Clipped From The Daily Herald
Vietnam War still dcdmingcasualties by Fitzhugh Mullen MY FATHER, MY SON, by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Lt. Elmo Zumwalt in with John Pekkanen (Macmillan, $18.95) "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," Ecclesiastes tells us soothingly, "A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace." For the ZnmwaU family, it has not been so simple. They, perhaps more than any other single American family, family, are a living, struggling monument to the Vietnam era in this country — to its idealism and its violence, to its principle and its bloodshed, to its power and to the limits of its power and, ultimately, to its terminal, punishing, punishing, rending contradictions. War and peace have not divided themselves themselves into neat compartments for the Zumwalts. For them as, in many ways, for the nation, the battle is still being waged more than a decade after after the last of our troops departed from Indochina. In September 1968, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt was named commander of "The Brown Water Navy" — the ships that patrolled the inland rivers and the coast of Vietnam. Forty-seven Forty-seven years old, a jogger, a Naval Academy Academy graduate and a protege of Paul Nitze known for his intellect, Zumwalt had serious reservations about the war. He felt that Vietnam was not critical to U.S. security and that the conflict was squandering precious naval resources. His ambivalence ambivalence was assuaged, however, by his orders, which were to Vietnamize the war as quickly as possible so that the United States could extricate itself. That mission made sense to him and he took it on with gusto. The weekly read At about the same time, the eldest of his children, Elmo Zumwalt III, graduated from college and was commissioned commissioned in the Navy. The elder Zumwalt urged his son. to stay out of Vietnam, feeling that one Zumwalt at war was risk enough for the family but, paternal requests notwithstanding, notwithstanding, the young Zumwalt arrived in Vietnam in August 1969. He was placed in command of a crew of four and a heavily armed/ shallow water vessel designed for inland patrol called a "swift boat." The swift boats and the contribution they could make to the neutralization of the enemy — thereby taking pressure off the Army — were at the center of Adm. Zumwalt's Navy. . Swift boat assignments were among the most dangerous in Vietnam, Vietnam, with virtually all boats sustaining sustaining casualties at one time or another. The peril was increased by the dense foliage that grew to the very edges of the rivers, providing excellent cover for Viet Cong snipers and North Vietnamese Vietnamese regulars. After considering the options, Adm. Zumwalt authorized authorized the extensive spraying of defoliants defoliants along the river banks, the most widely used of which was called Agent Orange. The strategy worked, with ambushes becoming more difficult difficult and the river war, for a time, more successful. Lt. Zumwalt distinguished distinguished himself, leading firefights, winning two Bronze Stars and bringing bringing his crew through without a casualty. casualty. In the process, he swam in, drank and cooked with water that surely was heavily contaminated with Agent Orange. -:.-;•''• The Zumwalts both left Vietnam in the spring of 1970, the father to return return to Washington to become the youngest-ever chief of naval operations. operations. The admiral's four-year tenure was marked by what he called "a healthy contempt for bureaucracy and institutional racism in the Navy." He enforced non-discriminatory policies, policies, permitted beards, liberalized off-duty regulations and;labored successfully successfully to boost the reenlistment rate from 9 percent to 3ti percent. To some, by dint of his position, he was a "war-mongering militarist," while to much of the old guard he was a "bleeding-heart liberal." In 1974, amidst amidst general approbation for his progressive progressive policies, he retired from the Navy to a life of business consultation consultation and an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. Lt. Zumwalt resigned from the Navy, married, attended law school and entered practice in Fayetteyille, N.G. It became apparent shortly after the birth of Elmo IV in 1977 that the child had a developmental disability, a birth.defect that would limit his ability to learn and prosper. That impediment was followed by calamity calamity when in 1983 Elmo III was diagnosed diagnosed as having a lymphoma. Suddenly, Suddenly, Agent Orange was again very much a part of the Zumwalt family, raising nagging and nasty questions about its relationship to the physical troubles of the admiral's son and grandson. The answers, like so much about the Vietnam era, are not sim- ] pie. Veterans groups, the military and the manufacturers of Agent Orange are enmeshed in a titanic battle battle over the long-term epidemiological epidemiological consequences of exposure to the chemical. The evidence linking the defoliant to a raft of medical conditions conditions is suggestive but not conclusive and large-scale studies are under way in an effort to settle the issue. Meanwhile Meanwhile the 40-year-old Elmo III has developed a second lymphatic cancer, cancer, Hodgkin's Disease, failed to respond respond to chemotherapy and has undergone undergone a bone marrow transplant in an effort to save his life. My My Father, My Son is not so much a biography as a documentary assembled and "shot" by Washington medical writer John Pekkenan. The story is told through a series of brief first-person accounts in which the father-and father-and the son take turns narrating and are frequently backed up or offset by other members of the family, family, military colleagues and friends. The tale is so potent and so upsetting as it unfolds that it requires little beyond beyond the straightforwardness that Pekkenan provides to make it epic. The Zumwalts are not bitter. They are agonized but not bitter. Both father father and son think the cancers and the learning disorder are Vietnam-related Vietnam-related and that the decision to use Agent Orange was correct because it saved more American lives than it will cost. They accept the stoicism and irony of a 28-year-old Vietnam veteran with terminal stomach cancer cancer whom they quote as saying, "I got killed in Vietnam. I just didn't know it at the time." That is different from most wars which end on the battlefield, battlefield, or, at the worst, leave their amputees amputees as amputees. This war is still alive, claiming new casualties, sowing sowing dissension among us and continuing continuing to bring into question the wisdom of national adventures such as ours in Vietnam. And that is the beauty and the trag- . edy of the Zumwalts. Patriotic, idealistic, idealistic, progressive, they deserved a better war than they got. One can only hope that their time of peace is close.at hand. The Washington Post Co.