Interview – James Zumwalt, author of Bare Feet, Iron Will

By Vietnam magazine
6/9/2010 • Vietnam First Person, Vietnam War

James G. Zumwalt in Vietnam in 1969.  "To this day, I have friends who experienced combat and acknowledge the fact that they have trouble letting go of the war". (Photo: Zumwalt family)

James G. Zumwalt is the younger son of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., who became commander Naval Forces, Vietnam in 1968. James and brother Elmo III served in Vietnam during their father’s command. Admiral Zumwalt approved the use of Agent Orange during the war and, after his eldest son succumbed to cancer caused by dioxin in 1988, he became a leading advocate on behalf of veterans afflicted with diseases stemming from exposure to the defoliant. Deeply affected by the loss of his brother, James Zumwalt overcame his internal conflicts and anger about the war by developing extensive relationships with his former enemies during 50 visits to Vietnam from 1994 to 2004. His just-released book, Bare Feet, Iron Will: Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields, stems from the hundreds of interviews he conducted and presents fascinating perspectives of the war from the other side of the battlefield. Zumwalt retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel and now is a consultant and frequent writer on national security issues for a variety of major newspapers.

When and where were you in Vietnam?
Before I transferred to the Marine Corps from the Navy, I had a tour on the destroyer Perkins in 1969. In 1971 I served in a battalion landing team of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. We were offshore as a reaction force. I was initially a platoon commander, then became a company commander.

Why did you switch from your father’s Navy to the Marines?
My dream was to have command of a ship. But I didn’t find out until my physical that I was colorblind. So I went into intelligence, and after about 13 months I decided that wasn’t my cup of tea. It was my father’s suggestion that I switch to the Marines.

Did you see any combat action?
Not really. It was kind of a lonely tour floating off the coast. One of the ironic things was that when I first joined the company, we were briefed on a CIA facility that was on a piece of land jutting into the sea down at Vung Tau. We studied this on the map; in the event it ever was attacked, we would go secure it and get the people out. That never happened, and it took me about 20 years to ever get to my objective. It still looked just like it did on the map.

What inspired you to write Bare Feet, Iron Will?
My father’s ability to embrace the enemy and the perspective of the war opened up to me by NVA Maj. Gen. Nguyen Huy Phan. That really caused me to look at things differently. Really, it was like someone hit me over the head—what about what these guys went through? I started this in 1994 after a trip my father and I made to Vietnam. He was trying to get the president of Vietnam to conduct a joint study on Agent Orange. On that trip I met General Phan, who had been a doctor during war.

Your father remained active in issues related to Vietnam until his death?
My father was an amazing man. He had quite a humanitarian side to him. He felt that a wartime commander’s responsibility to his men survived the war. So he fought diligently to address the Agent Orange issue. It was really because of his involvement in the issue that the Veterans Administration went from not recognizing any cancers related to Agent Orange exposure to gradually recognizing many more.

In 1994 you went back to Vietnam feeling angry. What changed?
After losing my brother Elmo in 1988 to cancer that was caused by Agent Orange, I had a lot of animosity toward the Vietnamese and anger about the war. When I met with Phan, the first thing he did was extend his condolences for the loss of my brother. As he started talking of the war and its impact, he became misty eyed when he told me he lost his brother in the conflict, too. This created an immediate bond between us. I was more fortunate than he, as I was with my brother when he died. Phan didn’t know how his brother died and then spent 17 years trying to find his remains. It was basically an epiphany. It was as if a light went on and I asked myself: Was the loss of a loved one any less significant just because it occurred on the other side of the battlefield? It was devastating to both of us. If I could feel my sense of loss, sadness at my brother’s loss, why couldn’t I recognize the fact that this gentleman had similar feelings. It just opened my eyes to the fact that we have to recognize that our suffering is mirrored on other side.

And that recognition can help you move on?
Yes, if you can replace anger with a sense of purpose. So I thought I really needed to talk to more of their vets to find what the war was like from their standpoint. Over time, many became good friends. I’ll never forget this one retired colonel. When we had our first meeting at the Veterans Association building, he sat very erect, gave short, terse answers, almost like it was an inconvenience. Each time I visited, I would call and ask to see him. On about my sixth trip, I called and he suggested I come to his house. I knew I had broken through. He met me at the door in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. I knew then there was no longer a front between us.

When did you realize stories about the enemy might help other veterans?
When I had this moment of enlightenment with Phan, I didn’t necessarily see it as something that would help Vietnam vets look forward rather than back. But once I heard their stories, particularly their stories of survival, I began to believe it could. One story was of a couple of Vietnamese caught in a tunnel collapse. I’ve gone in those tunnels and you get claustrophobic. Now, imagine both ends collapsed and you are in there with limited air. Why shouldn’t the story be told of how they dug themselves out, what they were feeling, not knowing once they dug their way out if they would find themselves surrounded by the Americans who caused the collapse and who might shoot them on sight. Their fear was tremendous. Fear was a constant on each side of the battlefield. Why not share those emotions? As I heard more of these stories I thought this helped me move on past my brother’s death. I thought it might help some other vet to move on as well.

Is seeing the enemy as brave and heroic still hard from veterans?
There are those who say they really respected the job the enemy did and that they were tremendous fighters. You have others who don’t share that view. I think those are ones who really need to go over and try to experience what I did and see what these people did and endured on their side.

Was the Vietnamese government open to your visits?
The first trip was to focus on Agent Orange and working that issue. Once I heard these stories, I asked to come back and do some writing about it. There were some early problems. On the second trip I wanted to hit the ground running but had to come to a screeching halt because they said I needed certain authorizations, which I thought I already had. A lot of what is involved is building a comfort zone. It took some time to do that.

But your father had established a good relationship?
Yes, he did, but when I made my second trip, one of the first places I went to was the Hanoi war museum. And there they had a section devoted to war criminals—one of whom was my father for his use of Agent Orange.

How did he react to being a war criminal?
He kind of smiled and said, “Well it’s a good thing they didn’t arrest me when I was there.”

Beyond Agent Orange, how did he try to heal wounds?
My father’s humanity was evident to me on the first trip we made together to Vietnam in 1994. He had helped a South Vietnamese gentleman who had escaped to the United States after the fall of Saigon. He had done well in the U.S. and felt he needed to give something back. He wanted to set up prosthetics device manufacturer in Vietnam. So my father worked with him to get USAID funding to set up the facility. On our 1994 trip, we went to see the factory. There I watched as my 73-year-old father picked up a Vietnamese man who had no legs and put him in his first wheel chair. My father’s humanity embraced the enemy and our allies we left behind. He tried to get his counterpart in the South Vietnamese navy, Admiral Chon, out before the fall, but Chon decided to stay with his elderly parents. He was captured and put in a re-education camp for 12 years. All the while, my father worked with Red Cross to try to get him released. After his release, he was still not allowed to travel for three years. When he was finally allowed to leave to join his family in California, my father was among those waiting to greet him at the airport.

With your brother’s death attributed to Agent Orange, did you feel personal bitterness toward those who allowed its use in Vietnam?
Well I remember accounts during the Civil War of civilians who would go on the battlefield and strip the dead of whatever they could. It is hard to believe people have that mentality. Similarly, as I started learning what some of the defense contractors were doing, it angered me that there was no thought about the people who are going into harm’s way to defend them by making sure that the environment they would be exposed to was as safe as it could be by things we controlled on our side of the battlefield. Before my father decided to use Agent Orange, he checked with the companies manufacturing it to ensure that there were no adverse effects. After the war, we learned that at the time they did have evidence that indicated there were problems. The defoliant had been used by farmers, and a lot of farmers were coming down with various cancers. It was clear that our chemical companies knew a lot more than they let on about the dangers of Agent Orange.

What led your father to play such a key role in the VA recognition of Agent Orange diseases?
My father was asked by secretary of the Veterans Administration to head up an Agent Orange study in 1990. He examined dozens and dozens of medical studies that had been done to determine whether there was a causal relationship between the chemical and various diseases veterans were experiencing. He found how a number of the studies were seriously flawed. For example one study group excluded any veteran with more than one tour, and in another they focused on battalion-size units and larger—even though it was actually company-size and smaller units that were chiefly in the areas where Agent Orange was sprayed. And the VA had set up a panel of doctors to review the medical evidence every three years. My father found most of doctors on the review board had worked for the chemical companies. He recommended the board be disbanded and only doctors with no relationship to the chemical companies be appointed to the panel. The first review the new board conducted in 1991, they immediately found three cancers that were related to Agent Orange exposure.

Was the government as responsive as it should have been?
I think once it was established there was a causal connection, the government did much better to meet its responsibility to review the science each three years to see what other diseases should be added to the list. My father hoped he would see all of the illnesses believed caused by Agent Orange recognized by the VA before he died, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Yet there are those who remain skeptical about the Agent Orange connection.
I’ve read articles saying that, and I have been told that I was accepting junk science but I think it is clear that we know now that there is a causal relationship.

In a similar vein, some still believe PTSD is overblown?
We’ve come a long way from the incident with General George Patton in World War II where the solider was suffering from PTSD. The problem is soldiers, Marines and sailors get tagged with being less than manly by trying to address those concerns. That is a mindset we have to get rid of. The suicide rate in the Army today is the highest ever. Clearly there is a problem that must be addressed at the command level.

You say the fundamental principle of Americans embracing their enemy after a war didn’t happen after Vietnam. Why?
The main reason is we lost. I was born three years after World War II ended, and as I grew up I cannot remember one time when I heard any animosity or hatred against the Germans or Japanese. It seems to me America fought the war, won it and then people got on with living their lives, making contributions to society and not dwelling on the past. I didn’t see that same result after the Vietnam War ended. To this day I have friends who experienced combat and who have trouble sleeping at night. They acknowledge the fact they have trouble letting go of the war. After meeting Phan, I realized for first time—to me anyway—that the enemy had a face. I think it is something very difficult for many Vietnam veterans to accept; that the enemy we lost to is an enemy with a face. It was an enemy that, just like us, had hardships. The sacrifice and suffering we experienced on our side of battlefield was mirrored on their side. If anything, it was amplified because of the conditions they had to fight under. Part of what enabled us after World War II to embrace the Germans and Japanese was the fact we were providing them with aid, and in the case of Japan, we helped institute a new government. So we were rubbing shoulders with them and were invested in their reconstruction. Because we lost in Vietnam, there was not that similar evolution in relations. Between the two countries, we didn’t establish relations until 1995, so there was a 20-year gap in time that could have been part of a healing process but wasn’t.

Was the recognition of the “universality” of suffering in war lost in Vietnam?
In a combat environment, soldiers cannot think about the suffering and fight effectively. That was true of our fathers and grandfathers in Korea and WWII. I don’t think it is a question of losing it but a question of recognizing and regaining it after the guns have fallen silent. And I just think that has been a tremendous problem for those who were in Vietnam.

What about those who say their job was to kill the enemy, they did it well and have no bad feelings about it?
Those veterans who are able to do that do a very good job at isolating their emotions: one set of emotions that motivate them while fighting, replaced by another set that motivates them after the war. I think the problem is that others haven’t been able to effectively isolate their emotions like that, so they spill over into some of the other boxes, if you will. For those, I really wish it were possible for me to take them over there and just have them spend an evening with some of the people I have visited.

Are you getting flak for extolling the enemy’s virtue?
I understood when I was writing that this would be the situation. When I shared with some veteran friends what I was doing, they were concerned I was glamorizing the enemy. But my effort is not to glamorize but to humanize the enemy. You are never going to help those having difficulty putting war behind them, never going to bridge the gap, unless you look at the enemy in human terms. I don’t think that has been fully accepted yet.

It was indeed an all-consuming struggle for them and they accepted that?
It is interesting about the view of time. When many came south to fight, they didn’t know how long they would be there. While our tours were basically one year or a second volunteer tour, they had no idea how long they would be gone. In one case, a doctor told his wife he would probably be gone for six months to a year. He was gone for eight years, and only got back to visit his wife once during that time. Another interesting facet of the conception of time, many of those I interviewed had difficulty pinpointing particular years, but they could tell me if it was in dry or monsoon season. That was the way they looked at it. The year didn’t matter. That shows the mindset they operated under.

Their MIA wounds remain staggering?
The point we must recognize about MIAs is that we now basically have about 2,000 we are still trying to locate. The number for the Vietnamese is still 300,000. In comparison, using 1975 population numbers, in the U.S. one in every 168,000 Americans were affected by the loss of an MIA. In Vietnam that ratio is one in 83. It cut much broader in Vietnam than the U.S.

The “iron will” you describe was motivated by what?
The enemy had a large dedicated fighting force that was definitely motivated by patriotism, the driving force for them. I’m sure many were forced into the military, but no doubt there was also a large element committed to reunifying their country and would make any sacrifice to as necessary.

The scope of that sacrifice is often lost among Americans.
It is very difficult for us to come up with a number of Vietnamese casualties. In 1994, that was one of the pieces of information I tried hard to verify. In a meeting with General Giap, he estimated there was about 1 million Vietnamese who died to reunify their country during the American phase of their war. Subsequently, other reports have given the same number. I also interviewed civilians, including mothers who lost sons. One woman sent four sons off to war and three never came back, one was badly disfigured. There were some 1,400 mothers who lost three or more sons in the war. I think we’d be hard pressed in this country to find more than a handful of mothers who lost more than one son in Vietnam. They considered it a sacrifice they had to make.

How did they keep it all in perspective?
They looked at this as a long war. They didn’t go into it thinking it would be a short war. There is an intriguing story of an early battle that the U.S. Army Big Red One fought against the NVA. When the battle was over and the Americans moved on, the NVA went out to survey the field to see if they could find anything of intelligence value. One thing they found was an anatomically correct blow up doll left in a fighting hole. It was most likely sent as a joke to a soldier. But the NVA’s intelligence assessment was: While they had already fought the French and been away from their families for years and they were now willing to do that in fighting against us; the Americans had just gotten here and after just a few months they couldn’t handle being away from their wives for more than a few weeks without one of these anatomical dolls. While they were totally off the wall in their intel analysis, turns out in the long run, they were right.

What have you learned that we didn’t recognize about the Vietnamese during the war?
The thing I think that many of us didn’t realize at the time we couched it in terms of containing communism, but in the interviews I did with hundreds of NVA/VC I asked them what their motivation was. It was not communism but rather it was nationalism and the desire to reunify the country. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that it had 1,000 years of independence from China and every century it was invaded by a foreign power, mostly China. The common denominator of each event is that they were eventually driven out. It took longer with the French but eventually all were driven out. I believe it is part of the Vietnamese people’s DNA. To them, there was never any alternative, they just had to prevail.

James Zumwalt's Bare Feet, Iron Will, published in April 2010.
James Zumwalt's Bare Feet, Iron Will, published in April 2010.
Did we have any idea of the ingenuity and resilience of the enemy in Vietnam?
No. One of Sun Tzu’s principles is: never engage an enemy on the battlefield unless you know that enemy first. If you keep that in mind and think about what Tom Brokaw wrote about our World War II generation, then look at the Vietnamese who defeated the Japanese in 1945, the French in 1954, the Americans in 1975, and again the Chinese in 1979, I don’t think we realized we were probably fighting against Vietnam’s own Greatest Generation.
In fact, the enemy we fought in Vietnam was basically a lot like us. They were fighting to preserve their country, survive on the battlefield and return to their families and loved ones.

You can order James Zumwalt’s Bare Feet, Iron Will at


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