Event Report on “Who travels thousands of miles? Gender Dimensions of War Dead Accounting and Memory Making in Post-war Vietnam”

On May 2, 2024, the Humanities Research Center hosted Dr. Tâm T. T. Ngô, a senior researcher and associate professor at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Tâm first had an informal discussion with students and later proceeded to give a talk on her research about the gendered dimensions of war dead accounting and memory making in post-war Vietnam. This event was attended by 20 students and 3 faculty members.

In the informal discussion, Dr. Tâm took the time to listen and engaged attentively with students’ research interests and questions. Discussion ranged from the rise of the Korean creative industry as a sign of a cultural export that aims to reach international audiences to Vietnamese spirit-mediums and “boy-love” shows.

After the informal discussion, Dr. Tâm started her presentation on war dead accounting in Vietnam. She first highlighted the staggering number of casualties in Vietnam in the 20th century. There were over 1.2 million soldiers categorized as martyrs during Vietnam’s multiple and successive wars. Out of this 1.2 million, over half a million soldiers were not accounted for, either because the body could not be found or that the body was found but could not be identified.

This presented a huge problem for the living Vietnamese population as they had no avenue for closure. In efforts to retrieve their ancestors, 2 ways of identifying and matching bodies emerged, through DNA forensics and through ‘spiritual forensics’. Dr. Tâm identified George Mosse’s ‘Cult of the Fallen Soldier’ in Vietnam as well, where the national consciousness was formed through memories of the fallen soldier. However, Vietnam also presented an interesting case as the State played a crucial role in the memory of the fallen soldiers and determined who was considered a martyr for the country. Therefore, there existed some tension between the public and the state on how to deal with the dead bodies.

Although the Vietnam government had invested tremendous amount of resources into DNA forensics, the results were often inconclusive or too slow. Hence, a movement started within the last 4 decades where Vietnamese families took matters in their own hands to recover their lost family members. These families would venture to spirit mediums to retrieve their loved ones. A new type of spirit possession occurred in Vietnam as it was often the case that because the family members would not trust the spirit mediums. As such, the spirit would not possess the medium but rather the family members present.

In this quest for fallen relatives, Dr. Tâm highlighted how women led the charge in making memories. She shared the case of Ms. Na who lost 2 brothers during the Tet offensive in 1968. Her brothers’ bodies were never found. However, in 2012, 24 bodies were found in a cave. According to army records, this cave was the last known location of Ms. Na’s brothers. However, the State needed time to confirm the bodies through forensics. Ms. Na waited until 2022 but still had no results. Hence, she consulted a spirit medium because she was getting old and wanted to bid farewell to her brothers. After the spirit medium identified the body, Ms. Na commissioned a portrait of her brother. The fallen soldier had been transformed into a symbol.

Dr. Tâm concluded by recollecting how stories of women making memories was not constrained to Vietnam. She provided examples of Antigone and Lady Meng Jiang who sought their dead brother and husbands. An audience member elaborated that Antigone had gone against the law in retrieving a dead body and was curious if there were similar examples in her work. Dr. Tâm thanked the audience for the question and highlighted the global phenomenon of ‘maternal activism’, where mothers rallied against the state for demands.