pass from life.” The emperor in prerevolutionary times would bang ha, or “pass far below.” The deaths of Ho Chi Minh and other high officials are often described with the poetic and respectful expression tu tran, “to leave this world.” Communist revolutionaries and soldiers killed during the struggle against the enemy can indeed “suffer death,” but officially and in everyday parlance, people say that they have been “sacrificed” (hi sinh). The death of Hoang Van Thu, a member of the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party who was captured by the French and later executed, provides a fitting example. Thu's death is thus recounted in an official biography: “On May 24, 1944, he was sacrificed at the Tuong Mai Rifle
Figure 2.1. Grave of soldier killed during border war with China, 1979, Tam Nong District Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Phu Tho. Photograph by Natalia Puchalt.
The ennoblement of death and sacrifice for the Revolution continued after the death of the individual. Instead of merging them into an anonymous mass of war dead, all those who died carrying out the work of the Revolution were officially grouped into the social category of “martyr” or “revolutionary martyr” (liet si) (fig. 2.1). The construction of this category represented an innovation by the state. Like hi sinh, the word liet si predated the revolutionary era. Party officials, however, recast it semantically to indicate those who had died for the Revolution
SUPPORTING THE WAR EFFORT
In 1959, the North Vietnamese leadership began the struggle to reunite Vietnam. Over the next five years, the government sent tens of thousands of infiltrators to the South, and combat slowly increased. In February 1965, the United States began its Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam, marking America's definitive commitment to the war in Vietnam. Although many North Vietnamese had died in combat in the years leading up to 1965, their numbers increased significantly afterward. As a result, the government began instituting a number of new policies and practices to prevent its efforts to glorify and ennoble people's sacrifices from seeming hollow and to display its gratitude and appreciation for those who had given their lives in battle.
One of the first steps taken by the government in this period was the modification of the structure of public administration and official policies to make them more responsive to the needs of those who had family members in the military. When the government established the original structure of commune-level rural administration in 1945, one of the five
Government policies toward these families also changed. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the government had instituted the collectivization of agriculture across the North. Officials recognized that having a child serving in the military represented the loss of a high-quality laborer for the family; therefore, the government instructed local agricultural cooperatives to provide policy families with increased food rations. For many families, the policy family designation ended when their son or husband returned home from the war. For the less fortunate who were killed or maimed while fighting in the military, the designation remained in place, and their family continued to benefit from government support. The families of war dead (gia dinh liet si) in particular received a number of special dispensations not available to others. Among benefits that were extremely important in the years before the 1986 introduction of the Renovation (Doi Moi) policy were preferential admissions to hospitals for members of their families, priority status for entering schools
Beyond instituting policies that cared for those with relatives in the military, the government also expanded its ceremonial corpus to recognize those who fought and died. As early as 1947, when the government declared July 27 as War Invalids and Martyrs Day (Ngay Thuong Binh Liet Si), the government began publicly commemorating war dead. This holiday, irregularly organized in the late 1950s and early 1960s, became an annual occurrence starting in 1967. On this day, government officials held ceremonies in which they mourned the fallen soldiers and expressed their gratitude, with both speeches and possibly small gifts, for the families of martyrs. The memories of the war dead's singular contributions were also kept alive through the creation of exclusive ceremonies or the delineation of special areas in local cemeteries reserved for war dead. If a martyr's corpse was returned, it was to be buried in this cemetery; in keeping with the revolutionary campaign to simplify funeral rites that had begun in 1954, a small headstone that recorded the deceased's name, rank, and death date was placed on it. Officials mandated that these cemeteries should not be neglected or divorced from everyday social life. Regulations from Ninh Binh Province noted that “everyone has the responsibility to protect and care for the martyrs'
Figure 2.2. Tam Nong District Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Phu Tho. The column reads “The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice.” Photograph by Natalia Puchalt.
The most important ceremonial innovation by the government in this period was the creation of an official memorial service for war dead (le truy dieu). This new ceremony represented an effort by the state to individually recognize the sacrifice of those who died in battle. Its structure is worth examining in detail. The organizational process for the official service was set in motion by the receipt of official confirmation of a soldier's death by the People's Committee of his native commune. Official word was vital because the ceremony could only be performed for those the military recognized as martyrs. In Thinh Liet, receipt of the
The government's memorial ceremony, like regular funerary ceremonies, took place in the home of the fallen soldier. In Thinh Liet commune, it was generally held at two o'clock in the afternoon and lasted for one hour. Unlike a regular funeral in which mourning attire was worn, the family and their guests dressed in their normal clothing. The official presence at the ceremony was extensive. The communal administration was represented by the president of the People's Committee, the village militia commander and the social policy officer. The agricultural cooperative was represented by the chairman. The party was represented by the secretary of the commune's party cell, the secretary of the residential cell in which the family resided, and at least one person from each of the party's mass organizations, such as the Women's Association or the Youth Association. On some occasions every member of the executive committees of the administration and the party cell were also in attendance. Beyond the official personnel, the ceremony was also heavily attended by kin, friends, and covillagers.
The social policy officer presided over the official ceremony. He brought a bouquet of white tuberoses (hoa hue) to the ceremony (white is a mourning color in Vietnam, and tuberoses are commonly featured in funerary ceremonies). When the delegation of officials arrived at the late soldier's home, the flowers were placed on an altar constructed for the dead soldier. After one minute of silence, the policy officer began the eulogy of the fallen soldier. The purpose of his visit, he stated, was to officially commemorate both the person and the sacrifice of the soldier. The soldier had selflessly sacrificed his life (hi sinh) so the war effort could succeed. The nobility of the soldier's death was reiterated in the standardized statement the policy officer then read:
In our people's glorious revolutionary effort against the Americans to rescue the nation, Comrade [the soldier's full name] has with his comrades-in-arms raised up the spirit of struggle, surpassed all difficulties and hardships to carry― 57 ―out the responsibilities of his unit, and sacrificed his life on (day, month, year).
The cadres and soldiers of the unit are infinitely sorrowful and proud to have had a person united in will, a comrade-in-arms, who has offered up[cong hien] his life in the struggle for an independent and free country; who swore to never stop raising up the will to fight and the strength to eliminate the enemy; who brought forth all his spirit and strength to carry on to victory in the war of national salvation against the Americans and to fulfill all the responsibilities that the party, government, and the people gave him.
Dear family members:
Comrade [soldier's name] has left us. The fatherland and people have lost a loyal and faithful child. His unit has lost a person united in will, a comrade-in-arms. His family has lost a loved one. All of the cadres and soldiers of the unit respectfully send their wishes and ask to “divide the sadness” with the family. They hope that the family will turn its grief into activity for the revolution, strengthen their hatred for the American enemy and their lackeys, and with the rest of the people and soldiers firmly resolve to realize the sacred words from President Ho's will, “Resolve to completely defeat the American enemy,” to protect the North, liberate the South, and unite the fatherland.
By organizing the ceremony, the government gave thanks to the family for its sacrifice. The grief of the families was evident during the ceremony. Even though the memorial service often occurred some time after the soldier's death, people wept openly throughout.
Following his speech, the policy officer delivered three items to the soldier's family that formalized the state's recognition of the soldier's sacrifice. The family first received a government-issued “death announcement” (giay bao tu). This began with the statement “We very regretfully declare and confirm” and was followed by the soldier's name, rank, and unit. The form also noted if the soldier had been “sacrificed.” Other important information included the date of death, place of death, place of burial, and, if it were the case, confirmation that certified the soldier was a revolutionary martyr. Although these categories were helpful, the information on them was sometimes extremely vague. In some cases they noted only that the soldier had died in the South in the struggle against the Americans and that his unit had buried his body near the front. Still, this certificate was necessary for future interactions with the local administration and government bureaucracy. The family was also given a certificate, approximately twelve by fifteen inches, upon which was inscribed in large red lettering, To Quoc Ghi Cong, literally rendered as “The Land of the Ancestors Records Your Work,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice.” This certificate recorded the name, natal commune, and death
The Vietnamese state went to great lengths to ensure that its claims regarding the glory and nobility of suffering and dying for the cause were compelling. It not only glorified those who suffered and died in public discourse but also created a range of new public ceremonies that expressed the honor and nobility of those actions. For many Vietnamese, these ideas and ceremonies were indeed compelling. People described dying for the country as an “honor” (vinh du). Relatives of those killed in battle often employ the verb cong hien, which in effect means to give something up to something greater than oneself, to describe their family's sacrifice. People gave up their lives to ensure Vietnam's independence and freedom or, as one veteran stated, “to bring back happiness and comfort to the people.” Official commemoration, however, was exclusively dedicated to the glorification and ennoblement of the cause. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was officially an atheist state that rejected any notions of the supernatural; thus nowhere in the ceremonies was there reference to the ultimate fate of the soul or other existential anxieties that war death could produce.
THE DILEMMAS OF WAR DEATH
It is difficult to describe the extent of the trauma and violence experienced by the North Vietnamese during the American War. For both combatants and noncombatants alike, the war was a period of relentless fear and intense anguish. Parents agonized when their sons went off to fight, knowing that they would probably never return, while the soldiers, stuck in the malarial jungles and forests of southern and central Vietnam,
In addition to the obvious grief and anguish caused by losing a loved one, the death of soldiers in battle presented a number of powerful cultural dilemmas for the Vietnamese. Death is not a taboo subject in Vietnamese social life. People talk about it openly, sometimes in surprising ways. When an elderly person is about to die, family members often go to the homes of friends, neighbors, and relatives and candidly say, “Grandmother [or grandfather] is about to die,” and then invite them to the house to be there when she dies. Nevertheless, local conceptions distinguish between good and bad deaths. A good death has a number of features. Being advanced in years, having many children as survivors, dying quickly and painlessly, having one's corpse complete, and dying at home all constitute a favorable end because they readily facilitate the most important concern following death, the passage of the deceased's soul from this world to what the Vietnamese call the “otherworld” (the gioi khac). When a person dies, his or her soul leaves its corporeal form and begins to wander the area near the corpse. The soul is not yet aware that the body is dead (this recognition will not come for several days). If it is in a familiar place, such as its home or near its family's ancestral altar, and has not died in a violent manner, it calmly stays near the scene. After this, family members can begin the funeral rites that will send it on its way to the otherworld. These will be carried out at the family ancestral altar, the portal through which the soul begins its passage. If the rites are correctly performed, the soul will move to the otherworld to become a benevolent family ancestor who will care for the family and reciprocally be cared for by those it left behind.
A bad death includes such factors as dying young, childless, violently, away from home, and/or in such a manner that the corpse is mutilated
The deaths of soldiers in combat often involved every possible dimension of a bad death. Young, childless men died painful, violent deaths, usually hundreds of miles from home. The corpses of many remained intact to be buried by their comrades, but, as the author Bao Ninh describes in his novel of the American conflict, The Sorrow of War, others “had been totally vaporised, or blasted into such small pieces that their remains had long been liquidised into mud.” Some were buried by their comrades with simple rites, often in makeshift graves with no permanent altars, while others were never buried and had no funerary rites performed for them. All these deaths had the potential to create an
FAMILY COMMEMORATION OF WAR DEAD
When soldiers left their training areas for the front, the prospect of death was immediate. North Vietnamese soldiers generally traveled to the front on foot, trekking several hundred miles through the dangerous trails and malarial jungles of the Central Highlands. This region, known to the Vietnamese as the Truong Son (Long Mountain) range, included in its western salient the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Through this thin, rugged, and sparsely inhabited stretch of central Vietnam and southern Laos, thousands of soldiers and countless tons of war mate´riel passed, all under the imminent threat of American air strikes devoted to interdicting the flow of human traffic through the region. Beyond the military casualties, soldiers died of disease, accidents, and even attacks by local wildlife. When a soldier was killed, his unit was responsible for reporting the cause of death and burying the corpse. Military units usually had soldiers attached to them who were in charge of the war dead. After they had discharged their duties, the family was then to be informed of the soldier's passing.
Official confirmation that a soldier had been killed while serving in the military was notoriously slow in coming, sometimes taking years to arrive. To give one example, on October 4, 1971, Nguyen Tien Dat of Giap Tu died in an American air strike on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, yet his family did not receive official notification until May 7, 1974. Delays in notification frequently were caused by poor communications within and between military units, and with the rear areas, although some Vietnamese speculate that the party deliberately delayed notification to keep
The death of a young soldier in battle, in addition to creating a number of anxieties regarding the ultimate disposition of his soul, also complicated the performance of funerary rites for him. Conventional Vietnamese funerary rites, including even the extremely simplified reformed rites propagated by the party after 1954, function under two guiding assumptions: first, that the deceased will generally have surviving children; and second, that the deceased's corpse will be physically present
The deaths of soldiers during the American War necessitated the performance of thousands of funerary rites in which the deceased's corpse was absent. In Thinh Liet, virtually no corpses were returned; this is the main reason that the commune does not have a cemetery for war dead. One common form for these rites in Thinh Liet was a private ceremony arranged by families and known as a le tu niem or le tuong niem. This type of funeral, which can be glossed as a “remembrance of the dead,” was organizationally distinct from the regular funeral held under normal circumstances; its defining characteristic was its modest, familial nature. Funerals typically mobilized people and resources throughout the village; the remembrance ceremony was a family affair in which only a restricted number of family and close kin were present. Funerals also adhered to a lengthy and complex set of rites that began immediately after death. The remembrance ceremony was a simple affair that lasted only a few hours. It was also generally held several days after a family learned of their loved one's death, whereas normal funerary activities began immediately after death. Both events, however, were united in their objective of giving succor to the deceased's soul and helping it make its transition to the otherworld.
When the news of a soldier's death initially arrived, the first task was to set up a funeral altar to commemorate the deceased. These altars were always set up in the home of the deceased's parents and arranged in the
News that a native son had been killed in the war spread quickly throughout the village. The ubiquitous kinship ties between covillagers facilitated this transmission, but a sense of shared experience, perhaps even commiseration, in the face of war and its consequences produced a heightened sense of togetherness that was accentuated when a local villager was killed. Almost all families had or knew someone serving in the military, and everyone knew that next time the loss might be theirs. The news of death therefore disseminated rapidly, and village families were quick to demonstrate their sympathy for the aggrieved family. Just as they would in a normal village funeral, kin and covillagers went to the house of the deceased to express their condolences and “divide the sadness” (chia buon) of the bereaved family. Upon entering the deceased's home they would light three incense sticks, which they had brought, say a brief prayer, and place the sticks in the incense urn on the altar. Their visit gave public expression to their sympathy, simultaneously helping the grieving to cope with their loss and providing a testament to the dignity and esteem of the deceased and his death. What was most remarkable about these visits was their singularly affective nature. Virtually every village family would send at least one representative to visit the family of the deceased soldier to express their condolences. Many sent more. When they arrived, however, they brought no gifts. They were not reciprocating former debts incurred during their own family funerals, nor were they sealing a future obligation with a material prestation. These visits fell beyond the purview of “exchanging debts through eating and drinking” that characterized all other funerary
Village families continued to pay visits to the deceased's family for several days after the news first arrived. During these days the home was full of people, but the family's sobbing was still audible in neighboring homes. At about the same time as the number of visitors began to tail off, the family performed the “remembrance of the dead” ceremony, which was always organized in the home of the deceased's family. All immediate family members who could attend were present, as well as a small number of other close relations. The ceremony usually took place in the daytime. Prior to its conduct, family members would go through the normal preparations that preceded family rituals: cleaning the house and the family altar and purchasing any ritual items, such as incense, that would be used in the ceremony. They would also prepare a nice set of clothes for the event. Family members wore their everyday clothing during the ceremony; the elaborate mourning attire of regular funerals, such as gauzy white tunics and peaked cheesecloth caps, was absent. The only items of standard funeral attire visible at the ceremony were the white mourning headbands worn by those junior to the deceased.
All the rites in the remembrance ceremony were carried out before the altar constructed for the deceased. As in other Vietnamese mortuary rites, the purpose of the ceremony was to propitiate the soul of the deceased so it could rest in peace in the otherworld. The ceremony began with the entire family assembled on the floor in front of the altar to say prayers (khan) for the deceased's soul. Straw mats had been laid on the floor, and the senior members of the family, with the mother and father placed in the most prized positions nearest the altar, were seated in the front of the group. The task of inviting the deceased's soul back to the home was given to a senior male, usually an uncle or greatuncle, from the deceased's patriline. Standing before the altar, the man repeated the invocations to bring the soul home. Once these were completed, and the soul successfully installed in the altar, the family members individually performed a brief reverence of the spirit. Clasping three incense sticks, each person would stand and kowtow before the altar one, three, or five times. These prayers and obeisances were somewhat nonspecific, yet they were dedicated to ensuring the general wellbeing of the soul in the
The second phase of the ceremony involved the direct propitiation of the soul (cung). Apart from the simple act of helping the soul make its transition to the otherworld, the remembrance ceremony was also dedicated to providing specific items, such as food, clothing, or money, that the deceased could use there. Prior to the ceremony, paper votive objects (hang ma) that symbolized clothing or money were placed on the altar along with an array of food items. After the initial prayers were said, one person assumed responsibility for propitiating the deceased's soul with the objective of delivering these items to the deceased in the otherworld. A spirit priest (thay cung) assumed this role in some house-holds, but since the Revolution endeavored to eliminate all rites performed by spirit priests and placed them under official surveillance, some families instead chose a younger sibling of the deceased. The choice of a younger sibling was linked to the prohibition against genealogically senior family members propitiating their juniors. The propitiator knelt on the floor before the altar and said prayers to entreat the deceased's soul to accept the assembled items. The food items were transmitted through the smoke from the incense burning on the altar. To deliver the money or clothing, family members took the paper items outside and covertly burned them in the family compound, allowing their substance to travel to the otherworld through the smoke. Although this practice was considered “superstitious” and prohibited by the party, many families still burned these items. When these rites concluded, the deceased's soul had been provisioned for life in the otherworld. It had also been installed in the family altar and thenceforth would always be propitiated there.
The prayers and offerings to the deceased's soul usually did not exceed one hour. The remembrance ceremony then concluded with the family members and guests sharing a meal to commemorate the deceased. The foods were simple meat and vegetable dishes, a selection partially determined by wartime scarcity. When the rites were over, the food offered to the deceased was taken off the altar. It was then placed on trays with other dishes, and the assembled group ate the dishes together, usually sitting on the mats laid out on the floor before the altar. This private family meal was the only occasion in which the consumption of food was involved in commemorating the death of a soldier. Unlike funerals, which sometimes featured grand feasts that lasted for days, the remembrance ceremony included no feast. As such, there was
THE COMMEMORATIVE PROJECT TODAY
The reunification of Vietnam in 1975 did not mark the end of official efforts to commemorate war dead. Soon after the war was over, the government began commissioning the construction of monuments for war dead (dai liet si) in localities across Vietnam. These monuments are now visible in nearly every commune and district. Often tall spires adorned with a red or gold star at their apex, and the words “The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice” or “Eternally Remember the Debt to the Martyrs” written across the base, they provide continued public testimony to those who gave their lives for the nation. The most spectacular monument for war dead, completed in 1995, now sits directly across from Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square (fig. 2.3). The irony of this nationwide commemorative effort is the fact that it excludes those who died while serving in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Like their North Vietnamese counterparts, thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers died in battle during the war years. Although in the pre-1975 period the southern government constructed its own monuments and cemeteries to commemorate its dead, these were removed after the unification of the country in 1975 (fig. 2.4). As a result, when one sees monuments to war dead in contemporary southern or central Vietnam, they commemorate those who fell fighting the French or fighting for the North. Those who died fighting for the South have effectively disappeared from official discourse. The needs of their family members are no less pressing than those in the North, but the state has not dedicated itself to glorifying or remembering them.
In nearly all northern communes today, the administration organizes a ceremony for the local war dead on War Invalids and Martyrs Day. Led by the president of the commune's People's Committee and assisted by the social policy officer, the party and administration reiterate their thanks and appreciation to those who have sacrificed themselves, and restate the glory and nobility of what they have done. When the speeches are completed, the families of war dead receive a small gift, such as
Figure 2.3. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum seen through the Shrine to the Unknown Soldier, Hanoi. Photograph by Natalia Puchalt.
Figure 2.4. ARVN cemetery, Ho Chi-Minh City, razed after 1975. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
The main commemorative ceremony for families remains the soldier's death anniversary. Up until the mid-1980s, wartime scarcities and government regulations prohibiting largescale death anniversary ceremonies restricted their size. Over the past decade, families have begun to organize everlarger ceremonies. Today, an average death anniversary ceremony will feature a communal meal for fifty to sixty people. It begins with rites dedicated to caring for the dead soldier's soul, similar to those performed during the commemoration of the dead ceremony. The ceremony is always conducted before the altar in the home of the deceased's parents, the soul is invited back and propitiated, and some votive paper items, such as money or clothes, may be burned for the soul's use in the otherworld. The main participants are also close family members. If the soldier was survived by his widow, she will participate in these rites at her in-laws'home. Almost all widows of war dead in Thinh Liet commune remain in the home of their husband's parents, particularly if they have children, and almost never remarry; doing so is considered an act of infidelity to the late husband. Despite their social importance, in Vietnamese villages, patrilineages have assumed no ritual role in commemorating war dead. The rites remain firmly with the husband's immediate family. Once the rites are concluded, a communal meal is held for the
In recent years, other methods of commemorating and caring for the souls of war dead have emerged. A number of Thinh Liet families have installed the souls of dead soldiers in the local Buddhist temple. The virtue of installing the soul there is that it receives care and sustenance from all ceremonies conducted in the temple. Such souls are said to “eat of the Buddha's good fortune” (an may cua Phat) and will not be left uncared for if there are no more family members to conduct rites. A nun at the temple claims that several dozen families have done this, though the figures are disputed by some local residents and are impossible to verify. Families who perform this rite will later conduct a ceremony at the temple on every death anniversary and will also participate in ceremonies for dead souls at the temple in the first two weeks of the seventh lunar month.
The most remarkable form of commemoration to emerge in Thinh Liet was the dedication of an altar to war dead in the communal house of Giap Tu village. This communal house had been destroyed during a battle with French soldiers in February 1947, producing a great deal of later conflict over which spirits inhabited it. When the house was refurbished in the late 1980s, local men decided it was appropriate for villagers to pay respects to local war dead there. This movement reached its zenith on the eleventh of the first lunar month in 1992, the lunar year anniversary of the aforementioned battle, when local villagers conducted a ceremony to propitiate the souls of eleven local guerrillas who had died that day. The ceremony featured trays of offerings as well as a moving eulogy by the son of one of those killed. The organizers, mostly older men, hoped the ceremony would become an annual event, but resistance mounted, particularly among older women. They felt that while villagers should propitiate war dead, the communal house was not the appropriate venue. As a result, the ceremony was never organized on a large scale again. In early 1996, the altar for war dead in the communal house was rededicated to the spirit of the land (tho dat) on which the communal house sits. For a short period afterward, some villagers continued to pay their respects to the war dead in the communal house, particularly on the battle's anniversary, but public rituals stopped. In 1997, the village succeeded in raising enough money to construct a small monument dedicated to the village's war dead. This monument, which records the name of every Giap Tu soldier who died in battle, as well as the names of a number of “Heroic Vietnamese Mothers” (“Ba Me Viet
The problem of war dead in Vietnam persists to this day, especially for those whose loved one's remains have never been recovered. The number of the missing apparently runs into the hundreds of thousands. Many families continue to organize trips to southern and central Vietnam to search for remains. In early 1996, for example, the skeletons of two soldiers were brought back to Thinh Liet commune and buried in the local cemetery near their mothers. Given the widespread practice of secondary burial three years after the initial burial—when the coffin is opened, the bones cleaned and transferred to a large urn, and the urn buried in a different location—the local ritual corpus is well suited to putting the soldiers to their final rest. Concern with finding soldiers'remains is visible in the public media as well. Vietnamese television has broadcast a number of shows that followed both family and military efforts to locate remains. The magazine The New World (The Gioi Moi)even published an article in October 1996 that described a “new method for finding the burial place of soldiers.” This was a form of divination in which a family member placed one chopstick in the ground and tried to balance an egg on top of it. If the egg did not fall, the deceased's remains were directly below. This method was apparently successful in locating the remains of several soldiers, including one who had been missing since December 1946. The Ministry of Labor and War Invalids and the Central Committee for War Veterans also publish War Veterans of Vietnam (Cuu Chien Binh Viet Nam), a magazine dedicated to circulating information regarding the location of war dead and their graves. Nevertheless, accurate knowledge is often difficult to find, and several trips by Thinh Liet families have been unsuccessful.
Anthropological research has shown that mortuary rites in virtually all societies contain the idea that death is transient and that such rites allow the deceased to be reborn into a new community and existence. Drawing on the work of the French sociologist Robert Hertz, Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry have concluded that at the end of mortuary rites, “the collectivity emerges triumphant over death” while the soul is transferred “from one social order to another (albeit imaginary) order.” What is most distinctive about the death of soldiers in contemporary Thinh Liet
The existence of two distinct communities of remembrance based on the same subject has a number of historical parallels. After Lenin's death, the Soviet Communist Party attempted to create a secular cult surrounding his person that would serve to unify the people, yet for many Russians, Lenin was absorbed into the community of saints and heroes of Russian history and commemorated as such. The Vietnamese Communist Party attempted to construct a similar cult around the person of Ho Chi Minh, but in early 1996 it disbanded a cult in a northern province that worshiped Ho as the nineteenth king of Vietnam's mythical first dynasty, the Hung kings. Conversely, the government in contemporary Japan tries to assert that the commemoration of dead soldiers at the Yasukuni shrine is a simple act of gratitude for the fallen, whereas for many rightwing groups and financial supporters, the rites held at the shrine are a celebration of the Japanese empire. What is notable in each of these cases is that the deceased and the rituals associated with them are used to make specific claims about the nature of the social world, be it the necessity of political unity, the glory of empire, or the simple need to put the dead to rest.
The existence of two distinct communities of remembrance around war dead in Thinh Liet does not imply any incommensurability between the two communities or the popular rejection of the state's assertions. To return to the language used by Mark Bradley, we do not see in Thinh Liet the formation of “counter-memory” in these rites. Instead, people
1. See Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Introduction, this volume. [BACK]
2. The North Vietnamese state's agenda accords with the actions of other nations. With the rise of the nation-state, the glorification of dead soldiers and war death through tombs of unknown soldiers, military funerals, memorial days, shrines for war dead, and other commemorative sites and activities has grown more elaborate. For examples, see Helen Hardacre, Shinto and the State, 1868–1988 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989); Eric Hobsbawm, “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 263–307; Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of State (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988); George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead (New York: Basic Books, 1994). [BACK]
3. Thinh Liet commune is located approximately ten kilometers south of the center of Hanoi and is composed of the three villages of Giap Nhat, Giap Nhi, and Giap Tu. I conducted field research there from March 1991 to August 1992, from December 1993 to February 1994, and in July 1996 and July 1998. [BACK]
4. See Mark Bradley, this volume. [BACK]
5. Elements of resistance to state commemorative rites can be seen in the Vietnamese case in Shaun Kingsley Malarney, “The Limits of ‘State Functionalism'and the Reconstruction of Funerary Ritual in Contemporary Northern Vietnam,” American Ethnologist 23 (August 1996): 540–60; or, in the Chinese case, in Rubie Watson, ed., Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism (Sante Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 1994). [BACK]
6. Douglas Pike, PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), 13. [BACK]
7. Ibid., 28ff. [BACK]
8. Vietnam, Institute of Philosophy, Dang Ta Ban Ve Dao Duc [Our Party Discusses Ethics] (Hanoi: Uy Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi Viet Nam, 1973), 269. [BACK]
9. Ibid., 289. [BACK]
10. Dang Chan Lieu and Le Kha Ke, Tu Dien Viet-Anh: Vietnamese-English Dictionary (Hanoi: NXB Uy Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, 1971), 371. [BACK]
11. Vietnam, Dang Ta, 275. [BACK]
12. Ibid., 272. [BACK]
13. Ibid., 275. [BACK]
14. Ibid. [BACK]
15. Ibid. [BACK]
16. Nguyen Q. Thang and Nguyen Ba The, Tu Dien Nhan Vat Lich Su Viet Nam [Dictionary of Vietnamese Historical Figures] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, 1991), 269. [BACK]
17. Ho Chi Minh quoted in Pike, PAVN, 313. [BACK]
18. Translation of the term pho ban chinh sach xa is difficult because technically, by designating the official as a “deputy” (pho), there would be a corresponding superior. However, this was not the case with this position. Since the position was devoted exclusively to the government's social policies for families with members in the military, I have chosen to translate it as “social policy officer” in order to reduce confusion. [BACK]
19. The militia commander had a number of important responsibilities during this period, including organizing a local militia composed of men who were not serving in the military, ensuring that young people entered the military, and propagandizing about the honor of military service. It is important to note, however, that at least at the beginning of the American War, the military still enjoyed tremendous prestige. Part of this derived from its defeat of the French, but it had also been augmented by its high profile in postwar reconstruction. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 284. [BACK]
20. See also Pike, PAVN, 315. [BACK]
21. Ibid., 318. [BACK]
22. For a discussion of the revolutionary reforms of funerals, see Malarney, “The Limits of ‘State Functionalism.'” [BACK]
23. Ninh Binh, Cultural Service, Cong Tac Xay Dung Nep Song Moi, Con Nguoi Moi va Gia Dinh Tien Tien Chong My, Cuu Nuoc [The Task of Building the New Ways, the New Person and the Progressive Family in the War of National Salvation Against the Americans] (Ninh Binh: Ty Van Hoa Ninh Binh, 1968), 64. [BACK]
24. Ibid. [BACK]
25. Government of Vietnam, Nhung Van Ban ve Viec Cuoi, Viec Tang, Ngay Gio, Ngay Hoi [Documents on Weddings, Funerals, Death Anniversary and Public Festivals] (Hanoi: NXB Van Hoa, 1979), 24. [BACK]
26. Those who died but were not martyrs would also receive these certificates. [BACK]
27. Rendering the expression to quoc in English is difficult because literally it can be read as the ancestors'land or country, but it can also be fairly translated
28. The example of vinh du in a Hanoipublished dictionary reads, “Hi sinh cho To quoc la mot vinh du: It is an honour to lay down one's life for the fatherland” (Dang and Le, Tu Dien Viet-Anh, 762). [BACK]
29. See Arthur P. Wolf “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors,” in Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, ed. Arthur P. Wolf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), 131–82. [BACK]
30. In cases in which a young person dies but is thought to be of particular sacred potency, an altar might be built inside the family home to worship that spirit and bring its blessings onto the family. In Thinh Liet commune, no such altars have been built for dead soldiers. Concern about the depredations of wandering malevolent spirits is evident in the placement of a tray with bowls of rice porridge outside of the home during all funeral rites. This practice feeds the wandering ghosts but keeps them outside of the home and ancestral altar. [BACK]
31. If a person dies outside of the home, the corpse and casket cannot be brought into the home, and all rites must be conducted in another location. Dying outside the home is such a concern that terminally ill Vietnamese are often granted permission to leave the hospital so they can return home to die. [BACK]
32. This concern for the wholeness of the corpse is seen in other mortuary rites, such as the obsessive concern shown during the secondary burial ceremony (cai tang) to collect the deceased's every bone, including all hand, finger, and toe bones. [BACK]
33. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (London: Secker and Warburg, 1991), 21. [BACK]
34. One interesting question raised by these innovative rites is why, given Vietnam's long history of warfare, they did not emerge earlier. Given a lack of historical materials on the subject, no answer can be given. [BACK]
35. The Vietnamese government has never released figures for the number of its soldiers killed in the American War. During the war years, Vietnamese had no precise knowledge of the number of their soldiers killed. Conversely, the government did publish grossly exaggerated figures for the number of Americans killed during the war; such figures were prominently displayed in the Army Museum in Hanoi. [BACK]
36. See, for example, Toan Anh, Nep Cu: Tin Nguong Viet Nam, vol. 1(Saigon: Hoa Dang, 1969), 62–63. [BACK]
37. See Malarney “The Limits of ‘State Functionalism,'” for a fuller discussion. [BACK]
38. Paper votive objects were not present in all ceremonies because the government suppressed their production. Some families still used them, despite official regulations. Food items, however, were universally present. [BACK]
39. See Shaun Kingsley Malarney, “Ritual and Revolution in Viet Nam” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1993), 308–59. [BACK]
40. The fifteenth of the seventh lunar month is the Vietnamese All Soul's Day. [BACK]
41. Such spirits can also be described with the term tho dia, in which the
42. One number frequently mentioned is three hundred thousand missing, but this can never be verified. [BACK]
43. Xuan Cang and Ly Dang Cao, “Tim Mo Liet Si bang Phuong Phap Moi?” [“Discovering the Graves of War Dead by a New Method?”], The Gioi Moi, October 1996, 8–11. [BACK]
44. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, “Introduction,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 4. [BACK]
45. See Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983). [BACK]
46. See Shaun Kingsley Malarney, “The Emergent Cult of Ho Chi Minh? A Report on Religious Innovation in Contemporary Northern Viet Nam,” Asian Cultural Studies 22 (1996): 121–31. [BACK]