In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Wandering SpooksDavid Simpson

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Ghosts of War in Vietnam 
by Heonik Kwon.
Cambridge, 222 pp., £25, March 2008, 978 0 521 88061 9
Show More
Show More

Conjuring up the ghost of his dead friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh asks what things are like in the afterlife. Enkidu tells him it might be better that these truths remain hidden, but he agrees to answer the hero’s questions about the individual fates of those he knew on earth. It seems that life after death is not so different after all, a somewhat intensified but not inexplicable or inappropriate continuation of worldly behaviour. Ghostly as he is, Enkidu can still be embraced. Achilles is not quite so lucky: after a long conversation with the spirit or phantom of Patroclus in Iliad 23, he reaches out but grasps only air, as the image of his dead friend turns to vapour and disappears beneath the earth, losing language as well as form.

Physical and immaterial, on earth but not of it, both meaningful and incomprehensible, ghosts come and go in the literary myths of the West – in Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. Some speak, some are silent; Patroclus speaks clearly enough at first only to vanish while ‘gibbering’ or ‘squeaking like an animal’. Ghosts inspire fear but also offer comfort, giving timely warnings or visiting grieving survivors. Freud’s great essay ‘The Uncanny’, written a year after the end of the first major European war of the 20th century, explores his fascination with the semantic interchangeability of the heimlich and the unheimlich, the familiar and the strange, the commonplace and the spooky, that which belongs in the home and that which lies outside it. Freud’s concept of the uncanny was to haunt a violent century in which emphatic distinctions would be made between self and others, friends and enemies, compatriots and strangers. When the familiar and the unfamiliar can’t be clearly distinguished, thrones and altars start to tremble. Who is my friend and who is not? What are the duties or practical implications of hospitality? Is my neighbour to be trusted or feared? Who, or what, is foreign to my interests and wellbeing?

These questions have been especially charged in times of war. Wars bear a good deal of the responsibility for the production of ghosts, modern wars in particular, partly because they have come to involve an art of killing which blows bodies apart so that nothing is left behind for ritual burial. Felicia Hemans, one of the greatest poets of modern death, recorded this change not only in the horrible physical extinction of the boy on the burning deck in her most famous poem, ‘Casabianca’, but also in her attention to the anonymous and unmarked spaces of empire where bodies vanished beneath the waves or wasted away on the desert sands, uncommemorated and unnoticed. Such diminished spirits might justifiably continue to make claims on the living. The sheer scale of the destruction in modern warfare should make all the more implausible the notion that ghosts preserve the images of recognisable personal bodies. Such ghosts as do appear could be thought of as gratifying fantasies, figments of an intact, living form still available to be interacted with or appeased.

It hasn’t always been this way. The carnage at Waterloo seems to have generated few ghost stories. (Perhaps more surprisingly, the events of 11 September 2001 haven’t produced a particularly intense culture of encounters with the spirit world.) Interest in spiritualism first became widespread in Europe and North America in the 1840s and 1850s, just in time for the American Civil War, allowing many grieving families (especially in the Union states) to receive visits from dead soldiers, most of whom declared themselves happy in the afterlife and proud of the sacrifice they had made. The First World War produced a comprehensive culture of spirit contact both in the trenches and at home. In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995), Jay Winter found a strong continuity in mourning and memorial habits between the First World War and the previous century, a pattern that was broken only with the massive number of civilian deaths in World War Two, to which inherited forms of representation were not adequate. After 1945, at least until 2001, the West was (with some exceptions: Bosnia, for example) spared hugely destructive violence in its own territories. That was happening elsewhere.

Much of the moral impetus of Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam comes from its insistence that the Cold War was cold only for those who installed bunkers in their gardens while at the same time seeing their personal wealth and health increase. In the global South decolonisation continued and became increasingly violent as military and political contests between the great powers were played out through local proxies. Here there was plentiful material for ghost stories. In Vietnam the complex interaction between modern weapons, modern state policies and traditional customs produced an inventive array of encounters with the ghosts of those who died in the ‘American War’. There is no record of such encounters from the period of the war itself – it was too early, perhaps, or too early for them to be noticed – or from its immediate aftermath, when the cult of the dead was aggressively commandeered by a state bureaucracy principally interested in the commemoration of patriotic martyrs.

As Vietnam opened itself up to the global economy, Kwon argues, strict control of the culture of commemoration became more difficult. The state is still concerned to preserve the primacy of those who died serving the cause, but in the 1990s a revival of ritual among ordinary people produced a quite different pattern: in commemorating the dead a distinction between bad and good deaths was no longer of primary importance and all sorts of ghosts – kinsmen, friends and enemies alike – were acknowledged. Along with the traditional commemoration of ancestors inside the house, Kwon found an efflorescence of shrines outside the house devoted to the wandering ghosts of strangers. There are two distinct categories of contact with the spirit world: with the spirits of the ancestors (ong ba) and with the ghosts of strangers (co bac). The thrust and perhaps the surprise finding of Kwon’s research, carried out in 2001 and 2002, is that the one doesn’t outrank or subsume the other: the precedence of the ancestors is not used to justify violence or indifference to the ghosts of strangers. Their existence is taken as given, and unignorable, and they are accorded every right to exist in ‘the social world of the living’.

Kwon approves of this model of cosmopolitan consciousness and universal tolerance – who wouldn’t? – and develops it in the direction of an ethics according to which one’s obligations to the dead are valued above one’s obligations to the laws of the state, which would designate them as enemies. (He invokes both Hegel’s account of Antigone and Anthony Giddens’s argument for a politics founded in the norms of familial and civil society.) The remarkable thing about the ghosts of the American War is that they are not just Vietnamese, but also dead Americans, who are treated with the same decorum and respect as the sons and daughters of the homeland. The homeland itself was no simple thing: many families had members on both sides of the struggle, and many more found it necessary to conduct various sorts of unofficial liaison with the ‘enemy’. A single family might need to commemorate relatives who fought as enemies but are now united in death. This perhaps encourages tolerance of the ghosts of strangers. Indeed, in some instances strangers can take on the attributes of kinship. One of the most gripping stories in Kwon’s book is that of Lien Hoa (Lotus Flower), a dead ten-year-old girl from Hue who communicates (in her local accent) through the person of Bien, the youngest daughter of a family in Cam Re. Lotus Flower guides Bien to the sites of many bodies that are in need of burial and commemoration, especially those of children like herself. She becomes a familiar spirit, and recites a poem which records her gratitude at being accepted into the family as ‘part of the honourable ancestors’. The stranger has been welcomed into the home.

There is, however, another way to read this incipient cosmopolitanism. Kwon suggests, as I’ve said, that it had practical origins in people’s need to maintain associations on both sides of a long and violent conflict whose outcome was for a long time unclear, and in which a simple distinction between friends and enemies couldn’t have been easy to make. With the relaxation of state control in the 1990s there was a revival of traditional forms of religious life; but the government’s market reform programmes also brought investment in construction, and building work exposed more and more human remains in need of proper burial. Building for the future thus produced more and more evidence of the country’s violent past at a time when rituals traditionally associated with the dead were being revived. The movement of soldiers during the war meant that many of the bodies in any one location would be those of strangers: hospitality to their spirits was seen as encouraging a culture in which one’s own relatives might hope for similar treatment in the distant places where they died.

These are also modern rituals. While the spirits of the dead are indifferent to the political ideologies of the living, they are quite concerned with money – votive money, which is burned before shrines to the dead. The burning of money was banned in 1975 but returned in the 1990s, although it is still not part of the memorial rituals officially sanctioned for state heroes. This ritual, too, has a cosmopolitan dimension: facsimile American dollars are burned as well as Vietnamese money, and are even thought more appropriate in a global economy. Ghosts need money, it seems, to conduct their business in the spirit world, or as a symbolic medium for establishing their rank among other ghosts. The increasing dominance of the American dollar (‘Do La’) among the spirits of the dead allows them to keep pace with the transnational economy of the living. For Kwon the Do La operates in a spirit of democracy, bringing both the ancestor spirits and the ghosts of strangers into a single fiscal regime. But the stranger ghosts are wanderers while the ancestors have a fixed place; the strangers have the greater need for money, and are more aptly figured as analogues of money, able to travel everywhere but forever displaced. The accumulation of virtual money compensates the ghosts for what money itself enacts: constant circulation.

At least that is one of Kwon’s reflections on the complex relations between spirit money and money in the world of the living. Georg Simmel, he recalls, identified money with the role of the stranger. Is welcoming the stranger as ghost then also to welcome money? Kwon doesn’t mention Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which argues that Marx uses the language of ghostliness to represent the power of the commodity in the modern world. Under mature capitalism, according to Marx, the rules of exchange and the conferring of value happen without full human oversight or control. Things move around and take on life as commodities while people lose their vitality in producing them for the market. So, in Capital, seemingly inanimate objects figuratively become human. Like ghosts, they come and go, almost but not quite graspable.

At first sight Vietnam’s ghosts are more conventional: they are the residual forms of people who died in wartime, and they engage on human terms with those who survive them. But Marx’s writings make clear that there need be no absolute distinction between the world of persons and the world of things. The machines that govern the economy of the 19th century are themselves forms of dead human labour – the labour put to death, as it were, in order to give the machines life – and the machines in their turn apply death-directed forces to the labour operating them in the present. To be worked to death in the factories of capitalist countries was seen by Marx as consonant with the exploitation of slaves in the colonies and of citizen soldiers in modern war.

The recent popularity of images of radical displacement – Agamben’s refugee or camp dweller, Deleuze’s nomad – as a way of describing our current or incipient state shouldn’t be thought of uncritically. These ideas risk obscuring the radical difference between the apparent alienation of the intellectual and the enforced displacements of, say, Gypsies or Palestinians. But the ghosts of Vietnam, which bring together ideas of the stranger, of money and homelessness, suggest a logic that is more challenging and troubling than an idealist ethical injunction calling for the tolerance or welcoming of strangers. Kwon teeters on the edge of this idealism when he writes of the healthy ‘communal and associational activities’ made possible by the economic modernisation of Vietnam; this comes close to the case made by liberal civil-society theorists about the inevitability of the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone warned of the dire consequences for the political culture of the United States of failing to nourish similar voluntary forms of civic participation.

Kwon applauds the creation of an ‘ethical horizon of human solidarity beyond the wounds and pains of bipolar history’, rightly approves of the desire to make ‘kinship practices go beyond the boundary of the bounded place’, and admires ‘the power of human action and imagination to transform the tragic history of mass displacement into a new, vital history of the dwelling place’ (Kwon is an anthropologist who writes for anthropologists). This is what he sees in the Vietnamese readiness to welcome the ghosts of strangers, presupposing the foundational security of hearth and home, whose assumed fixity is what allows us to think of strangers as strangers. But suppose instead that we are all, as Heidegger claimed, incapable of dwelling? Suppose that this isn’t merely the rhetoric of romantic alienation, but the predicament of life lived in the world of the commodity form and the death-dealing forces that sustain it? Acceptance of wandering strangers and their piles of virtual money might then look more like an acceptance of death in life. If this is the case, then the effects of modernisation on contemporary Vietnam need a more nuanced response than celebration or ethical approval.

Derrida understood hospitality as being about never being at home. His ghosts – his readings of Marx’s ghosts – are not as familiar or acceptable as those of modern Vietnam. For him, the eerie untranslatability of Marx’s ‘es spukt has to do with the sense that ‘the subject that haunts is not identifiable . . . one cannot decide between hallucination and perception . . . one feels oneself looked at by what one cannot see.’ To find a way to live with the haunting is to cease being haunted, to cease to see the ghosts as ghosts. That could be healthy in a society struggling to cope with rapid modernisation. Yet if the ghosts are the symptom and evidence of that modernisation, then becoming too comfortable with them, making them at home, risks displacing a critical anxiety that might itself be productive.

This might be too much to ask of those rural Vietnamese trying to cope with the remainders of an overwhelmingly violent recent past in a runaway present, though there are signs among some of Kwon’s interviewees of a sceptical reserve, even cynicism. Who is to say that the ghosts that are commodities and the ghosts of dead soldiers and civilians might not have much in common? The spirits of those who died in the cause of national liberation, or because it was the cause of others, might well need to forget – as these ghosts apparently do forget – the bipolar politics of the past if they are not to find themselves disappointed in the new Vietnam. For the equality of everyone with everyone else is not just the declared rationale of democracy; it is also the logic of money and of the commodity form.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese seem to be doing better than their old antagonists: official policy in the United States is the repatriation of the nation’s dead at all costs and with no expense spared. While the villagers of Cam Re are, apparently, welcoming the ghosts of the American dead, Americans themselves are scouring the mountains and jungles for any remains they can take back and bury at home, rendering ghostly circulation redundant. We seem not to trust these strangers to look after our own dead, and so remain immune to the possibilities of a hospitality that is, to most of us, unfamiliar.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008

David Simpson’s review of Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam brought to mind something I heard in that country just a few weeks ago (LRB, 14 August). Confronted by a motorcyclist speeding the wrong way towards us on an otherwise empty motorway, our driver – unsurprised – remarked: ‘She must love bananas.’ Bananas, it seems, are a traditional offering at shrines to the dead (beside the phony dollar bills, I presume).

Terence Eccles
London NW6

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.