- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BARE FEET, IRON WILL: STORIES FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF VIETNAM’S BATTLEFIELDS

By James G. Zumwalt

Adducent, $31.95, 426 pages

Reviewed by Robert F. Dunn

James G. Zumwalt, a Vietnam veteran and the son and brother of Vietnam veterans, returned to Southeast Asia to learn of and record views of the Vietnam War from those who fought for the North. For anyone who ever wondered how it all seemed from the other side, this book is for you. For the most part, it’s an easy read, complete with interviews, sometimes poignant, and good photographs. Had the United States known a tenth of what Lt. Col. Zumwalt describes in this book while the war was on, things might have turned out much differently. One wonders where our intelligence was.

That the North Vietnamese fighter and his Viet Cong cousins made a resourceful and tenacious enemy is well known. What is not so well known is that the civilian populace, especially in the North, was as tenacious and resourceful as the fighters. This book is filled with vignettes that prove it beyond all doubt. The people were as important to the war effort as any soldier.

Thus, the story is about the entire Vietnamese population. This is undoubtedly because the Vietnamese were fighting for their homeland against the Diem regime and the Americans, the inheritors of the thoroughly detested French. Moreover, to the Vietnamese, the “American War” was merely a continuation of the “French War,” with only some new weapons systems but very few new tactics.

However, the author occasionally falls into the trap of accepting at face value 100 percent of Vietnamese claims. He does frequently caveat those claims, but too often the book reads as if at every turn the North Vietnamese were invincible and the Americans bumblers. It’s true that the Vietnamese population was at total war, whereas among Americans, it was only total for those deployed to Vietnam and its nearby waters. But American forces, particularly individual soldiers, sailors and Marines, were hardly bumblers.

Col. Zumwalt’s book is divided into several naturally occurring chapters covering a number of individual stories, battlefield medical care, the toll on the North Vietnamese home front, the air war over the north, the building and use of the Cu Chi tunnels not far from Saigon, action in Cua Viet in South Vietnam, a thorough description of the building and use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and more.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was an incredible feat of engineering, and the people who operated it, maintained it and traversed it were incredible themselves. At first, the trail was no more than a series of footpaths though mountainous jungle, but little by little, it was improved until, by the end of the war, there were seven different routes, all interconnected. Over this trail, night and day, adjusting routing and cover as American interdiction attempts waxed, waned and changed, the Vietnamese forces in the South were supplied from the North almost without interruption.

At first, it was foot traffic: 800 miles, individuals bearing burdens of as much as 130 pounds. Later on, trucks would move at night or under cover of weather. When the Americans began using infrared and night-vision devices, the Vietnamese moved to daylight operations based on an extensive intelligence network, including captured American documents. They even graded the bottoms of some streams so trucks and tanks moving in them would not leave tracks.

Defending against the American air war in the North took equal dedication from Vietnamese military and civilians alike. Americans who flew over North Vietnam were often heard to say that every rice farmer seemed to have a weapon pointed at their aircraft. As Col. Zumwalt describes it, that was exactly the situation, but there also were mobile batteries of 37 mm and 57 mm anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and Soviet-built but Vietnamese-flown MIG fighters.

There also was a never-ending chess game. No sooner would American aircraft be equipped with a new device for defeating the guidance systems on either guns or missiles than the Vietnamese would come up with a counter. The telephoned intelligence they got from a variety of listening and observation posts coupled with captured documents ensured that they were seldom if ever surprised by a particular strike.

While they had fewer fighters, they husbanded them until the intelligence and circumstances were right and then hit and ran, with often devastating results to the Americans. On the other hand, the reader is advised to absorb skeptically the stories passed on by Col. Zumwalt.

For example, he reports an aircraft carrier strike on the Thanh Hoa Bridge, during which 41 American carrier aircraft were shot down. This is preposterous. Had the U.S. Navy lost 41 aircraft in one day, there would have been banner headlines around the world and the Navy might well have withdrawn from the Tonkin Gulf. It did not withdraw, and 41 aircraft were not downed on one strike.

In the same context, while, “From the Other Side,” is most interesting, the book would have been much better had there been a modicum of fact-checking. Instead, the author, with only a small caveat here and there, seems to accept everything told to him by the North Vietnamese as gospel, including the capture of “Major Robert H. Shumaker after ejecting from his F-105.” The story loses punch when one happens to know that Shumaker was a Navy lieutenant commander flying a Navy F-8 Crusader.

Another problem is that it is often stated or implied throughout that the Vietnamese bore no grudge toward the American fighting man, treating him well, reasoning that he was merely fighting for his country as the Vietnamese were for theirs. Tell that to a Hanoi Hilton graduate.

Shortcomings aside, “Bare Feet, Iron Will” is a recommended read, especially for anyone who fought in the jungles or skies or on the waters of Vietnam and for their families. It provides hindsight of the first order. Would that we learned the lessons.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is a veteran of the air war over North Vietnam, resides in Alexandria and is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.

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