In a dream last night I am at a conference in Vietnam devoted to healing the trauma of war veterans and survivors. I am impressed by how traditional healers and their methods seem to have been integrated into government-sponsored health care, in the understanding that to heal the complaints of the living it is necessary to encounter and heal the spirits of the dead. What happened to the old prohbitions on spiritual practice under the Vietnamese regime? All of this is approached in non-nonsense, pragmatic faction. I quite like my hotel room, and its polished wood furniture, too!
The dream led me to look up an article on "ghost sickness" in Vietnam that I wrote after reading a remarkable book on this subject when it was first published a decade ago.
At night, Sam shakes so violently in the bed that his girlfriend is thrown out. He screams in a language not his own, "Give it back, give it back, give it back, motherfucker, or I'll eat your mother's soul." He isn't willing to believe what he becomes in his sleep until his girlfriend tapes one of these screaming nights. He listens to another man's voice coming from his vocal chords. He knows the stranger's language only slightly, but he has a notion what this is about.
Back in 1968, he was a combat G.I. in Vietnam. After a firefight in which he lost an arm, he was flown out of Khe San. As he was carried onto the plane, one of his buddies pressed a souvenir into his remaining hand. It was the blood-spattered ID card of a Vietcong fighter, retrieved after he was gunned down at the perimeter of an American base; the name has been scratched off.
For decades after the war, Sam holds onto this grim memento. through the nightmare years when he is thrown back, night after night, into the hot savagery of the war and is tormented by the searing pain of a phantom limb that - strangely - is not his missing arm but what feels like an extra leg. He takes the Vietcong ID card with him when he returns to Vietnam as a tourist in the mid-1990s, falls in love with a Vietnamese girl and decides to settle in Hanoi with her and work as an electrician. In Hanoi, his nightmares are no longer inside him; they are spilling over into the waking life of his bedmate.
Her culture has prepared her to recognize this kind of problem. Her Texas boyfriend is bi benh ta, "made ill by a ghost." There is a name for this type of ghost in Vietnam. It is called con ma or "angry ghost". There are a lot of them. Five million Vietnamese died in the several phases of war in Indochina, and a further 300,000 are missing. Many of the war dead were never buried, let alone accorded the traditional funeral rites and food and honor at family altars. There are bodies that were literally obliterated by B-52 carpet bombing. The result is many restless, raging souls that envy the living and take out their frustrations in ways that cause illness, depression, crazy behavior and temporary possession.
Where do you go if you are bothered by angry ghosts? Traditionally, in a country where animism is strong, you would go to a diviner or medium to get a correct diagnosis of who is causing your problem, and to a shaman or exorcist to send it away. Though the Communist government outlawed all forms of spiritual practice, it's still possible to find a medium or a "spirit priest" if you go about it discreetly.
Sam and his girlfriend agree they'll go to a medium whose day job is as a fish vendor in the central market. They travel to her houseboat at night and wait for her all clear signal, a flickering light. In the session, Tuyet covers her face with a white cloth. She uses a scratchy tape of clicks and drums and a weird horn to get herself ready to receive. She starts speaking in a high, eerie voice. "He is Van Nguyen," the voice begins. It describes the death of a 19-year-old Vietcong soldier, killed at the fence of a U.S. base in a welter of blood. Something was taken from his body before it was thrown in a hole and bulldozed over. "Is this him?" Sam holds out the ID card. "Yes, he is very angry." She tells Sam what to do. He must take the card to the boy's mother and make his peace with the family. After Sam does to the mother with the identity card and offerings, his nights are quiet; the ghost no longer needs to scream through his vocal chords.
This is one of the cases recounted, as first-hand testimony and observation, in War and Shadows, a remarkable book on the war ghosts of Vietnam by Mai Lai Gustafsson.  She details no fewer than 190 cases of spirit possession or obsession (a useful old Church term she doesn't actually use). All the others are the experiences of Vietnamese, mostly in Hanoi or the immediate vicinity. She attributes the willingness of so many Vietnamese informants to share their intimate secrets with her to two factors. She is half Vietnamese and (at the time of her fieldwork) she was enormously far (over 300 pounds); she states that the Vietnamese regarded her obesity as a sign that she was a fellow-sufferer from ghost sickness.
“The Vietnam War has had an effect on both this world and the next," writes Gustafsson, memorably. "Long after the peace treaties were signed, the war rages on in both realms: the battlegrounds are living human bodies; its warriors, the enraged ghosts who invade and assault them.” She finds an official high up in the Ministry of Health in Hanoi who is prepared to concede the extent of the problem, contrary to Communist orthodoxy. The war ghosts, he tells her, are "a national health menace." Contrary to its own laws, it seems that the Vietnamese government now employs a select band of psychic mediums to locate missing dead and diagnose and treat egregious cases of ghost sickness.
Gustafsson includes a fascinating table at the end of her book summarizing the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of her informants. Symptoms include head pains, depression and hearing voices to glossolalia, self-mutilation and violence against others. In most cases, the suffererers sought physical treatment - both traditional herbal remedies and Western medicine (when they could afford it) - before seeking a spiritual cure. The ones who found relief from their symptoms, according to Gustafsson's data, are those who found effective ways to placate the angry ghosts and/or relocate them. Appeasing the restless dead might involve making offerings or changing personal behaviors. Methods of relocating souls might include staging a symbolic burial ceremony or "installing a spirit in a Buddhist temple". My favorite example is of a man whose life was blighted by the presence of a deceased friend until he was finally guided to perform a ritual by which the energy of the dead man was transplanted to a bonsai tree.
Gustafsson's information about the laying of ghosts in this second sense is limited because she made a point of not visiting the ritual specialists in the Buddhist pagodas or the gatherings of the popular cult of the Mother Goddesses (called Tu phu, the Religion of the Four Palaces) and does not appear to have had contact with anyone who could properly be termed a shaman, capable not only of channeling or dialoguing with the dead but of taking them where they need to go. She had her reasons - including the valid fear of encounters with the police - in not going further along this road, and must be commended for the great amount of fresh material she was able to collect.
However, the book is flawed by her failure to discuss the anatomy and variety of Vietnamese spirits. She contrasts the con ma (angry ghost) with the to tien (ancestral spirit) that is traditionally honored and fed at family altars, but this is not explored in detail. In Vietnamese animism - as in Chinese traditions, especially Taoism, which have greatly influenced Vietnam - multiple aspects of soul and spirit are recognized. They are identified with different parts of the body and have different destinies after death. For example, in Chinese vocabulary, the po soul, associated with the liver, is a lower entity that must be safely contained after death or it may trouble the living by joining the ranks of the kuei, the wild and hungry ghosts. By contrast, the shen spirit may ascend to higher realms and can function as a benign family helper.
Such distinctions are vital to our practical understanding of how to heal relations with the departed. You can't negotiate with the lower aspect of the dead; you need to get it off the living by other means and put it in a safe place. You can negotiate with a higher aspect of the dead, and in practice this is what is going on in some of Gustafsson's success stories. Making and working such distinctions is the traditional province of the shaman, and we need to revive the shaman's way of identifying, guiding and relocating the spirits because the problem of war ghosts is not confined to Southeast Asia. I chose the example of Sam, the one American in Gustaffson's book, to suggest that dealing with war ghosts may be central to healing the wounded warriors among our vets in the United States and other Western countries.
I know this to be true from personal experience. Many years ago, a Vietnam vet came to one of my workshops. He had been a combat lieutenant and he lost every man in his platoon in a firefight, He had been haunted ever since by terrible dreams in which the ghost soldiers wanted to kill him, screaming at him that he had abandoned and betrayed them. In order to free him - and them - I had to lead and escort him in shamanic lucid dream journeys in which he dialogued, one by one, with the dead soldiers and made peace with them. He then agreed to perform a ritual of symbolic "second burial" to lay to rest the wild and unreasoning lower aspects of the dead.
Mai Lan Gustafsson has performed a distinct service in showing us how the ghosts of a collective tragedy can weigh on an entire people. I congratulate Cornell University Press for publishing this important study by an anthropologist who was not afraid to go "bicultural" twice over, in reporting from two worlds, in two senses.-
 Mai Lan Gustafsson, War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009)