Books on Agent Orange Dioxin and the Vietnam War
A War Without End: My Father My Son
By: Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Lieut. Elmo Zumwalt III. With John Pekkanen.
Pages: 240 pages
Publication: Hardback / September 28th 1986
Edition: illustrated Y/N
ISBN: 0026336308 | 978-0026336307
The irony is that his father ordered its use, and MY FATHER, MY SON is the story of how one family has dealt with tragedy.
REVIEW By R.Z. SHEPPARD Posted Monday, Sep. 22, 1986
During the late ’60s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. commanded the “brown-water navy,” the fleet of small craft that patrolled the rivers and canals of South Viet Nam. He did such a good job that in 1970 he was appointed chief of operations for the entire U.S. Navy. Zumwalt was the right man in the wrong place at a bad time. An unpopular war was turning odious. The air was full of politics and protest; below-decks there were racial tensions and poor morale.
The admiral swept in with a mandate to give the most traditional of military services a new look. His reforms attracted national attention and the resentment of a square-rigged bureaucracy. Policy differences with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of the Navy John Warner eventually led Zumwalt to retire in 1974, consider a career in politics, and set to work on his candid memoir, On Watch (1976).
Lieut. Elmo Zumwalt III, 40, is the admiral’s son.
His childhood does not seem to have been unduly affected by the aura of authority. Elmo had other problems: a heart defect that had to be surgically corrected; a mild but frightening case of polio, from which he fully recovered; and a hard time getting good grades at school. Yet he persevered, graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968 and going into the family business as a swift-boat commander in Viet Nam.
As suggested in this intimate book about national and family tragedy, Admiral and Mrs. Zumwalt would have preferred a safer line of work for their son. Swifts, part of Dad’s brown-water navy, were fast and well armed for their size, but in South Viet Nam’s network of narrow waterways, these craft were extremely vulnerable to ambushes. Hidden in the dense vegetation that grew along the banks, the Viet Cong killed and wounded sailors with unnerving regularity. To serve a year on a river patrol boat meant a 70%-to-75% chance of becoming a casualty.
The answer to these alarming odds was to deprive the enemy of his natural camouflage with a massive application of herbicides. They had innocuous names like Agent White, Agent Purple and, the most widely used, Agent Orange, which could transform lush landscapes into vast mangy hides.
Many U.S. service members probably owe their lives to the use of Agent Orange. For others it may have been only a temporary reprieve. Lieut. Zumwalt survived his tour without visible harm. He returned home in 1970 to marry Kathy Counselman of Falls Church, Va., go to law school and set up practice in Fayetteville, N.C.
Viet Nam settled uneasily into memory. The first sign that the war was not over came in 1977 with the birth of Elmo Russell Zumwalt IV. The boy’s slow development was eventually attributed to “sensory integration dysfunction,” an inability to discriminate sounds and sights. Then, in 1982, Elmo III learned he had cancer of the lymphatic system. Two years later he had developed Hodgkin’s disease, a more aggressive form of lymphoma.
The temptation is to reach for the obvious irony: trying to save lives, the father ordered the use of a defoliant that is strongly believed to have caused his son’s malignancies and his grandson’s disability. But this approach would give My Father, My Son a melodramatic unity it neither has nor needs. The strength of the book resides in its unassuming format, an album of family voices (father, son, wife and mother) that describe without self-pity or too much self-pleading the grave misfortune that has overtaken them.
The admiral occasionally pulls rank and echoes broadsides from his memoir. He rehashes service politics, finds the racial attitudes of the previous Chief of Naval Operations contemptible, and the Viet Nam War “worse than futile”: “The Navy men killed in the river war meant a proportionately greater saving of lives for the Army and the accelerated pacification of the delta.
But all that was accomplished for nothing, so all these soldiers and sailors died in vain.” Bitter truth does not come easily to him; the Naval Academy did not teach no-win decision making.
Both father and son are sure that Agent Orange is responsible for their family’s medical catastrophes.
The scientific evidence may be statistical rather than empirical, but it is convincing. Lieut. Zumwalt seems inclined to take it as it comes. His childhood illnesses may have taught him valuable lessons about physical and psychological courage. He endures radiation, chemotherapy and painful bone-marrow transplants that slow but do not stop his cancers.
Most of the news he gets from his doctors is bad. “I really had to work on myself mentally to avoid sadness and depressions, . . .” he writes. “I began to see my illness as a process of diminishing expectations and choices.”
Admiral and Lieut. Zumwalt do not speak directly for the thousands of other veterans and their families victimized by Agent Orange, but those ordeals are implicit, as is the likelihood that the book is the pupal stage of a TV movie. So be it. The audience for this story cannot be large enough.