Wandering Spooks

David Simpson

  • Ghosts of War in Vietnam by Heonik Kwon
    Cambridge, 222 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 88061 9

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.