Bones of contention

Situating the dead of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war

by TÂM T. T. NGÔ

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Postcolonial Vietnam is characterized by the interplay between necropolitics and necrosociality, as practiced respectively by the militarized state and a society that traditionally maintains relations with the dead. This interplay is key to understanding conflicts in Vietnam over the bones of unidentified war dead. On the one hand, such bones can challenge the state's sovereignty when it assumes the responsibility of taking care of them. On the other hand, they exert strong power over the living, prompting quests to place them in the right kinship and sociopolitical orders—or to erase their memory. This was made dramatically evident in 2011 by one set of human remains, allegedly belonging to a fallen soldier of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war—a conflict that both sides’ governments prefer to forget. These remains illuminated the contention in the governing of war dead in postwar Vietnam. Moreover, they made evident the tension in anthropological inquiry about the ontology of human remains. [human bones, unidentified war dead, Sino-Vietnamese border war, necropolitics, necrosociality, Vietnam]