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.