Picks and Pans Review: My Father, My Son

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III and John Pekkanen

There have been many books about the pain and debilitation brought on by cancer, but this one has an added, haunting irony: The father's decision to order Agent Orange used in Vietnam may have caused his son's cancer and his grandson Russell's severe learning disability. The story is told in brief sections by Admiral Zumwalt and his son Elmo, as well as by various crewmates, a doctor, young Elmo's wife, Kathy, his brother, his sisters and Pekkanen, author of four other books on medical subjects. Elmo followed his father into the Navy, and during the Vietnam War became skipper of a river patrol boat. Meanwhile the admiral had ordered use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to destroy the dense foliage the Vietcong used for cover along riverbanks. "I realize what I am saying," writes Elmo, "is that my father is responsible for my illness and Russell's disability. But I do not second-guess the decisions Dad made in Vietnam, nor do I doubt for a minute that the saving of human life was always his first priority in his conduct of the war." Writes the admiral: "I too am convinced, based on what I have read, and conversations with people, that Agent Orange can cause cancer and birth defects, and in the case of many Vietnam veterans, has done precisely that...I was responsible for Elmo's heavy exposure to Agent Orange, which makes me an instrument in his tragedy." The young Elmo had a bone marrow transplant last July; his son is in a special education class in public school. (Macmillan, $18.95)

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