on September 25, 2016
The Vietnam War was fought a half century ago, yet those who fought in it can never forget – or forgive – its consequences. The scars on the psyches of those who fought there cannot be erased. Each and every one of us who went paid a heavy price whether we fired a shot or not.
It is not easy to understand that war…for one thing politics keeps getting in the way, and for another, it was a lifetime ago. We all seek answers, each in our own way. One man, this reviewer believes, has found the answers to the questions of who this enemy was, and how did he prevail. That man, who fought there, is Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC, Ret. Jim, the second son of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., came home angry, and was made even more so when his older brother, Elmo Zumwalt III died in 1988 of multiple cancers caused by exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. Jim has written a book, Bare Feet, Iron Will – Stories from the other side of Vietnam’s Battlefields.
[Admiral Zumwalt was in command of Naval Forces in Vietnam, and as such had a role in the application of tactical herbicides in the southern part of the Republic of South Vietnam. His son, Elmo III, served in the Riverine Forces where the U.S. Navy patrolled and fought on, and along the many rivers, creeks and estuaries in the southern half of Vietnam. After the death of his son, the retired Admiral went to work researching the links to certain cancers after exposure to Agent Orange. His report to the Veterans Administration in 1990 formed the basis of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, through which tens of thousands of Vietnam Veterans have, and are receiving wartime compensation and medical care.]
Jim Zumwalt decided to do something about his anger. He wanted to know how a third world country could outlast the U.S. in a war where the U.S. forces were basically in control of the battlefields. How did North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, who found only small tactical victories, and never a strategic one, essentially get all it wanted, the absorption of the Republic of South Vietnam into a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. How and why had that domino fallen?
Zumwalt made many trips back to Vietnam and during those trips he conducted 200 interviews of Vietnamese Veterans of the Vietnam War, members of the North Vietnamese military, and the NLF/PLAF [the National Liberation Front and it military wing, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam], otherwise known as the Viet Cong.
His interviewees are surprisingly candid. There is no perceivable gloat, for the war was even more harsh for the Vietnamese people of both countries, than for ours – after all, it was fought there, a half a world away from the United States. What shines through the interviews is a quiet pride that the sense of duty to see through to the end of this effort to “reunify” the two Vietnams was achieved, albeit at great cost in human lives, misery and suffering. The interviews are frank, apparently honest, and will leave the reader asking how could an educated people fight under such primitive conditions.
Perhaps the most telling is the first interview in the book, that of a North Vietnamese doctor, tasked with taking his hospital down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by truck until the American bombs destroyed the trucks and nearly everything in them – medical supplies, surgical instruments, and the like. When they got to their destination by foot, at the junction of the Thailand, Cambodian and Vietnamese borders, they dug a bunker under the earth, and thirty kilometers away they planted a field with vegetables as a source of food, and vitamins, and some medicines. The Army gave them a bag of rice, which was barely enough to sustain the personnel of the hospital. Worse was when the hospital was full of sick and wounded. Finding a water source was an issue. So was protecting themselves from US and South Vietnamese air strikes. But the B-52 raids were the worst. They developed a design for a single person bomb shelter that would provide the kneeling individual the best chance to survive a near miss. What little metal they had, mostly cook pots, unexploded ordnance and some shrapnel, was fashioned into primitive scalpels, and other surgical tools.
And it worked. They even performed brain surgery on some who had head wounds. All in a hole in the ground, and often while their enemy was near, or they were being bombed, or sprayed with Agent Orange. How? Why? Bare Feet, Iron Will!
In another interview, Zumwalt sits with the author of the first book written about the Vietnam War by a North Vietnamese combatant, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. The discussion centers motive to fight. Ninh said, “As a man at seventeen, I had a duty to fight. Our country was divided in two – a festering wound to our nationalistic spirit. We were motivated to fight for unification - our young people rallying under the flag of nationalism…Americans were motivated to fight communism…but we were not communists…I did not feel I was a communist. Americans were fighting nationalists in Vietnam – not communists. But soldiers are the same from country to country. While they have their individual rallying cries, in the end, when we face death, we are really all the same.” [p.211]
That was not what we were told. That is not what our government told us, that is not what our press and media told us. Indeed, the evening news was rife with the term “communists” not with “nationalists.”
Zumwalt inserts a quote from one WW II era U.S. government official who said, “I have never met an American, be he military, OSS, diplomat or journalist, who did not reach the same belief: that Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost, a Vietnamese nationalist.” [p.211]
In other interviews, Zumwalt meets with the commander of the tunnels of Cu Chi which were located outside of Saigon, and discovered that he had ordered an assassination attack on his father, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt; and with the man who claims he captured downed Navy pilot and now US Senator John McCain in a lake in downtown Hanoi.
Other interviews recount the same concept of nationalism, and effectively, he allows the reader to reach the conclusion that these people were not motivated any differently than those in our own Civil War…that the cause to reunite the common peoples of two nations into their historic nation was the goal. It was not political ideology that drove them to war, it was nationalism, and a strong nationalism at that. It resulted in Bare Feet, Iron Will.
Zumwalt says it was a difficult book to write, citing the connections to his emotions regarding his father and brother, and indeed, all who served in the Vietnam War as he did.
Reading the book was nearly as difficult for it is a personal memory for all who served. This reviewer came away with a new perspective on the war. Where the reviewer had felt betrayed by the U.S. government, the realization of the profound nationalism borne by the enemy as their motivation, not a political motive, exacerbates that betrayal. It explains even more the Paris collapse by the U.S. negotiators, but even worse, it confirms that we should not have been there at all, not in Paris, not in Vietnam.
But we were, and we have those memories, and experiences, good and bad, and we have our compatriots who stood beside us, fought, lived, died beside us, came home with us, and endured with us. We have that. It will have to do.
This reviewer is thankful for Jim Zumwalt’s eye-opening look at the enemy. It is a fascinating, educating, elucidating and well-constructed compilation of what the enemy went through to win their reunification and how their nationalism motivated them to persevere.