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,
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with inadequate food and little medicine, watched as their friends and comrades died in staggering numbers throughout the war. Six North Vietnamese soldiers died for every one American. Going off to the front was itself a kind of death. Unlike the Americans, Northern Vietnamese soldiers did not rotate home after a year of duty, nor did they regularly return home on leave. They stayed and fought until death, debilitating injury, or the end of the war. Once at the front, the soldiers were almost completely cut off from their families. The rudimentary transportation and communication system that linked them to home regularly failed in delivering mail back and forth. Many families received no word for years. At war's end, many veterans returned home to wives and families who thought they were dead. Other families finally received official confirmation that their sons had died many years earlier.
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
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or incomplete. These factors create the dangerous possibility that the soul will be unable to make its passage to the otherworld to become a benevolent, caredfor ancestor. Instead, it will become a malevolent, wandering, hungry ghost (con ma) that is doomed to eternally roam the earth. Each of the different forms of bad death poses its own obstacles to making the passage. Vietnamese, like Chinese, hold that those who die young and childless have an increased potential to become malevolent, wandering spirits.
One reason for their malevolence relates to the fact that some spirits are angry for having their lives taken from them early. A more mundane reason lies in the structure of the family ancestral cult. Offerings to care for the ancestors'souls in the otherworld can only be made by those genealogically junior to the deceased. Those who die good deaths have descendants to care for them and essentially placate them so they will remain benevolent in the afterlife. Those who die young are without such sustenance, and so they angrily roam the earth looking for any food or care they can find, often invading the ancestral altars of others to gain their sustenance.
Dying in a violent manner frightens and angers a spirit, making it more inclined to take its anger out on the living. Dying away from home is also problematic. The soul, upon exiting and discovering alien surroundings, goes into a frenzied search for familiarity that compounds its terror and frustration. If the soul is distant from the ancestral altar, the task of escorting it to its final resting place is more complicated because the living must first find it and coax it back home to the altar, a difficult and uncertain task that becomes even more so if a long time passes between death and the funerary rites.
Finally, a corpse that is missing parts or is otherwise incomplete is theoretically barred from ever making the transition and therefore is doomed to forever roam the earth and never cross to the otherworld.
For those who die a bad death, chances are high that they can never cross to the otherworld to become a benevolent ancestor.
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
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army of hungry, wandering souls. Young, heirless soldiers were dying violently and far from their homes, their corpses shattered and incomplete, their souls and deaths unmarked and neglected, left stranded on the earth with no one to nourish them while their passage to the otherworld was barred. For those they left behind, the perils created by battlefield deaths created a great deal of anxiety. The living needed to appropriately honor and care for the deceased soldiers'souls so they were not condemned to wandering the earth but instead could be put to rest with the other ancestors. However, the ritual corpus of prere-volutionary Vietnam and the official ceremonies sponsored by the state were largely inadequate for coping with these concerns. As a result, a set of innovatory ceremonies developed by the people emerged during the American War to cope with the problems that war death presented.