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After the Massacre

Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai

Heonik Kwon

Publication Year: 2006

Though a generation has passed since the massacre of civilians at My Lai, the legacy of this tragedy continues to reverberate throughout Vietnam and the rest of the world. This engrossing study considers how Vietnamese villagers in My Lai and Ha My—a village where South Korean troops committed an equally appalling, though less well-known, massacre of unarmed civilians—assimilate the catastrophe of these mass deaths into their everyday ritual life.

Based on a detailed study of local history and moral practices, After the Massacre focuses on the particular context of domestic life in which the Vietnamese villagers interact with their ancestors on one hand and the ghosts of tragic death on the other. Heonik Kwon explains what intimate ritual actions can tell us about the history of mass violence and the global bipolar politics that caused it. He highlights the aesthetics of Vietnamese commemorative rituals and the morality of their practical actions to liberate the spirits from their grievous history of death. The author brings these important practices into a critical dialogue with dominant sociological theories of death and symbolic transformation.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-iv


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p. v-v

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-ix

This book grew out of my general interest in the social and intellectual histories of the Vietnam War, which I have been slowly exploring since 1993, when I completed my doctoral work on an indigenous hunting society in eastern Siberia and began teaching. Initially, I was primarily interested in how the experience of a large-scale human conflict can ...

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pp. xi-xii

To whom do the dead belong? And how must they be claimed? War produces unnatural death, deaths that occur out of place—away from home and kin—and deaths that occur out of time, to the young and strong. Modern war kills more noncombatants than soldiers; death strikes outside the rules meant to contain and rationalize the violence of war. The ...


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p. xiii-xiii

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pp. 1-10

On the twenty-fourth day of the first lunar month of 1968, the Year of the Monkey, Ha My suffered the shattering tragedy of surrendering an entire village population to a crime of war. On this fateful day, three platoons of foreign soldiers closed in on the small coastal settlement south of Da Nang from three directions and assembled the villagers at three different ...

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1. The Bipolarity of Death

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pp. 11-27

Dead people, in popular Vietnamese culture, can be powerfully sentient and salient beings who entertain emotions, intentions, and historical awareness. The ethnological literature about their mortuary customs and religious imaginations confirms this. Remembering ancestors means, in Vietnam, according to Le Van Dinh, relating to them “as if they were ...

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2. Massacres in the Year of the Monkey, 1968

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pp. 28-59

“Pump out the water and catch the fish” was one of the informal instructions to some foreign combat troops deployed to Vietnam. The instruction was a clever, cynical distortion of a slogan used for the Vietnamese resistance wars: “People are the water, and our army the fish.”1 Truong Chinh, one of the founders of the Indochinese Communist Party and the ...

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3. A Generation Afterward

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pp. 60-84

In Vietnam, household death-commemoration rites are a rich store of historical evidence. Numerous incidents from past wars are faithfully recorded in these rites, even though the archives and monuments may carry no trace of these incidents. On several occasions, including in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s, village administrations in the ...

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4. Ancestors in the Street

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pp. 85-102

My Lai villagers vividly recalled the periodic lamentations of the village ghosts that they said echoed from the killing sites. A number of residents in Khe Thuan subhamlet claimed that they had seen old women ghosts licking and sucking the arms and legs of small child ghosts, and they interpreted the scene as an effort by the elderly victims to ease the pain of ...

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5. Heroes and Ancestors

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pp. 103-119

Ancestors and ghosts are not the only categories of death found in Vietnamese domestic ritual space. In traditional times, these two categories might have been sufficient for conceptually organizing the cosmological mirror of the living world. The rise of the modern nation-state, however, has added a novel category of death to the traditional cosmology of ...

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6. Grievous Death

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pp. 120-136

“The bodies are all naked and they are all wounded,” a woman in My Lai said of the mass grave near her house. She meant to draw attention to the fact that the victims of the massacre had been buried without coffins or funeral clothing, and that the broken pieces of individual bodies had not been put together before burial. Other relatives of victims in My Lai ...

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7. The Stone of Fury

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pp. 137-153

The moral identity of mass village war death was ambivalent. It shifted between tragic and heroic, as illustrated by the Ha Gia mass reburial described in the previous chapter. Finding a place for the identity of an individual victim was also uncertain: some believed it should be in the ancestral memorial, whereas some chose its structural opposite. In preparing ...

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8. The Decomposition of the Cold War

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pp. 154-175

Heroes, ancestors, and ghosts coexist in the village environment. Whilerevolutionary politics and traditional religious heritage separate them,the three social classes in afterlife associate in popular ritual practices.Although they constitute a hierarchy, the hierarchy that structures theirrelative values varies at different sites of memory. Their status changes ...

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pp. 176-183

If we consider the history of the Cold War “from above” and reduce it to the doctrine of deterrence, of imagining war in order to prevent war— which has been a dominant paradigm in international history—it appears that political history and the morality of death have no meaningful relationship. If we consider it “from below” instead and include in it the ...


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pp. 185-212


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pp. 213-217

Production Notes

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p. 218-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780520939653
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520247963

Page Count: 231
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes