After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai

by Heonik Kwon, University of California Press, Berkley, 2006, softcover $19.95.

Death rites matter.

Arlington. Gettysburg. Normandy. The Somme. Verdun. Each is a site of veneration, containing as they do, massive graveyards of men killed in war. Each is considered “Hallowed Ground” by the nations that contributed the raw material. Nowhere are these lands considered ordinary. This is right. It is human that interment in any of these locations carries great weight and that the privilege is jealously guarded. Indeed, one need only look as far as the disinterment from Arlington of one former U.S. ambassador to see how seriously we take our death rites here in America.

It was this observation that swung me. Initially, After the Massacre seemed entirely too academic for the average reader. The book is dense and dry, and it is heavily theoretical in the first 26 pages. It deals with death rituals and social conventions, and the fate of the bodies of the South Vietnamese civilians slaughtered by American troops at My Lai, as well as South Korean troops at Ha My, in 1968. The book appeared to defy the conventional tastes of those who read this magazine, as it deals less with the war and more with what came later, after the United States left Vietnam.

But I work in the Pentagon, and every day I run past Arlington National Cemetery, across the Memorial Bridge and past the massive edifice commemorating the man who dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg. These reminders struck home. We too have death rituals. The disposition of our dead matters to us as well, and the average reader is increasingly aware of such things. Because of all of these elements, I reversed my initial position. I believe that this is a book that will help readers understand.

Author Heonik Kwon is South Korean. Currently he is a professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. In plain language, he dissects cultures. He does this by examining how people in different cultures do things, and attempting to tease out an understanding of why they do them. He speaks, at least, English, Korean and Vietnamese. He lived in the villages that he studied, and has no apparent ill will toward either the United States or South Korea. In the truest sense he appears to be the academic ideal: impartial, analytic, seeking understanding for the advancement of human knowledge. This book makes no major comment about why these two massacres happened; they just did. What Kwon deals with is what happened later.

Vietnamese culture takes ancestors, a sense of “place,” the burial of family, and even ghosts, quite seriously. Anyone who has spent time in Vietnam knows this to be true. Even today, anyone who wants to better understand the culture in which Americans fought and died 40 years ago would do well to understand these elements of Vietnamese life. Hundreds of people died at Ha My and My Lai. The story of what happened next, from 1968 to 1975, and then from 1975 to the mid-1990s, can give a patient reader an awakening. If you fought in Vietnam and to this day still wonder about the people amongst and against whom you fought, this book may be for you. If you are interested in how an alien culture ticks, this book is for you. I recommend writing notes in the margins.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here