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Heonik Kwon

The Hill Fight of the Korean War constitutes an important chapter of the formative military conflict of the mid-twentieth century where the South Korean and other UN forces confronted the Chinese and North Korean forces. Currently, it has become a vital site of contested memory, especially in relation to the growing contest of power between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Describing South Korea’s recent initiative of missing in action (MIA)/killed in action (KIA) accounting activities on these old battlegrounds since 2000, this article looks at how public actions concerning the remains of war are intertwined with changing geopolitical conditions. This will be followed by a reflection on the limits of the prevailing art and technology of war-remains accounting.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Sarah Wagner

A half-century since its conclusion, the Vietnam War’s ‘work of remembrance’ in the United States continues to generate, even innovate, forms of homecoming and claims of belonging among the state, its military and veterans, surviving families and the wider public. Such commemoration often centres on objects that materialise, physically or symbolically, absence and longed-for recovery or reunion – from wartime artefacts-turned-mementos to the identified remains of missing war dead. In exploring the war’s proliferating memory work, this article examines the small-scale but persistent practice of leaving or scattering cremains at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, against the backdrop of the US military’s efforts to account for service members missing in action (MIA). Seen together, the illicit and sanctioned efforts to return remains (or artefacts closely associated with them) to places of social recognition and fellowship shed light on the powerful role the dead have in mediating war’s meaning and the debts it incurs.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Spiritual care and memory activism at the former Republic of Vietnam military cemetery
Đạt Nguyễn

Following the end of the Vietnam–American War in 1975, the commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) remains a difficult issue. The post-war Vietnamese state has marginalised ARVN dead from its national commemorative practices, while it has destroyed or neglected former South Vietnam memorial sites. This article provides an examination of recent efforts by local ARVN former combatants, living relatives of fallen soldiers and young Vietnamese to attend to the upkeep of the former ARVN cemetery in southern Vietnam. Based on participant observation and interviews, I explore how people care for the dead through regular acts of grave maintenance and religious rituals. I show that, through these persistent practices of care, southern Vietnamese engage in a form of memory activism to ensure the continual existence of the cemetery and lay claims to the right to mourn for the marginalised dead.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
The enigmas of empty graves, encrypted archives and porous bones
Tâm T. T. Ngô

This article details the remarkable involvement of the Vietnamese population in finding and naming half a million Vietnamese missing-in-action (MIAs). The secrecy that characterised Vietnam’s military operations during wartime, and the overlapping claims and therefore control of the MIAs by the army and civil administrations in the aftermath of the wars, are the reasons behind unsolvable quagmires in Vietnam’s current war-accounting effort. The myriad of state actors involved who often work at cross purposes raises the public’s awareness of the incompetence of the state and calls for the participation of non-state actors. The latest potential avenue to solve the MIA problem, DNA forensics, is facing all kinds of challenges, such as the quality of the bone samples and the scale of the effort. War accounting has therefore become an open arena of public engagement and popular dissent, while significantly transforming the cult of the dead in Vietnam.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
War remains and the politics of commemoration in the wake of the Asia-Pacific War
Beatrice Trefalt

In January 1955, an official mission departed Japan for New Guinea to collect remains of the war dead and to erect commemorative monuments to fallen soldiers. Just before its departure, a diplomatic contretemps arose about the English wording on the Japanese stones: the Japanese government considered them memorials to the dead, whereas the Australian government insisted that they be mere geographical markers noting the search for remains. This article examines how the divergent politics of commemoration in Japan and Australia created this dispute, demonstrating how the remains of soldiers functioned as important signifiers well beyond their material existence. In Japan, the search for remains spoke to the nature of national duty, the acknowledgement of mourning and the possibilities for atonement. In Australia, however, they stimulated visceral resentment, because the soldiers’ remains symbolised Japanese aggression and war crimes.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
In search of the Republic of Vietnam war dead
Alex-Thái Dinh Võ

Finding, identifying and interring the war dead are ethically and ceremonially crucial tasks for healing, repairing and legitimising. Before the end of the Vietnam War, the United States had begun to look for missing Americans in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In the wake of its victory and takeover of South Vietnam, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam went to great lengths to identify and immortalise its fallen soldiers. The same cannot be said for the war dead of the Republic of Vietnam, whose fall on 30 April 1975 made the war dead stateless; consequently they have never been legitimately acknowledged by the current Vietnamese government or their former ally, the United States. This article explores the accounting efforts by Nguyen Dạc Thành and the Vietnamese American Foundation to reveal the financial, logistical, technical and political opportunities and challenges in accounting for war dead associated with a state that no longer exists.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s policies for repatriating soldiers’ remains and accounting for the missing after the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War
Liu Zhaokun

After the Chinese Civil War (1946–49), hundreds of thousands of graves of the People’s Liberation Army soldiers dotted the country’s landscape; the ensuing Korean War caused more casualties. Honouring this immense sacrifice and mobilising the survivors for its reconstruction were indispensable for the nascent People’s Republic of China. This research probes China’s policies to repatriate soldiers’ remains and account for those missing after these wars. The dilapidating status of soldiers’ graves threatened the morale of soldiers’ families, the backbone of the country’s socialist revolution. The state acknowledged families’ wishes to retrieve soldiers’ remains and nationalised their repatriation to salvage popular support. However, the deceased were not to drain the labour and resources reserved for the revolution. This principle had effectively prevented most families from retrieving remains. Accounting for missing soldiers was to ensure that only the revolutionary martyrs’ families could receive due honour and privilege.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Open Access (free)
Fate, fortune and families of fallen soldiers in nationalist China
Linh D. Vũ

Although local authorities, communities and charities played a major role in dealing with conflict fatalities, the Republican era (1911–49) saw new government initiatives to attend to the afterlives of common soldiers. Leaders of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) exemplified ambitions to govern the dead by implementing a policy of collecting and burying fallen soldiers. As the first public military cemetery, constructed in Nanjing in 1935, could not accommodate the millions of war dead in the decade of war that followed, the Nationalist state promulgated regulations to help bereaved families transport remains back to their home towns for burial. The Nationalist government began to plan more national military cemeteries after World War II, yet most commemorative projects in mainland China were interrupted by the Chinese Civil War. By constructing martyrs’ shrines and national cemeteries in Taiwan, the Nationalists are continuing their efforts to look after the military dead.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Actions for the missing: scientific and vernacular forms of war dead accounting
Tâm T. T. Ngô
Sarah Wagner

This special issue examines Asian experiences of war and mass death in the previous century, with case studies from China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam (North and South, among its diaspora and across multiple generations). In this introduction we highlight several of the wider analytical interventions offered by the articles: (1) the spatiopolitical dynamics of war dead accounting in which forms of vernacular forensic expertise interact with and inform internationally honed, empirically grounded practices of exhumation and identification; (2) the complex hierarchy of authority over remains that structures programmes of war dead accounting; (3) the variegated (as opposed to monolithic) nature of war dead themselves; and (4) the material ecosystems of remains, graves, cemeteries and the non-human forces of decay acting upon them. Finally, the introduction highlights the issue’s comparative potential: that is, what these different cultural, religious and ideological modes of meaning-making reveal about why and how human remains matter in the aftermath of war – and not just according to Western notions of national memory politics in which the soldier stands in for the state and collective mourning animates the national imaginary.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Humanitarian Disruption in Conflict Settings
Maelle L’Homme

In March 2022, intercommunal fighting forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend its activities after nearly fourteen years of operating in Agok, a small town located in the disputed Abyei Special Administrative Area (ASAA) on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. After the shock of having to close a 185-bed hospital unexpectedly came questions about the unintentional consequences of MSF’s presence. With the benefit of hindsight, the organisation deemed it important to examine the potentially destabilising influence it might have had on the local environment. This article builds on an internal capitalisation exercise conducted with the aim of documenting MSF’s experience and critically reflecting on the potential of aid being a factor in disrupting local balances, or worse, a factor in fuelling violence. By exploring the premises that MSF was an anchor factor for the population and that the economic fallouts made Agok a place worth fighting for, the author investigates the long-term, unintended impact of MSF’s presence on the local political economy of conflict, as well as the organisation’s possible share of responsibility for aggravating intercommunal grievances. Based on the observation that aid inevitably benefits some more than others, the author also asks to what extent MSF was aware of the adverse consequences of its presence and whether more awareness would have led to different operational choices and mitigating measures. This questioning does not detract in any way from the project’s achievements in terms of providing high-quality secondary healthcare in a context where there was none, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs