Tales From Vietnam's Battlefields

November 17, 2010


The United States made a mistake in Vietnam by not understanding that it was fighting that country's "greatest generation," said retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel James G. Zumwalt.

Speaking to an audience of more than 200 at the Martin Institute on Nov. 16, Zumwalt added that America is making a similar mistake in Afghanistan by not knowing its enemy.

"The average North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veteran had the same mindset of the Americans they fought. They desired to survive that war and get back to their families," said Zumwalt.

Afghan soldiers "desire not to survive the battlefield but to die on the battlefield," seeing death as "a springboard to their reward," Zumwalt said.

As a result, the conflict in Afghanistan will take longer to resolve than the 18 months authorized by President Obama, Zumwalt said, though the war can be won "if we're willing to stay the course long enough."

The author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will: Stories from the other side of Vietnam's Battlefields," Zumwalt served in Vietnam under the command of his father, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. As chief of naval operations from 1970-1974, it was Admiral Zumwalt who authorized the use of the chemical Agent Orange to strip the country's canals of camouflaging foliage.

Later, Agent Orange was found responsible for cancers and other health problems in Vietnam veterans - including Admiral Zumwalt's own son Elmo III, who died of lymphoma in 1988.

James Zumwalt said he became consumed with "negative energy" after his brother's death. While his father took the "high road," finding ways to help veterans exposed to Agent Orange, Zumwalt's anger persisted until 1994, when he accompanied his father on a return trip to Vietnam.

That's when Zumwalt met the enemy - the North Vietnamese he had fought two decades earlier - and discovered that in war, "hardship is universal."

Zumwalt visited Vietnam more than 50 times between 1994 and 2004. His interviews with former soldiers, doctors and civilians became the substance of his book, published in April.

He said he came to respect the ingenuity that allowed the Vietnamese to battle a super power. The clue is in their history, Zumwalt explained. Vietnam won its independence from China in the 10th Century, but was invaded by the Chinese in every century since.

Zumwalt learned about the techniques the North Vietnamese used to foil American soldiers: the ever-changing Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of vanishing roads that carried troops and materials into the south, and the Cu Chi tunnels, cleverly concealed underground passages that allowed the North Vietnamese to operate in the south without detection.

Doctors described keeping patients alive by ripping abandoned parachutes into bandages, using bicycles to power generators and turning bamboo shoots into tracheotomy tubes. Ordinary citizens suffered great losses. Zumwalt said 1,400 mothers lost three sons in the war and one woman lost nine children.

Eventually, Zumwalt even met the man who planned the 1969 attack on American naval headquarters in Saigon in an effort to assassinate Zumwalt's father.

"It sent chills down my spine," Zumwalt said.

Vietnamese today are "very cordial and receptive" to Americans and regard the war as "a mistake of history," Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt agreed with Tom Brokaw, who identified the generation that fought World War II as America's greatest.

"Take a look at the generation of Vietnamese we fought," who overcame the Japanese, French, Americans, Cambodians and Chinese, Zumwalt said.

"I think our biggest shortcoming in Vietnam was not understanding the fact we were fighting their greatest generation," Zumwalt said.

After his talk, Zumwalt answered questions from students and veterans. Many were about today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zumwalt said there is a better than a 50 percent chance that Iraq will emerge as a stable nation and a less than 50 percent chance that Afghanistan will. Iraqis have a sense of national unity, but that is "totally lacking" in the tribal culture of Afghanistan, he said.

"Nothing is going to change the mindset" of Muslim extremists, said Zumwalt. "These people firmly believe what they're doing is something they have to do in the name of Allah and they are willing to pay any price to reach that goal."

When the United States left Vietnam, their Vietnamese enemies did not follow Americans home, Zumwalt said. Losing the war in Afghanistan or Iraq would have a different result, he suggested.

Zumwalt's son, who specializes in diffusing roadside bombs, has completed his second tour in Iraq and is encouraged that the country's stability has improved since 2007.

"When my son was deployed, I probably prayed harder than I ever did in my life" for his safe return, Zumwalt said, his voice breaking.

"I ask all of you to go home and pray for the courageous men and women who are out there today in harm's way defending our way of life," Zumwalt concluded.

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