Members of the Zumwalt family have been proud members of the U.S. military since the Revolution. It was that tradition that led James Zumwalt to join his father and brother in the Navy, before transferring to the Marines. During his 26 years in uniform, the now-retired lieutenant colonel saw service in three conflicts — Vietnam, Panama and the first Persian Gulf war.
It was Vietnam, however, that ultimately launched him on an unexpected journey long after the U.S. abandoned that country. His trek was sparked by the loss of his brother, Elmo, who had fought there. Originally angry at the Vietnamese for the death of his older sibling, Zumwalt’s new book, Bare Feet, Iron Will: Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields, traces his change of heart as he returned to southeast Asia. In this email exchange with Battleland, he speaks of what he has learned about yesterday’s wars…and today’s.
Why did you write this book?
It was written in an effort to help readers understand an aspect of the Vietnam war about which I believe we, as Americans, have lost sight. Regardless of the suffering, hardship and tragedy we experienced during that conflict, it was mirrored on the other side of the battlefield as well. There has been virtually nothing written about the war from our enemy’s perspective. I felt an obligation, based on the transition I underwent from anger towards that enemy to gaining an appreciation as to the level of suffering and hardship he endured, to give a voice to his battlefield stories.
Besides duration, how was Vietnam different than Panama or the first Gulf War, which you also fought in?
Both in Panama and the first Gulf War, US military objectives were clear cut and quickly achievable. Therefore, our exit strategy was never in doubt. Additionally because of this, both engagements were met with popular public support.
How much of the internal push for this book came from your family’s sacrifices in Vietnam? Tell us about them.
My family has had a tradition of military service going back to the American Revolution. A Zumwalt served in every war in which our country fought during the 20th century. Therefore, it was not surprising that every male member of my immediate family volunteered to serve in the Vietnam conflict.
We all returned safely from that war—or so we thought. My brother, Elmo, had served as a swift boat commander operating in Vietnam’s narrow waterways. Thirteen years after returning home, Elmo was diagnosed with cancers caused by the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to which he had been exposed in Vietnam. The bitter irony for our family was that Agent Orange was sprayed along those waterways upon the orders of my father, Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., who commanded all US naval forces in Vietnam.
I have discovered when tragedy strikes, it gives rise to an opportunity for those suffering its consequences to convert their personal loss into constructive positive energy or to allow it to transfer into all-consuming negative energy. For my father, it was the former path he took, throwing himself into the Agent Orange issue, working hard to convince the US government to recognize a correlation between exposure to the herbicide and various cancers, managing to win benefits for Vietnam veterans. I, on the other hand, allowed my grief to transfer into negative energy, manifesting itself into anger toward the enemy we had fought there.
In 1994, my father was traveling to Vietnam to meet with its president to discuss the possibility of conducting a joint governmental study on Agent Orange. He asked if I would like to join him. While I was initially reluctant to do so, he suggested such a trip might prove therapeutic. As usual, he was right.
The anger over my brother’s loss quickly faded after having a one-on-one meeting with a Vietnamese general by the name of Nguyen Huy Phan. He began our meeting by extending his condolences for the loss of my brother. As we began to discuss the war and its impact, I noticed he became teary-eyed. He later shared with me that he had lost a brother during the war and had spent 17 years looking for his remains. When the general shared this with me, it was if a light went on inside my head causing me to query, “Was the loss of a loved one any less significant just because it occurred on the other side of the battlefield?” The answer was obvious. The loss of a brother had been just as devastating for the general as it had been for me. Yet the anger I had been harboring against my enemy, the general failed to harbor against his.
Unknowingly, General Phan, in sharing the story about his personal loss with me, caused me to re-think how I viewed the Vietnamese. I decided to return to Vietnam again (and did so more than 50 times) to interview as many of their veterans as possible to gain a better appreciation for how they fought the war and the suffering they endured in doing so. It did not take long for me to understand the principle of universal suffering experienced by all combatants on war’s battlefields. Additionally, it gave me a comprehensive understanding of how patience and ingenuity served them well in fighting a super power.
Little did I realize when the Vietnam conflict claimed my brother in 1988 that it would eventually send me on a journey that would not only enable me to heal my personal wounds from the war but set me on a path to humanize an enemy I had long been unwilling to embrace.
Do you ever to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington? Why or why not? If so, what do you do there?
I have been to The Wall on numerous occasions. My father and I visited the Memorial not long after my brother’s death. Just prior to his own death in January 2000, my father became involved with the “In Memory Memorial, Inc.”— an organization dedicated to recognizing the unrecognized heroes of the Vietnam war. The group sought to have a memorial added to The Wall in remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice but failed to qualify to have their names placed on the Memorial — i.e., those Vietnam veterans who died of war related causes after the war had ended. These included veterans succumbing to Agent Orange-related cancers and to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-related suicides.
My father was unable to complete this mission before his life was cut short by an environmental cancer, like those caused by Agent Orange, typically targeting those in uniform — mesothelioma. As a result, I replaced him in the organization, testifying before both the House and Senate as to why the law needed to be modified in order to allow Vietnam War victims who died after the conflict to be honored as well. Congress agreed such recognition was warranted, in April 2000 authorizing placement of a plaque near The Wall to be added. That “In Memory Plaque”, dedicated on November 10, 2004, bore a simple two-sentence inscription: “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”
Every April, an annual ceremony is held at The Wall to remember those Vietnam veterans who have died since the war of the aforementioned causes and, unfortunately, to recognize a new class of inductees who have achieved “In Memory” recognition, having fallen victim to the war’s impact during the intervening year.
This addition to The Wall provides many of us who have lost loved ones, now commemorated by the Plaque, a place to go to be able to honor and always remember them.
What are the lessons of the Vietnam War for the U.S. military, and the country as a whole? Have we learned those lessons?
The main lesson of the Vietnam War is one, as we fight a new enemy in a new century, we still have failed to fully understand. It is a lesson taught to us more than 2500 years ago by a brilliant Chinese strategist by the name of Sun Tzu. He wrote a book, still in publication today, entitled “The Art of War.” It espouses several principles of leadership a military commander should master before engaging an enemy on the battlefield. One cautions a commander never to engage an enemy on the battlefield unless he knows that enemy first.
So often in the wars we have fought, we have failed to grasp the importance of this principle. Had we mastered it even after the Vietnam war, we would have recognized a key reason why the Vietnamese prevailed during the conflict. We would have recognized in fighting a generation plus of Vietnamese who had fought and defeated the French, the Japanese, the Americans, the Chinese and the Cambodians, we perhaps were fighting Vietnam’s “greatest generation.”
Where are we applying them, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya?
We have failed to learn Sun Tzu’s lesson. But another lesson Vietnam should have taught us is the danger of undertaking military action without a clear-cut exit strategy. Putting aside the reality that every military action will have unique aspects that will impact on any pre-planned exit strategy, the focus should — at a minimum — involve identifying an achievable exit strategy at the outset. Unbelievably, after experiencing the problems we have encountered along these lines in wars such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we choose to inject ourselves into the unrest in Libya — again with no clear exit strategy explained at the outset.
A clearer exit strategy existed prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but quickly went awry once we disbanded the army and police forces, thus creating a vacuum that was quickly filled by instability and Islamic extremism. We managed to disrupt Iraqi nationalism—a card necessary to have in hand to play in order to achieve stability—to pave the way for an Islamic extremism fostering violence and instability.
In Afghanistan — a country devoid of nationalism motivated by tribal interests — it is virtually impossible to design, either before or after taking military action — a sustainable, coherent exit strategy because tribal motivations will always control, oftentimes bending with the wind. The nationalism card is extremely difficult to play in Afghanistan because this tribal mentality has existed for generations — and will continue to do so for generations to come. Not even the iron fist of Genghis Khan could prove successful in maintaining stability in such a country.
Undoubtedly, a 21st century Sun Tzu would have made some different decisions on whether and how to introduce forces onto each of these battlefields.
Are the Viet Cong any different from the Taliban?
The enemy we fought in Vietnam is much different than the enemy we fight today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In interviewing hundreds of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese veterans for my book, I learned their motivations in fighting us on the battlefield were not too much different than ours in fighting them. Just like us, they were motivated to survive the war, to return to loved ones and to live life to its fullest.
The enemy we fight today could not be more different. They are motivated, not to survive on the battlefield, but to die on it — as they believe such a death becomes a springboard for their entry to the afterlife and the heavenly rewards they will receive there.
Sun Tzu’s principle to know our enemy’s mindset mandates we fully appreciate the Islamic extremist mindset and understand of what it — within the confines of its belief structure — is fully capable. It mandates we understand such an extremist mindset, also embraced by Iran’s leaders, justified Tehran’s use of children, during its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, to clear minefields. Prior to sacrificing their lives, these children were presented with plastic keys to wear around their necks, informed the key would open the gates to paradise where they would then be rewarded. Sun Tzu would caution us, if Iranian leaders are capable of sacrificing the lives of their own children in this way, to think about what such an Islamic extremist mindset — whether Taliban or Iranian — has in store for us.
Another difference between the enemy we fought in Vietnam and the enemy we fight today is that, in failing to prevail in Vietnam, we never worried about the enemy following us home. Such is not the case today. Should we lose these wars, the enemy will — and already has started to—follow us home.
Was the Vietnam War a mistake? Why or why not?
The Vietnamese believe the Vietnam war was a mistake of history — i.e., that never again will the Vietnamese have to fight a war with the U.S.
For us, Vietnam was the wrong place to fight a war in Southeast Asia. A series of unfortunate events put both countries on a collision course. Before President Roosevelt died in 1945, he had let it be known he did not favor the French retaining Vietnam as a colony and supported self-determination by the Vietnamese. History played out differently as we went on to support the French after World War II in their struggle to maintain control of Vietnam, continuing that support up through the 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Within a few years, the U.S. began sending advisors to South Vietnam. Fate would lead us from there to a full scale confrontation as mistake after mistake eventually put the U.S. and Vietnam on different sides of the battlefield.
Even America’s first casualty in Vietnam was a mistake. He was an Army officer by the name of A. Peter Dewey. A member of the Office of Strategic Services — the forerunner of today’s CIA — Dewey arrived in Vietnam two days after Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. His assignment was to help search for MIAs and to assist the English general who had just arrived in Saigon in maintaining order in the southern half of Vietnam. As he observed the English general treat the Vietnamese as a conquered people rather than an ally who had helped defeat the Japanese, Dewey voiced his displeasure to Washington. He quickly fell out of favor with the English general, who managed to get Dewey recalled to Washington.
Just before Dewey left for Saigon airport to head home, he filed his last report on Vietnam. In a hauntingly ominous observation, he wrote: “Cochinchina (South Vietnam) is burning; the French and British are finished here, and we ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” Although Dewey’s final report was received in Washington, he never made it home. He was ambushed on the way to the airport by Viet Minh (precursor to the Viet Cong) soldiers who mistook him for a French officer. Dewey not only became the first American post-World War II casualty of Vietnam, but also the first MIA there as well as his body was never recovered.