Tags: Bare Feet Iron Will, Cu Chi tunnels, Elmo Zumwalt, Ho Chi Minh Trail, James Zumwalt, North Vietnamese, Vietnam veteran
It seemed innocuous enough, although a bit weird: an inflatable, life-sized, anatomically-correct doll was found at the site of a fierce battle that pitted the 101st Airborne against the North Vietnamese in late 1965. The colonel in charge of the North Vietnamese unit was intrigued. It revealed to him a particularly obvious “Achilles Heel” of the American fighting forces. Unlike the North Vietnamese who expected to leave home and family for the fight for months or years on end, the American soldier could literally count down the days until he left Vietnam, a country that was physically and culturally thousands of miles away. The American soldier’s mind was frequently not on the battlefield.
This colonel recognized that the American soldier was not as invested in the war as his troops were, as the Americans were not fighting for the survival of their homeland or family or lifestyle. Indeed, the American soldier could not quite grasp (or buy into) the “domino theory” as clearly as our political leaders did. This insight was an epiphany for the colonel and he passed along this most unusual piece of intelligence to make a point to his superiors: Despite the Americans’ clear military superiority, they could be defeated. The North Vietnamese just needed to be patient and wear down their will.
This is just one of the anecdotes revealed in a compelling new book written by Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, Bare Feet, Iron Will: Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields. The son of former CNO Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, and one of many in the Zumwalt family who has served in the military through multiple conflicts, Zumwalt embarked on an odyssey more than 15 years ago. That was when he accompanied his father on a trip to Vietnam in an attempt to convince the Vietnamese government to participate in a joint study on the effects of Agent Orange. The defoliant that Admiral Zumwalt ordered used was highly successful in reducing casualties in the dense jungles of Vietnam, but the chemical proved to be deadly to humans – including the younger Zumwalt’s brother, who succumbed to cancer in 1988.
At first angry at the enemy and bitter about the outcome of the war, Zumwalt’s assumptions about our nation’s former enemy were turned upside down in the first few days of that initial visit, as he met a major general in the North Vietnamese medical corps who had lost a father to the French and a brother to the Americans. In interviewing the North Vietnamese doctor, Zumwalt recognized for the first time the immense human toll the enemy suffered during that war.
That 1994 trip Zumwalt made with his father turned into a personally cathartic one. Over the next 15 years, he traveled throughout the country and interviewed more than 200 North Vietnamese. He was granted unfettered access to the veterans he interviewed, but he also secured help from a fellow Vietnam veteran who resides in Vietnam, Charles Searcy, and from a man he calls his Vietnamese brother, Phu Van Nguyen. Nguyen, a member of a Vietnamese immigrant family the Zumwalts helped resettle in the United States, accompanied Zumwalt on his sojourns in-country and ran interference for him with the government.
The result is a detailed, intimate and fascinating look at the entire Vietnamese experience from that conflict. It runs the gamut from personal perspectives and first-person accounts to their strategy behind the building of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to their extensive Cu Chi tunnel system. It examines their innovative anti-aircraft defense systems, their special operations forces’ preparations for major offensives, their battlefield medicine improvisation, and the flexibility, innovation and determination of the nation’s populace.
Many American combat veterans of the Vietnam War may find this book too sympathetic to the North Vietnamese. Our veterans saw atrocities and brutality committed by the enemy on the battlefield (and our POWs were repeatedly tortured and mistreated while incarcerated). These atrocities are not minimized with this book. Rather, Zumwalt makes a very pointed defense against this expected criticism: “It is important to clarify what this book is about and what it is not about,” Lieutenant Colonel Zumwalt explained. “This [book was not intended] to glamorize the enemy, but to humanize the enemy.”
So, perhaps even the most hardened and embittered Vietnam veteran – not unlike Zumwalt was 15 years ago – can experience his own personal catharsis upon reading Bare Feet, Iron Will. At the very least, he will walk away with a better understanding of this enemy. And, as we all know now, a better understanding of history will prevent its repetition.