Media Ghostings: Three and a Half Hauntings of the Vietnam War

Fig. 1: Section from the Wullenweber circular antennae array at Ramasun. Stills taken from ‘Framing Territories’, Geocinema, 2018.

By Pujita Guha and Abhijan Toto for the Forest Curriculum

from ACT 77, April, 2019


The Cold War was a spectral war: this is not because that the war never took place (Southeast Asia is a crucial site where the belligerent sides engaged in armed combat), but rather that throughout the period the enemy remained elusive,  haunting every form of life. The enemy remained unknown through diplomatic and cultural impasses, blockades, technological warfare and a general spirit of non-cooperation began to haunt most international discourses of that era. They hid behind bunkers, war operation zones, nuclear armament and sometimes camouflaged in the tropical jungles. To track this extremely elusive enemy each side began to develop new ways of seeing, hearing and embodying, developed machines and technics that have ever since found their way into contemporary civilian life. Microwaves now found in every kitchen were the primary broadcast spectra for radio and sonic communications through the twentieth century, its research originating in the heated days of the Cold War (Beck and Bishop, Introduction, 4). As Ryan Bishop and John Beck note, 

It made palpable, made it necessary to think, at once, about the instantaneous (the decisive moment of mass destruction) and the endless (the stalemate of the superpower stand-off; the infinity of the catastrophic post-nuclear world). The individual act or decision was now outrageously amplified (the finger on the nuclear trigger) and radically diminished (powerless in the face of unfathomable forces with the ceding of human agency to machines in complex weapons systems).The reach of the nuclear threat expanded geopolitics to the scale of the global even as it compressed space (nowhere is safe) and promised to toxically recode matter itself. The challenges and threats posed by this radical spatio-temporal plasticity, where everything came to seem connected to everything – everywhere, everyone, all the time – engendered a mode of thinking preoccupied by networks and systems and the means of managing the proliferating complexitysuch systems at once represented and reproduced. (Beck and Bishop, Introduction, 4)

With its finger on every mode of living in the contemporary today, the Cold War and the infrastructure that it had established, thus, lives on as a spectral force, constituting us structurally, perceptually, materially and conceptually. As a ghost, the Cold War thrives, out of place, and out of joint, between life and death, between human and non-human scales, between machines and their revamped counterparts. However, as we argue through the paper, the ghost of the Cold War is not just its by-product, its long duree afterlife. The ghost has always already been embedded in the Cold War, producing hauntings, sometimes occupying our senses and escaping in other times. 

Working through the Village and Hamlet Radio system, whereby radios came to be installed in villages and hamlets in South Vietnam, and Ramasun Camp, in Udon Thani, Thailand, a signal interception unit for the Americans during the Vietnam we argue that through much of this interrupted history, Ramasun has been haunted, even when it was operational. During the Vietnam war, Ramasun’s air was thick with electromagnetic waves that escaped human senses, discernible as paranormal, automatic inscriptions only on process screens. Drawing upon field and archive work in Ramasun, we look at these media hauntings as a site to think through the Vietnam war’s more-than-human im/perceptibilities. Hauntings – interruptions between the living and the dead, the present and the absent – also found their way into Operation Wandering Soul, an American psy-op that drew on the Vietnamese folk belief that troubled souls woefully haunt the air. Eerily mixed Buddhist chants, anecdotes by “dead” Viet Cong guerrillas and ambient sounds were blared from cassette players on roving soldiers to dissuade locals from joining the war. Through Sung Tieu’s video installation No Gods, No Masters (2017), which reconstructs the ghost tapes, we wish to enquire media hauntings also as questions of affect, persistence, and temporality. Through Wandering Soul we not only wish to probe the dense entanglements between the global military-industrial complex and local cosmologies, but also how sonic and affective hauntings became crucial sensory mechanisms for the US Army to attune to non- or para- human sensibilities. By way of speculatively closing the paper, we wish to posit the US Army’s Ghost Tapes, ‘broadcasted’ from mobile cassette players carried by soldiers roving across the fields, to Filipino experimental ethnomusicologist Jose Maceda’s sonic piece Cassettes 100 that similarly necessitates the fluid mobility of people with portable cassette players creating a sonic immersive piece off traditional sounds and instruments recorded from the Filipino fields. Between war and war-to-be (Maceda’s piece was choreographed in 1971 right before the Martial Law in the country) we ask how our bodies choreographed in space, and how may ghosts live both as messianic force haunting the state from the outside, and how may they become conscriptions subjects from within.

1. The Ghosts of a Signal War

With the support of United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the research and development wing of the Department of Defense, USA, established Project Agile: an initiative to coordinate between counter-insurgent teams on the field and research advisors in the US (Bergen, Military Communications, 61). The task was to locate the ever-elusive force haunting the forests and floodplains of Vietnam: the Communists and Viet Cong. The Central Highlands of Vietnam, the forested mountainous terrain which connects the floodplains of North and South Vietnam, proffered a confounding visuality in which tracking the enemy through primarily visual patrolling and surveillance was difficult, if not entirely impossible. As the enemy camouflaged in the forested terrain, moved in dispersed groups and primarily connected through mobile radio setups, the US Army similarly mobilized sonic techniques to trace its opponents: establishing Radio Direction-Finders (shortened to RDF or DF) to locate enemy transmitters and, in turn, enemy forces. The Direction Finding Nets usually comprised of a loop antenna that rotated and pinpointed the direction from which the enemy radio signal was strongest. The point where three or more lines crossed would result in a “fix”, the certified enemy target (Martin, Vietnam, 1). 

Located entirely within the targeted area, the Direction Finding Network was initially thought to be the ideal solution because of its proximity to its target: the Viet Cong, who were imagined as only possessing limited resources like ‘hand-generated, low-powered radios’ (Gilbert, Most Secret War, 8). However, this presumption underestimated their inventiveness. Instead of broadcasting by direct or ground waves that couldn’t travel beyond 15 miles, the Viet Cong forces employed horizontally radiating antennas in the high-frequency bandwidth which bounced signals off the ionosphere. While the DF operators calculated bearings from sky waves, the targets located 15 to 150 miles away produced sky waves with unusually steep angles (greater than 45 degrees), which made calculations difficult and erroneous. The enemy’s location could hardly be configured, since they fell off the known bandwidth: rendering them spectral. Accurate bearings were hard to come by, and there was ‘little wisdom’ in launching a tactical operation against the Viet Cong at ill-defined locations (ibid). The R&D team was tasked with modifying the existing equipment as well as with fabricating special antennas for improving communications in the forested terrain of Southeast Asia (Bergen, Military Communications, 61-62). Vegetation played a significant role in the disruption of wireless communications, the interference varying according to types of vegetation, geometries of the path, height of the antenna, etc. Even tropical weather, characterized by heavy monsoons, played an important role in altering radio wave propagation (Meng, Lee, Ng, Effects of Tropical Weather, 4023). To counteract such unforeseen problems, the US Army sought to continually develop new, signal-based technologies. By 1963 it had come up with forty-nine new electronic devices for ‘transmitting warnings, signaling aircrafts, and conducting two-way communications’ (Bergen, Military Communications, 62). It also developed ‘flexible antennas’ that could bend within tunnels, and established a ‘railway security net’ with radios installed in every train and ‘forty-five radios located in stations along the railroad line between Saigon and Quang Tri’ (ibid). 

In April 1961, Paul Katz designed a communications program called the village and hamlet radio system: a portable radio with both civilian and military purposes (ibid). While multiple radios were rejected for being too heavy, complex, or power consuming, Katz designed a simple, lightweight, twenty-watt AM radio that he called TR-20 and later a TR-5 model, keeping with the low power requirements of a smaller model and smaller distances. It was powered by easily obtainable flashlight batteries, and had a range of fifteen kilometers. It was a portable radio that could do far more than what one could expect from other military radios. While Radio Industries (a subsidiary of Hallicrafters)[1] successfully won the bid to manufacture and deliver Katz’s radios, Katz himself setup a training and installing facility where mobile units would teach residents of hamlets to alert the South Vietnamese army to the presence of Viet Cong soldiers nearby (ibid, 63). In March 1962, Viet Cong (VC) forces attempted to stall the setting up of a radio in the village of An Xuyen, a Viet Cong stronghold close to Saigon. While a small security force held the Viet Cong forces off, the technicians installed the radio and called the district headquarters, which in turn hastily dispatched an army unit, forcing the VC forces to abandon their ambush plans. This galvanized the US army and more installations were taken up. As Radio installations successfully grew in number, Secretary McNamara’s concern ‘passed from the village to the smallest government unit, the hamlet’ (Ibid, 65). The South Vietnamese government, as a consequence, initiated the Strategic Hamlet Program ‘to deny the Viet Cong access to the rural populace by moving the people into fortified hamlets’ (Ibid). Worried that the isolated hamlets would be unable to call for warnings or assistance, McNamara wanted radios installed in them. By early 1963 over two thousand hamlets and villages were connected by radio to district and province capitals, each dot on the map connected by airwaves. These government-installed radios in the hamlets came to represent a symbolic pride. Their inauguration was often attended with much ceremony and fanfare, ritual and worship, so much so that the village chief acquired additional prestige and commonly kept the radio in his home (Ibid, 64).

What the hamlet and radio system took forward was the Cold War Network set up by the Western powers: the penetration of communication systems into the remotest corners of the planet, forging what would later become the civilian network society (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 175). This was the beginnings of a mesh of global spy stations, itinerant, decentralized yet connected to established signal intelligence bases. The Hamlet Radio setup represented how the Cold War established a network of listening posts from which no hamlet would be excluded and therefore, insecure. In this cold war strategy of containment, every last mile was covered to gather data and ‘intelligence.’ This is a process that Friedrich Kittler described as the beginnings of an information society ‘with the building of a network that connected sensors (radar), effectors (jet planes), and nodes (computers)’ (Kittler, Cold War Networks, 183). McLuhan’s Global Village was not, then, a mere metaphor about connectivity. It was part of the lived reality of South Vietnamese villagers from the early 60s. The Village and Hamlet Radio System became an infinitesimal dot on the radar of a dome of global technological oversight, a closed world, ‘within which every event was interpreted as part of a titanic struggle between the superpowers’ (Edwards, Closed World, 1). The Village and Hamlet Radio System also pointed to the becoming-microof equipment, a miniaturization that led to equipments, here the portable radio, being easily embedded in the natural habitat of communities. This embeddedness in turn produced the seamless man-machine integration necessary founding of the closed world system (ibid).

This slow march towards complete containment by the Americans, however, did not go unnoticed by the Viet Cong forces, who therefore made these radios their prime targets during their ambushes on the hamlets (Bergen, Military Communications, 65). The South Vietnamese, as a result, kept a large stock of spare radios handy, easily replenishing them soon after the hamlets were ransacked. By January 1963, ‘seventeen South Vietnamese radio operators had been killed and twenty-seven radios lost or damaged’ (ibid). The Viet Cong saw the radios as a threat because they improved the security of the hamlets, fortifying them with airwaves and thus securing them with instant connectivity to US military headquarters. The battle over land had consequently become the battle over air waves: not merely the symbolic battle over propagandist radio transmissions, but the physical capture and control of signals, and radio infrastructures as material, everyday realityThis, as Kittler argues, was a ‘geopolitical struggle for the waves, but ones that are of the electromagnetic spectrum’ (Kittler, Cold War Networks, 183). In other words, while the cold war mediated by literature and cinema continued to romanticize the heroic exploits of its suave male spies, in ‘scientific and technological reality’ the war was more about the technical control over the broadcast, transfer and interception of signals. This shifting of the battle site to the control of airwaves indicates that the Cold War established of National Security Agency’s machinic operations of surveillance which entailed a gradual displacement of the heroic human spy from the forefront of intelligence agencies (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 168). HUMINT or Human Intelligence, even at the level of the hamlet, would have had to interface with SIGINT (Signals Intelligence). The days of heroic ‘cloak and dagger’ espionage were being replaced by the war of machines against machines, the search for the uncanny enemy could now only be managed at the more-than-human scale at which wars were being fought. Such a replacement, however, was pervasive even through the Cold War – through innumerable village radio operators and signal interceptors at intelligence bases, hearing the radio interceptions ad nauseam, day in and day out. Wars were being fought on the turf of electromagnetic radiation – the control of air as target (ibid, 180). Even Radio Direction Finding (RDF), once the domain of territorial capture of signals had become Airborne (A-RDF), with radio antennas fitted to airplanes that hovered around the skies above the forested highlands. The additional ‘element’ in war, the skies became a medium utilized in every which way: as carrier of chemical warfare (Agent Orange), as carrier of electromagnetic signals. It was the ‘groundless ground of the air’ that increasingly determined intelligence and tactical operations in South Vietnam (Ibid, 181). Indeed, military space was no longer solely about the conquering of terrestrial space. It instead focused on the non-human habitat of the skies, a distancing from the Earth that produced new geo-political realities.

With this last mile connectivity through radiowaves, the air came to be haunted with signals:  the ‘ephemeral and yet material continuity of the Cold War’ (ibid, 167). The empty space of air became increasingly occupied: the spectral space of air possessed by electromagnetic waves (ibid).[2] It is here in the damp moist tropical conditions of tropical Vietnam that air once again became a recording medium, a vast library “on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered” (Babbage, The Nineteenth Bridgewater Treatise, 36). With its electromagnetic emissions, air became a vessel, a medium that “forever recorded” the movements of each particle, becoming an archive of ‘inscribed past events, documents, monuments and discussions’ (ibid). The hamlets joined a planetary imagination of ‘Cold War continuity’ through the networked dispersal of recording media.. It is, as Parikka argues, not ‘an archive not only of written documents and human voices but of intelligence machinery inscribing in encrypted language their machine-processed signals’ (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 170). This air of the imagined archive was ‘full of signals’, ‘undecipherable to humans,’ but only quantifiable, trackable and measurable by machines ‘similar to those by which they were created’ (Ibid). Signals, like the air, slip by us unnoticed, while revealing themselves to us only through media infrastructures like cell towers, radartowers, and radio antennae. Cold War communication was not merely ‘communication aimed at humans and decipherable with hermeneutics’ but was one that could be captured only at the ‘level of the technical apparatus’: radio frequencies both invisible and inaudible floating in the sky (ibid, 174). The War had thus become a ghostly war: with signals penetrating the last of the villages, the air haunted by electromagnetic waves unseen and unheard, perceptible only to machines. 

2. Ramasun and the Ghostly Apparatus of the Vietnam War

Secret operations are tactical, technological and organizational, and yet, present somewhere, traceable in a networked infrastructure (Ibid, 170). That is, while signals are ghostly and ephemeral, escaping the eye and the ear, in hamlet radio systems, signal intelligence bases and telecommunications infrastructures their presence can be detected, discoverable due to the sheer physical existence that surveillance infrastructures necessitate. The numerous ‘architectures of secrecy’ – that is the signals intelligence bases that ‘house humans and technical media signals’ – are one such geophysical location where such ubiquitous surveillance takes place (ibid). Ramasun Station, a SIGINT base close to Udon Thani and the Royal Udon Thani Air Force base in Thailand, was one such “architecture of secrecy” set up by the American government during the war (and after years of disbandment being converted into an amusement park today). It housed the AN/FLR-9,a type of very large circular array of “Wullenweber” antennaewhich were erected at eight locations during the Cold war for direction finding of top priority targets [Figure 1]. The worldwide network of AN/FLR-9 antennae, known as “Iron Horse”, could locate High Frequency communications almost at a planetary scale because of the exceptionally large size of its outer reflecting screen, and was commonly referred to as the “Elephant Cage” for its visual likeness (AN/FLR-9 Operation and Service Manual, 1). Ramasun’s antenna array was composed of three concentric rings of antenna elements. Each ring of elements received RF signals for an assigned portion of the 1.5 to 30-MHz radio spectrum (Ibid). Here, the architecture points to the primary function of such constructions: ‘a safeguard against the weather as well as living threats from others’ (ibid). The US Air Force in Thailand saw the main threat to its operations in the ‘small-scale sapper attacks using satchel charges’ that could disrupt flight operations (ibid). While several such attacks were thwarted between 1968 and 1973, it increasingly became a US Army imperative to clear the “ring of defense” with herbicides to increase visibility, especially before a fecund monsoon season when vegetal growth became viral and could not be halted (ibid). Let us give a sample of the scale of clearing operations. Around 555-gallon drums of herbicidal chemicals with US markings were housed in the petro-stores area of the motor pool, with resupply assumed to be coming from the Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base. A Thai maintenance crew constantly cut and sprayed defoliant around the ‘antennae and Operations compound’ to minimize interference. While defoliants were sprayed in 55-gallon drums mounted on the back of a small Toyota truck, small-time Thai gardeners also used primitive hand-held herbicide dispensers around the Service Support area in order to beautify the Station (ibid, 4-5). Apart from using defoliants on a purely security issue, the infamous Agent Orange was also used to clear the land from vegetation that could interfere with signal propagation of large signal interceptors and radars.[3] Architectures and environments were thus organized around their ‘usefulness for signals, [and] not just humans’ (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 177). While buildings needed to offer enclosures for media and signal processing, their exteriors had to be seamlessly open for the direction-finding (or D/F) equipment to locate the position of enemy emitters. With its large concentric rings of antennae poles, and numerous operators holed up in a central circular bunker, Ramasun offered a temporary home for the circulation of signals, its brutish structures implicitly aware of the other spectrums ‘that penetrate the mute walls and open its surface to other sorts of less solid investigations’ (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 178). Bunkers and bases were thus never neutral walls, but ones teeming with waves and energies in a life parallel to the humans.

Between him, his translator friend RJ, and a 05 dittybopper (a radio interceptor), MH Burton (a spy who served at Ramasun Camp) found the early weeks of 1970 pretty unexciting (Burton, Ramasun Files, 11-14). The midnight shift was moving along as usual. In the listening station, listless nights like this were often spent chitchatting with fellow translators and decoders, while the radio and morse code interceptors did their work unattended, producing a ghostly, constant level of hum. Around 0530 hours, several pages of Q-signals…QRX, QRU, QRS, //calling//calling//calling// started flooding the room. It took fifteen for the radio messages were finally decrypted: “Military coup in progress in Cambodia. Army units in transit from airport to downtown Phnom Penh at 0510 hours as reported by Laotian Embassy in PP to VT at 0540 hours…” It was, as Burton fondly recollected later, his first CRITIC, messages that demand immediate attention; messages that could even wake the US President up! (Burton and RJ immediately followed it up on the signals and communications chain). Burton and RJ’s timely intervention (they immediately forwarded their message up the chain, enabling the American government to make urgent diplomatic decisions), however, reveals the fundamental basis of Signals Operations: that the very basis of macro-temporal human decisions are built upon the micro-temporal speeds of signals that escape human phenomenological capacities, (Parikka, The Signal Haunted Cold War, 180). If bunker walls are spaces inhabited by electromagnetic waves that appear beyond our human perceptual schema, then temporally too they occupy a bandwidth that humans cannot come to terms with. Signals operate at speeds that ‘far outstrip our cognitive processing, operating as ghosts between us as integral subjects and objects of any mediated perception. In other words, Ramasun may be haunted today because of their state of disuse, but as we argue, Ramasun has always already haunted from the onset, its air full of signals “that connect not to human utterances” but to a “machinic agencement that functions by way of microtemporal signal operations” (ibid, 180-181). Specifically designed for signal transmissions, the bunkers of Ramasun were at once teeming with signals that moved at micro-temporal speeds that computing or data processing requires, operating subliminally against the macro time of history which they were enacting into existence. Ramasun, and other such military infrastructure, relayed a shift from architectures of human bodies to those of signal processes and fundamentally designed to convey, transmit and enhance signals transmission. These signals are real hauntings that escape our senses and are sensed as paranormal messages channeling themselves on early computer screens, radio antennae and message encrypting/decrypting machines. These sound and image signals that move wirelessly escape our sensory preoccupation, either moving as electromagnetic waves that ‘appear’ without material substance, or mediating through a seemingly lifeless air, haunt the skies and beyond.[4] Ramasun’s machines were possessed by dots and dashes appearing constantly on paper rolls, by fading dots of light that suggested something was still there in the cabinet even when cryptographers had decided to have an idle chat. In Ramasun, there were ghosts in the machines, with “technologies serving as either uncanny electronic agents or as gateways to electronic otherworlds” (Sconce, Haunted Media, 1). Here machines and architectures were living, animate, and possessed, in a scale beyond, which humans could not perceive.

Perhaps then, the realization that military architectures have been haunted from the outset makes them ruined sites of fascination and intrigue today. When in September last year, the ghostly ruins of Ramasun were opened up to the public, we attempted to discover a ghost, derelict and in disuse, now being refashioned into an amusement park.[5] After a short jeep ride through the thriving green forests, we arrived next to the crumbling buildings, emptied radio stations, and unused fighter jets rusting in their midst. We were ferried around by young Thai army officers who seemed to have no attachments to the history of the place (Ramasun was discrete US operation and rarely was the Thai military allowed to intervene), the place teeming with “young men tasked through commands to man the area” (Suess, personal communication, 2019). Daily routines surrounded the site, as the ghostly ruins were manned by idle guards, officers who used the area as their jogging track, and young soldiers who were busy digging pathways and gardens for the proposed beautification project. Behind the ghostly murmurs of the Cold War, Ramasun appeared both banal and opaque today – its secret passageways hiding as much as it intended to relay.

3. Hauntings of the Ghost Tapes

During their time near the Nui Ba Den Mountain in 1970 the 6th PSYOP battalion enlisted an Air Force pilot to fly to Bangkok, who recorded an actual roaring of a tiger from the Dusit zoo. They then spread the rumour that a tiger was on the prowl, ready to attack the Viet Cong forces hiding about in the forests. The PSYOP battalion mixed the tiger roar into a tape called ‘the wandering soul’, a 2-man team got up on the mountain, and played the tape over the course of the night. Following this, a 150 strong battalion of the Viet Cong forces came off that mountain and surrendered (ibid). Such was the belief in the power of Ghost Tapes/“Wandering Soul”, the ability to ‘multiply the fear in the heart of the enemy’ (Friedman, The Wandering Soul Tape of Vietnam).

If the air across hamlets and villages were being haunted by operation signals unperceivable to the human senses, then thanks to the Operation Wandering Soul ghosts were coming into existence in forests and riverine backwaters via the media technologies mobilized by war. Operation Wandering Soul was an American Psychological Operation (psy-op) sonic tactic in which boats, helicopters or soldiers with backpacks would wander the forests at night, broadcasting tapes that called out to the dead, playing on a Vietnamese-Buddhist belief that a soul whose body ‘has not been properly buried by its family is damned to keep wandering in the afterworld’ (Muller, Radiophonics of the Vietnam War). Out of the night sky ‘came a warbling whine,’ Vietnamese-Buddhist funerary music that combined bagpipes and cymbals tuned to long dirges and harrowing wind sounds, engulfing the listener from all sides (Friedman, The Wandering Soul Tape of Vietnam). Then came a snippet of dialogue between mother and child: “Mother, where is daddy?” “Don’t ask me questions. I am very worried about him.” “But I miss Daddy very much. Why is he gone so long?” This was followed by a manly voice, most probably of the father, recollecting how after his death in the war, his soul was at unease, wandering about the forsaken, war-torn land as he missed the wailings of his young children back in his countryside. The tape concluded with a propagandistic narrative (often accompanied by the distribution of flyers) urging the Viet Cong soldiers to make wise decisions and return to their families before it got too late. “Oh, the child’s laugh is such a dear sweet sound” it said, “but the child’s cry is such a sad and mournful sound.” Thereafter the music and voices that faded slowly into the distance and the platoon settled back to a restless sleep. Operation Wandering Soul were the ‘haunting sounds said to represent the souls of the dead were played in order to perturb the superstitious snipers, who, while recognizing the artificial source of the wailing voices, could not help but dread that what they were hearing was a premonition of their own post-death dislocated soul’ (Goodman, Sonic Warfare, 19).The Ghost Tapes were, then, phantom voices without a referent body, an acousmetre par-excellence. The acousmetre, as Michel Chion defines it, is this sonic phenomenon whose relationship to the screen (or any visible source) “involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation,” a gap between an audible source and its concurrent visuality (Chion, “Phantom Audio-Vision”, 129). Like the floating ghost without a coherent body, the acousmetre in the cinema is not on the inside, as the image of the voice’s source—the body, the mouth—is withheld. Nor is it outside, belonging to a definable source out there, outside of one’s frame or view, but still recognized. The acousmetre, as Chion argues, is in this non-place between the inside and the outside, oscillating, even as it tends to finally become localized in a body. Bathing the forested trenches, the Ghost Tapes were a specific kind of an acousmetre. Firstly, even without a body, it intended to see all (trace its elusive enemy, the Viet Cong snipers), second, it reserved the power of omniscience (OWS was broadcast in land, water and air); and third, it exerted an omnipotence to act on the situation (the Americans reserved their sovereignty to kill Viet Cong soldiers upon being fired or accept their surrender when so).

However, for the Communist forces, unbelieving of spirits and phantoms, the acousmetre was already undermined and dispossessed of its mysterious powers. The Viet Cong readily attributed a body (the loudspeaker, the Americans and South Vietnamese trenches and boats) to this free-floating voice, giving it a synchrony of audition/vision. They were thus able to capture (often through real firing), domesticate, and “embody” her (and humanize her as well) (Ibid, 180-181). For all its simulacral spectrality, this de-acousmatization so often gave OWS its human fate, making it ordinary, fated and vulnerable to fire power. The effectiveness of Operation Wandering Soul is still debated, or rather, the kinds of effect it had is still very much speculated upon. While some reports claimed that the Viet Cong easily recognized the artificiality of the tape and sought to fire upon the helicopter that played it (in turn getting fired at by the Americans), others claimed it indeed resulted in defections on the Viet Cong side, or trepidations amongst the common village folk. The Ghost Tapes symbolized the sonic invasion of land: those controlling the airs also sought to control the land.While by its end the Operation’s effects were contested, what is agreed upon is the economy of affects that it produced, especially the ‘panic-inducing violence of high-volume frequencies’ (Ibid, 19). Wandering Soul, apart from recording and mixing different Buddhist chants and funerary musical pieces, also experimented with amplitude and frequency. “Audible and inaudible frequencies were ‘pumped’ into the forest at the Vietcong at high-volume levels (120 decibels and higher)” (Ibid). Helicopters were armed with a public address system and a 350 watt sound amplifier,that could direct intelligible speech to a range of 2.5 miles.  Moreover, the amplifiers could unleash siren frequencies of between 500 and 5000 hertz and induce panic. With rumours and sounds of roaring tigers often added to this mix, its effectiveness through the night increased, becoming the sole intensified sensation that the forest was bathed in. Sometimes the sonic sensations were intensified with visual spectacles that accompanied the tape broadcasts.On moonlit nights, the PSYOP battalions would use SEAL TIARA (Target Illumination and Recovery Aid) grenades (phosphorescent rifle-fired grenades), fire them high when the tapes started broadcasting. As the phosphorous started to fall, the breeze would catch it and it would look like a ghost in the sky (Friedman, The Wandering Soul Tape of Vietnam). As ghosts began to occupy the sonic and the visual-scape of the forest, mediated through war technologies, the war began to address an ontological formulation of Vietnamese culture: the belief in spirits and ghosts as constitutive of the very way of life (Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, 16). Life as ensconced in bodies were split between a material body and an immaterial soul informing the nature of being and becoming in the world. Ghosts were then the residues of these spirits, having departed from the material encasing of flesh. Ghosts in Vietnamese are referred to with various names (ma, hon, hon ma, bong ma, linhhon, oanhon, bachlinh etc.), translated in literature typically as “lost souls” or “wandering souls,” whose death had but taken place in unusual circumstances like that of war (hence giving the Operation its name) (Ibid) . Ghosts were those that were dead, but not really settled in the am (the world of the dead); they were not alive either, still not having had left the world of the living. It is this that the tapes mention: of a warring soldier-father, wandering the forlorn countryside, neither in the Am(realm of the dead), nor at peace in this world having seen the heedless violence it produces. In Vietnamese conception, a ghost (of the father here) is a nguoingoai– a term for strangers or outsiders – a product of “bad,” painful and violent death away from home in a manner the Vietnamese call the “death in the street” (chetduong) (Ibid, 20). Ghosts constitute a panoply of souls with various backgrounds in historical life, all thrown into a common fate by way of divine judgement or fate. Forced into mobility, they symbolize displacement – a rootlessness that characterizes their social ostracization in their afterlife (ibid). These qualities of displacement and diversity differentiate the ghosts from those of ancestral spirits whose “good death” – the non-violent, ritually appropriated “death at home” (chetnha) – “are permanently settled in the social world according to the genealogical and spatial order” (ibid). Ghosts thus occupy “the open space of death,” which is the ‘imagined life-world of the tragic, non-ancestral, unsettled, and unrelated spirits of the dead’ (Ibid, 21). Ghosts are entitled to ritual commemoration on the polluted world of the street, while ancestors occupy the spatially delineated of the pure house, their world turned inwards. It is this very duality between ghosts and ancestors that Operation Wandering Soul plays upon, narrating a story of a man who with his death in the war, without a proper ancestral burial, is a ghost, a nomadic soul wandering hither tither. What he rues is not only the missed opportunity of a happy fulfilling life with his sons, but also the possibility of being an ancestor, revered both in life and death. OWS thus narrates from the position of “open space of death”, the tragic unsettled world of ghosts, and yet by way of identification reminds soldiers of the ghost’s ghostly other – the powerful, socially ordained ancestor. The OWS thus reinforces that a social order created on the basis of this war is a profane world, one lacking the orderliness and reverence of filial piety that ancestrality offers, a socially esteemable death.

Vietnamese German artist Sung Tieu’s 2017 video work No Gods, No Mastersperforms a mode of transposition, moving between the haunted forests of Mỏ Cày and Núi Bà Đen, and the intimate domestic space to engage with the history of Operation Wandering Soul/Ghost Tape No. 10 [Figure 2]. Tieu’s film plays with the obscuring of vision that the forest necessarily produces, through images of almost-skeletal foliage that continually appear and disappear from view. As the film progresses, images from Tieu’s own family home, of a group of people sitting in a circle as they perform a private ritual scroll by, cast in a similarly ghastly light. Throughout the film, the images are accompanied by eerie tones from the forests and from traditional Vietnamese funerary music, which become increasingly hollowed out, leaving only but a spectral trace. If ghosts are spirits who suffer from forced mobility, having to wander the periphery of worldly realms, perhaps ghosts have a wandering eye, an unfixed gaze, unmoored from human perception. With the funerary music of the Ghost Tapes floating in, gradually engulfing the whole field of the image, the camera moves through the forested landscape of Mỏ Cày, floating through riverine canals, palm fronds and tall grassy bushes. Between monochromatic images of the forested life and its nocturnal ‘negative’ inversions, a hen crows, water turns to static, and fronds are reduced to pointillist outlines. As images continually scroll on the screen, it embodies the displacement that ghosts suffer, at the margins of the world, ‘without a site to anchor their memory on,’ a nomadic floating gaze akin to that of a stranger, finding no place to settle into. Moreover, with the images inverted, the landscape is rendered into a liminal object, a negative image that conveys a material object and yet never fails to declare its immaterial, phantasmal status. The images imbue the ghostly spirit, a liminal quality where they (and the objects on screen) are neither entirely separated from the ordinary world nor yet subsumed into the spirit world. Like the ghost, the image is both rendered with and without a material referent, both of this world and beyond.  The Ghost tapes then are sometimes muffled, at other times diffused, pressured into intermittent silence even. Sometimes these are noises of presence, sometimes cracklings and at other times plip-plops of water only. Without the loudspeakers, and without the ensuing gun fire, the ghost tapes turn ghostly, a haunting acousmetre, disembodiedly roving the landscape. One hears the Ghost Tapes as if they seem to come from the other side, heard and broadcast by an immaterial ear, ‘liberated from the hurly-burly of our human world’ (Chion, Phantom Audio-Vision, 123). Ghastly, harrowing wind-sounds that belong to more-than-human scapes, they seem to be calling out to us, ‘resonating in a limpid atmosphere’ (ibid). One hears the tapes without consciously realizing it; nothing in the image points to or engages with them. The sounds call to another dimension: perhaps it has ‘gone elsewhere’, disengaged from the present. What is left is a disquieting murmur, a drone of the world, at once close and discomfiting. Sung Tieu recreates the hallucinatory, nocturnal bearings of Operation Wandering Soul in the forest, not from the point of view of the belligerent opponents, but from those of the departed, witnessing the war, and the concominant rituals, from an etherland. Like a ghost who can never fully embody the space of the ritual, nor can be fully discarded, the Ghost tapes linger on perhaps between signals and noise, both occupying the predominant sonicscape of the film as well as receding from it. Without a material referent, the ghost tapes become spectral at once, haunting from afar, but also seeping everywhere – becoming environmental almost. Perhaps  as Tieu points out, OWS’ long term effects can be sought in the history of sonic environmentalism (the creation of surround sound in different spatial configurations),the practice that by the time of the Vietnam war could be attributed to the birthings of portable music systems (portable backpacks for the soldiers), or surround sound systems (in helicopters, and boats) seeing the light of the day. 

Fig. 2: Stills from Sung Tieu’s No Gods, No Masters.
3.5 Conclusion: Conscripting the Ghost

At a time when the Americans were broadcasting the Ghost Tapes in Vietnam, the Filipino ethnomusicologist and avant-garde composer Jose Maceda was experimenting with the use of electronic devices and adopting portable handheld devices (Taylor, A History of the Audience, 1).[6]His interest in portable players and speakers spoke to the early proliferation of portable radio, speakers and cassette players (a development that the military took much interest in – as evident in the Village and Hamlet Radio systems, and Operation Wandering Soul where the tapes were often broadcast from their backpacks). In Maceda’s piece Cassettes 100, performers held tape players streaming different music and recorded sounds while moving around the concert venue (in 1971 it was the central lobby of Cultural Centre of the Philippines) in choreographed patterns [Figure 3]. Like the Ghost tapes that recorded a plethora of sounds, chants and dialogues, here too players emanated “what sounded like soft raindrops, leading to rattling bamboos, climaxing into screeching insects and other assorted sounds such as those produced by gong, clappers, shells and human voices, ending in an abrupt silence with all the performers lying prone on the floor as if lifeless or in a trance.” Maceda envisioned his piece to symbolize “the participation of local peoples in a modern technologizing world,” a musical performance in which the cassette tape recorder represented an “easily affordable tool for ordinary ‘third world’ societies in gaining access to artificially reinforced forms of human communication” (Santos, Jose Montserrat Maceda, 141). Moreover, like the Ghost tapes where the soldiers were often ‘welded’ to the portable loudspeakers, “in Cassettes 100, the machine was transformed to represent a body”: both the machine becoming an extension of the human body (moving to the tandem with the body), and the human body an extension of the portable speaker (ibid). Both in the Ghost tapes and in Cassettes 100, a single sound did not exist for itself but represented along with 99 or sometimes even more, a ‘complex, yet integrated ‘whole”’ (Taylor, A History of the Audience, 2). Playing on either side of the South China Sea, both these pieces created polyphonic texts: ‘a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses,’ ’with equal emphasis, pronouncement and foregrounding of each sound, each strand (Bakhtin, Polyphonic Novel, 6-7).

Fig. 3: Nathaniel Gutierrez’s images from the 1971 performance of Cassettes 100.

If the Ghost Tapes were heard in tandem with the forest sounds, dispersed through the many loudspeakers, Maceda also produced “atmospheres, waves, clouds, fogs… blocks, screens and windows of sound” through the dispersal of sound among so many uncontrolled speakers (ibid). However, unlike the Ghost tapes, which reprocessed and reshaped sounds in the electronically in the studio, Maceda made use of “human energies and the physical space of town plazas and parks to reprocess the sounds in semi-improvised dispersion schemes” (ibid). That is, while it shared the mobile choreography of its performers, it substantially diverted from the tapes in that Maceda believed in distribution and participation as means to compose concrete music, transform it from an raw mélange of sounds. Cassettes 100 was formative for the genre of ‘distributed music,’ harnessing a mass of handheld devices as a collective musical instrument, albeit ‘devices which are held by performers who also double up as its audience’ (ibid). Unlike the tapes that heavily relied on its magical efficacy to tap into the fear and beliefs of the Viet Cong snipers, Maceda created a musical experience “in which audience, performers, participants, space, and sounds play[ed] equal roles in both the compositional, experiential and re-creative processes” (ibid).

Cassettes 100 was orchestrated against the backdrop of Ferdinand E. Marcos’ rise to power, the Filipino dictator who was to declare Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972, a few months away from Maceda’s performance. Within the scope of the performance, Cassettes 100 provided an occasion for a “reconfiguration of public space and different articulations of agency within the bounds of an authoritarian, state-sanctioned institution.” The grand lobby of the Cultural Center had been draped with rolls of white toilet paper and panels of newspaper that bore tales of Marcos’ state inflicted violence in the countryside. While floodlights flashed at six-minute intervals participants circulated, interacted and moved with the hundred cassette players as images were projected onto the surfaces of paper and walls, blurring the distinction between participant and public amidst a chaotic milieu. The 100 participants were given specific bodily movements to perform but also had moments of complete improvisation. The specific bodily performance were ritualistic and slow at some moments and fast in others.  As participants moved in clusters or rather communities (Barayangsas Maceda called them), the polyphonic sound came to represent a communitarian post-democratic ethos at the doorsteps of an authoritarian Filipino regime, and its claims of perfect national unity. Performed once, and sublimated into public memory thereafter, Cassettes 100became a spectre that would haunt the Marcos regime (despite being commissioned and supported by Imelda Marcos). Like a haunting that refuses to materialize, Maceda’s music was never present, perennially shifting, in-becoming.Nevertheless it sought to enter the Filipino public consciousness (and disrupt the closure and self-presence of) whatever is present, real, and there (the Filipino dictatorship).Marcos’s hegemony was thus built on the suppression of this haunting, a spectre that seeped through the Filipino public consciousness as anti-Marcos protests intensified through the early 80s, culminating in his ouster in 1986. Jacques Derrida’s claim about the spectre’s messianic force informs Maceda’s legacy, a seepage of the force through music, and its transient forces in Cassettes 100. The spectre is the radical Other, one whose spirit like the perennially shifting music of Cassettes 100 can never be captured, given the strictures of a particular form and definition. And yet, as Operation Wandering Soul argues, not all spirits are messianic, some have been captured and documented in tapes, given shape, and broadcasted for nights across the forest for propaganda. Is there a space then where we may begin to think about the conscription of ghosts? How seemingly immaterial forces may intern under the state – become its subjects – become regulated, measured, and controlled? Can the ghost then be thought of beyond its radical configurations, and begun to be imagined in all its shapes and forces, even as those who might be called upon to serve the state?Perhaps this is the space opened up by the media ghostings of the Vietnam war: a war which was haunted in its very present becoming, not merely after the fact in its afterlife.



1. The Hallicrafters Company founded in Chicago, 1932, was one of the primary manufacturers and suppliers of radio equipment to the US Army from the inter-war years up until the Vietnam war. 

2. Paradoxically enough, it is air, the medium that permeates the knowledge of everything else, that hides its own dynamics from plain sight: it is the most transparent medium that acquires a certain degree of opaqueness, incalculability and mysteriousness. Not surprisingly then, air is where spirits often reside, floating like clouds, fleeting as material and immaterial object. The Latin word anima – from where has evolved words like animal, animism, unanimous etc. – itself signifies ‘air’, ‘wind’ ‘breath’. Air is ghostly, present everywhere and yet absent, in the middle, between death and life, material and immaterial,  “a substance regarded as the means of trans- mission of a force or effect . . . a surrounding or enveloping substance.”If media are more fundamentally “vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence” then elements of nature such as air, form conditions of possibility, its “infrastructure,” as it were. Air, is therefore medial, once the immersive base, intimate, and yet cosmic, palpable and connected to a cosmic ether. Air enables movement and perception (hearing, sight, and smell), as well as communication, travel, situatedness, and dislocation, inasmuch as it joins the members of societies and cultures in a common climate. (Horn, “Air as Medium,” 6–25).

3. Rob Nixon in his work on war and its environmentalist impacts argues that the visual discourse around war moves through visceral photograph: ‘ a torso shredded by a roadside bomb; a bloodied peasant spread-eagled in a ditch; a soldier, cigarette dangling nonchalantly, crashing his boot into a dead woman’s head.’ Even anti-war protests are mobilized on the empathy that these affective photographs generate. In the context of Vietnam, or rather Anti-vietnam war protests in Amerca, such was the power of photographs of people charred to death with napalm. Nixon furthers that in order to thrall audiences with speed and spectacle, media lacks the attention span to follow war-inflicted catastrophes that take years or generations to exact their toll. Such is the case of Agent Orange, a herbicide that while clearing the forests of their cover, have seeped deep into the blood, soil and water of the region and has created long duree environmental and health effects for all those who have been in contact with it, contaminated by it. Forty years after Vietnam’s official victory in the war, Agent Orange is the spectral force that haunts the landscape of the nation, both viscous, sticking to matter, but also nonlocalized – distributed and everywhere and disjointed  in time – persisting longer than one would have imagined. (Nixon, Slow Violence, 200)

4. Here the word has been ‘appears’ has been italicized for the irony it evokes. That is while signals and data are nonlocalized and can pass through and penetrate nearly everywhere, the hardware component needs to be stabilized and protected by old structures of state sovereignty, depend on the specificities of the terrain. This is a tension that clearly exists in contemporary discourses of ghosting. That even ghosts mediated by media infrastructures are in fact embedded in them, and as we shall see in the next section, embodied in them as well. (Sconce, Haunted Media)

5. An ethnography of the place, are a form of hacker tourism, as Neal Stephenson coined it in one of his short stories: “a form of visiting sites of infrastructures of information networks, surveillance and technology.”

6. “The audience involvement occurs at the conuence of several 20thcentury developments: electronic broadcast technologies provide new modes of distributing sound; and multichannel speaker arrays have established a paradigm for placing many individual electronic sound sources around an audience. A further contribution comes from the rise of participatory art as a genre in the 1950s and 1960s, when artists such as Allan Kaprow and Fluxus integrated the audience into their Happenings. By distributing performance instructions to the audience and considering them participatory agents, Fluxus and other artists established a framework through which an audience can help generate an artwork. As part of this movement, Laurie Anderson created an early example of a distributed sonic artwork when she performed Car Horn Symphony (1969), conducting an audience at a drive-in theater in New Hampshire to sound their car horns in a collaborative concert.”

Works Cited
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The Forest Curriculum is an itinerant and nomadic platform for indisciplinary research and mutual co-learning. It proposes to assemble a located critique of the Anthropocene via the naturecultures of zomia, the forested belt that connects South and Southeast Asia. The Forest Curriculum works with artists, researchers, indigenous organizations and thinkers, musicians, activists. It was founded and is co-directed by curators Abhijan Toto and Pujita Guha. Abhijan Toto is an independent curator and researcher, who has previously worked with the Dhaka Art Summit, Bellas Artes Projects, Manila and Council, Paris. He was nominated for the 2019 Lorenzo Bonaldi Prize at the GAMeC, Bergamo. Pujita Guha is currently pursuing her PhD at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The Forest Curriculum collaborates with institutions and organizations in South, Southeast Asia and beyond, including the Ghost:2561 Festival, Bangkok, Thailand; SUGAR Contemporary, Toronto, the DocLab, Hanoi, Vietnam; the TENT Independent Film Festival, Kolkata, India among others.