The Draft by Ron Steinman

Recently Clyde Haberman wrote a piece for the Editorial Noteback segment of the New York Times that appeared on its editorial page October 26, 2017. In 2005 in a piece for The New York Observer I wrote something similar advocating a return to the draft. Here it is for you to compare it with Clyde Haberman’s article.

The Draft by Ron Steinman (as appeared in The New York Observer in early 2005)

Hardly any are speaking of it, and then only in a whisper, but an explosive and divisive issue lies just below the surface, facing President Bush, his White House, cabinet and the American people. The draft.

Remembering how the draft in Vietnam worked is not pleasant. Its abuse is an even worse memory. Think for a moment of those in power who did not serve. President Clinton stayed out. President Bush disappeared somewhere into the reserve and is still missing over Georgia. Dick Cheney managed to never get near Vietnam. Today in Congress, only Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota has a child serving in Iraq. What does that say about privilege and a willingness to serve?

When we recall those drafted for service in Vietnam and who they were, it is easy to understand the disenchantment with a system built on privilege and power, a system that allowed the United States government to put minorities and the underclass on the front lines. After all, they were not contributing much to the economy anyway, so instead  train them for a few weeks, give them uniforms and guns, and send them to war to do the dirty work of the old men who started the war in the first place. True, the draft became more equitable toward the end, but the damage, already done, was impossible to repair.

We do not have enough troops on active duty to cover the world, but they are everywhere anyway. America now has troops in Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Bosnia, Bahrain, Qatar, Haiti, Guantanamo Bay, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Germany, Japan, including Okinawa, and South Korea. Not to mention South America and Africa. There are 135,000 men and women in Iraq. They will stay for the duration despite what the Department of Defense says about recycling and a drop in their number as the country stabilizes. If. One million plus remain stationed in the United States. I do not include Special Forces operations underway in the world anytime in the dark.

We are running out of young people, meaning volunteers, and that is why we call up the reserves and the National Guard, neither of which has the necessary training for sustained engagement in a war, nor as police. Weekend warriors do not make always reliable frontline troops. Add to these call-ups the problems they face when they return home. There are lost jobs, failed businesses, inability to pay mortgages, broken homes. Morale suffers both at home and for the troops in the field. This does not make for a military with the ability to concentrate on the job at hand, fighting a war, any war, anywhere in the world.

With the potential for more hot wars, the need for emergency troops to for cooling out of control situations such as Liberia and Haiti, and with the pool of volunteers waning, we must do something to help wage the war on terrorism which will surely not taper off soon.

If Iraq ends tomorrow, successful or not, and all our troops come home, we will still have to restock our military. Reservists and National Guard will return home, I hope, to resume normal lives badly disrupted by the war. Will be other wars similar to Iraq? That is beside the point. Rest assured, in the world as it is today, (and as it will undoubtedly worsen,) there will be a never-ending need for fresh, well-trained troops.

America’s volunteer army has been remarkable, and its men and women the best in the world. However, without a draft to fill the empty slots caused by attrition, the end of a tour, death, and wounds, we will never have the strong military we need and deserve. Better we do it now it than wait. Later it may be too late. However, the new draft must be equitable. It must use the full pool of all able-bodied young men and women. Deferments should be for anyone who cannot cut it physically or mentally, or if they prove extreme hardship. If a military position is not an option for the person, they should serve in some capacity, full or part-time, on the home front to relieve those on the front lines.

Naturally, there are those so opposed to any war on political grounds they might become draft dodgers to protest government policies. They will never be a major factor though, and if they believe by running they are making a statement, I say more power to them. The reality is that the world is not at peace now and will not be at peace in the future. If we are to preserve everything we love, especially for our children, we had better protect them the best we can. A standing volunteer army is not the answer. The draft is.

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Food: Where Least Expected by Ron Steinman

Food: Where Least Expected by Ron Steinman

 

Do not let anyone tell you if you were a journalist during the Vietnam War living in Saigon that it was a hardship post with no redeeming features. True, the occasional good never hid the horror and terror of life in a war zone. Yes, the streets were overcrowded, probably with well over a million people folded into a city that normally and happily could live with perhaps only a quarter of a million. At night many of those who had fled the fighting in the countryside slept on the street and in doorways of equally crowded buildings. The streets were dirty. Sanitation was almost non-existent. The sewers did not work. Frequent rain caused them to overflow and backup, among other things making it difficult to walk. The water was not fit for drinking. Best to first boil it and then treat it with iodine or chlorine tablets, whichever was available, and even then, drink with care When showering or bathing if accidentally swallowed, the water usually caused severe dysentery. There were frequent blackouts with no electricity and brownouts — limited electrical power — noted daily in the local papers that warned about the electricity available by neighborhood on a rolling basis.

I do not want not to make light of the war and the terrible consequences, the Vietnamese faced daily. Good food in some restaurants, whatever the kind or type, was available if you could afford to pay the price. Rice, some of the best tasting in Asia, shrimp, crab, fresh vegetables and freshly baked bread and pastries were on menus in all varieties of restaurants. There may not have been enough to eat for everyone, but almost no Vietnamese starved though they did not always get the best quality food. I had a big apartment and a fully stocked kitchen but I never cooked. I ate most of my meals out. There was always more than enough appetizing food in many of the restaurants I frequented. I want to emphasize that the choices and memories are all mine. The average Vietnamese never entered these restaurants. Mostly, they could not afford to eat what we called eating “on the economy” because they did not have the money to do so. I am sure that many of my colleagues had their own preferences and favorites and those they disliked. Yet, it should be said, the French — if they gave anything lasting to the Vietnamese people under their long and heinous occupation — taught them well in the art of cooking, especially baking bread and making pastries.

Givral, a popular coffee house in a corner of the Eden Building, downstairs from the NBC News bureau, was my morning hangout when I had time. The rich, sweet Vietnamese ice coffee was excellent. The French pastries, especially those smothered in buttercream, were something to behold. During all my years in Saigon, not a day went by that I did not eat one of those pastries or drink an ice-cold coffee. I can taste each even now. Coffee shops of note, competitors of Givral, were Brodard and La Pagode.

Ramuncho was a French restaurant also downstairs from the bureau, run by a former Vietnamese army general and sometime senator. I usually sat on the small balcony overlooking the main room and enjoyed steak (real beef probably obtained illegally from the PX, and not buffalo meat as some thought,) mashed potatoes and a salad of small, sweet Dalat lettuce gently tossed in lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Algerian wine was terrible so I drank San Miguel Beer brewed in Hong Kong and smuggled into Saigon by seamen off a freighter.

At Aterbea, often a crowded restaurant run by a Corsican and his much younger Vietnamese wife, I ate the best soufflé I have ever tasted outside Paris. Maybe it was the war but the Gran Marnier and the chocolate offerings were delicious and, though usually for dessert, when accompanied by a fine French baguette, each was enough for dinner. Naturally, the meal always ended with a double espresso.

Korean food was synonymous with The Eskimo, where the air-conditioning ran to extreme cold and the food, to extra hot and spicy, including locally made kimchi.

In Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, the sprawling nightclub Arc en Ciel served outstanding Chinese food, particularly its thin, deep fried noodles submerged in fresh seafood from the Saigon River, and vegetables topped by a brown sauce slightly infused with garlic and Nuoc Mam, the national sauce of Vietnam. It came to the table in a huge bowl while still sizzling. Then we dug in with dueling chopsticks while listening to heavily made-up Vietnamese women singers entertain us with songs as diverse and bizarre as, “Danny Boy,” and even, for reasons we could never understand, “God Bless America.”

On a street behind the Caravelle Hotel sat the Chung Nam restaurant, known to Westerners as Cheap Charlie’s. Here the food was as cheap as the name implied. The corn and crab soup was filling. Noodles were always the exact density. Deep-fried pigeon and crab claws wrapped in shrimp paste were delectable. Without asking, waiters kept your rice bowl full. In those days, I ate at least three bowls at every meal. My staff called me “The Three Bowl Man.” Those days are long gone.

Finally, and fondly remembered, there was the Rex BOQ (bachelors officer quarters) on Nguyen Hue directly across from the bureau. Famous for its open rooftop Sunday night steak fry and grill, that is where I could eat a sirloin or porterhouse steak, have a baked potato, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce while talking baseball or football, and sipping icecold American beer. While eating we often looked out over the city watching a helicopter raid, a bombing or strafing run by American planes and mortar fire to and from enemy positions across the Saigon River.

Authentic Vietnamese food was everywhere. Often the best came from the many cooks whose stalls lined the streets selling fresh pho, the beef, noodle and fresh soybeans Vietnamese national soup. Mostly hard-working women, they squatted for as long as twelve hours every day alongside their charcoal burners preparing some of the richest food found anywhere in Saigon, including broiled shrimp, baguettes stuffed with pate, soybeans, lettuce, lathered in nuoc mam, sometimes vinegar and red and black pepper.

My office manager, Josephine Tu Ngoc Suong’s mother owned a small restaurant in the front yard of their large house where she served breakfast and lunch. Though she did not cook dinner, I was the lucky recipient of Mama Tu’s wonderful cooking. On nights when work kept me in my office, Josephine’s sister Agnes would arrive with several metal containers of food, that included soup, rice, often noodles and Mama Tu’s unforgettable omelet loaded with small, delectable shrimp. All missed.

 

 

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Dressed for War by Ron Steinman

Here is the first of my promised three pieces about the Vietnam War.

 

Dressed for War by Ron Steinman

Mr. Minh owned a small tailor shop on Tu Do Street in downtown Saigon. On that street of many bars and restaurants, he catered mostly to the Americans and Europeans who lived and worked in Vietnam. Always with a smile on his face, his deft fingers, with great skill, hand-tailored shirts, jackets, suits, trousers, long and short pants and any clothing you designed, including what we called the correspondents’ jacket, Khaki colored with enough pockets to carry anything anyone would ever need or want. After arriving in Saigon, I had him make me six short sleeve shirts from the finest Sea Island cotton which I wore in South East Asia for many years. But Mr. Minh did not outfit my staff at NBC News for combat. It was not what he did.

If you, as a correspondent wanted to survive in the field, and that is what I as NBC News bureau chief wanted you to do, especially when going into combat with the troops, you could not go wearing pressed chinos, a polo shirt and flip-flops. That would not work. You would stand out like a sore thumb, a fish out of water. And it would not be safe. You had to dress for the role and dress properly. You did not want to be a target for the enemy or a distraction for the military unit with which you were traveling.

When a new staffer arrived in the bureau, I gave each recruit a short talk about how Saigon was unlike any other assignment they would ever have. Our main job was to cover war, and when covering war one had to wear the right clothing for convenience and safety. T-shirts and sandals would not work in rough terrain. Though I had a pair of rubber-soled flip-flops cut from a discarded truck tire and wore them for years, I never wore them in the field. After my welcoming talk, I sent the new man (and it was almost always a man), accompanied by a driver or a Vietnamese staffer to one of the many black market locations found throughout the city. We used the one behind the Central Market or another at dockside on the Saigon River near the Majestic Hotel. The idea was to dress the new correspondent or cameraman as close to looking like a trooper as possible.

First, he tried on and then bought a steel pot, a helmet that would protect his head, that he could use for boiling water or making soup. He purchased a heavy flak jacket, important and useful, but he had to buy it on his own because NBC News would not authorize the bureau to purchase it for him. (But we did anyway. I had an issue with headquarters for years over the need for flak jackets.) With his head and body now protected, he tried on the latest official combat boots and bought two pair because they wore out quickly in the jungles, rice paddies and hills of South Vietnam. Then came the clothing itself. At the open-air market, each item of clothing lay folded neatly on rickety tables, usually sold by an American soldier in exchange for drugs, booze or needed cash. The new staffer also bought a fatigue jacket with many pockets. After all these years I still have mine, though packed away in storage. He bought long fatigue pants which also had many pockets. Several pair of Khaki-colored underwear and at least two pair of heavy socks rounded out most of what he needed. He also purchased a lightweight wool cap for under the helmet, not for cold weather but for better protection in the jungle or the rain.

The new man usually tried on most of his outfit in the open. There were no changing rooms. When he stripped to his underwear, hardly anyone noticed. The Vietnamese staffer who accompanied him negotiated, or better, bargained the best price for everything he bought. He paid the black marketers in American dollars, better known as green and was soon on his way back to the bureau.

Most of the clothing was also available at the PX, the Post Exchange in Saigon or preferably, Long Binh, the biggest American base in South Vietnam. However, what we needed we found only on the black market, though against the law, winked at as a way of life during the war. Available, too were the latest Nikon cameras, tape recorders and typewriters from Japan, Germany and Switzerland, along with imported beer, canned anchovies and even cans of expensive French pate.

On the way back to the bureau, the new person added several tin canteens for carrying water and Kool Aide. Then he was ready for his initial assignment in the field, probably a combat experience that would change his life forever. Clothes do not necessarily make the man, but in wartime the right clothes, not very stylish, were an absolute necessity.

 

 

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Three Tales from Vietnam by Ron Steinman. The cliché that war is hell applies perfectly to the Vietnam War. But in war as with everything, there is always respite from the daily grind, no matter how terrible the grind is, the getting through every minute of every day. The upcoming posts are only a few examples of the reality of what life was like in an ever-shifting war zone. In the next few weeks, I will present 3 stories about Vietnam you will not see anywhere else. All are true. I never presented these to Ken Burns for his documentary on Vietnam or to the New York Times for its mostly successful, but often overly academic series about Vietnam in 1967. Even if I had offered these pieces, I had no guarantee editors would have accepted them. That is beside the point. But with so much emphasis on Vietnam and as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive in January 2018, I thought I would move these out of the save box and perhaps entertain you with some things about the Vietnam War you did not know. Rather than let them sit and stagnate, here they are for your enjoyment. After I post them on my WordPress blogs, Ronsteinman’s Notebooks and ronsconnectioonsblog, you will be able to find the articles on Facebook and Linkedin. I call the first one “Dressed for War.” This is the story of how we in the NBC bureau in Saigon outfitted our correspondents and camera crews to cover the war. The second piece is about food in Saigon, how journalists never went hungry and, how even during the war eating was a good experience. I call the third piece “Jo in Jail.” I will say no more about that story for now. All I will say is that none of the pieces are life-changing. But all are unique slices of life. For the record, for those who do not know I covered the war for NBC News in Vietnam from 1966 to 1973.

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It’s All About the Ratings by Ron Steinman

It is all about the Ratings by Ron Steinman

As I write, Hurricane Maria is already destroying many islands as it makes its way through that beleaguered part of the world. Network news directors across America are salivating over this dynamic, sad and devastating story. Many smaller newsrooms are also covering the fast-moving storm. They do this by putting reporters, camerapersons and producers in so-called harm’s way by making them stand in places normal people cannot and, if smart, would not put themselves. These men and women experience powerful wind, heavy rain, flying debris such as tree branches, hub cabs, and downed power lines. The reporters and their crews, solid professionals all, end up in enormous danger, and under heavy pressure by news producers for first-person accounts of yet another unbridled beast of nature. The information that will flow from the efforts of the news professionals will be a big help for ratings.

During Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma, these same news men and women got out their heavily waterproofed rain gear, put on rain hats and rubber gaiters up to their necks, waded through toxic floods and stood in the heavy rain, some even tethered to a stationary post in the fast moving winds to report the story. Because social media wants to be intimate with everything we do, the internet exploded with shock over what those reporters were doing—mainly how they were placing themselves in a risky situation. For some, it was a way to get a good or better reputation, to move up the ladder of success. Time to make their bones. And with Maria already destroying everything in its path, these reporters and crewmembers will stay dressed for the current round of action.

Newspapers, the Internet, and television published many stories about people’s concerns for the journalists who were only doing their job. I think it is fair to say that none were doing what they did under duress. They were in the storms because news directors and producers assigned them to what for civilians would have been dangerous jobs. And they went willingly.

I admit that when I was producing for the Today Show, and a storm was coming, I assigned reporters and crews to cover the story along the path of a hurricane, because it got people’s attention and brought in viewers. Never forget the need for ratings. I never thought twice about an individual’s safety during that coverage. The people covering the storm were adults. I had no guilt about putting anyone in so-called harm’s way, though I frequently asked how he or she was doing. But I did that quietly. Today with social media noise surrounding everything we do, as much as some might fear for our intrepid journalists in seeming peril, if you asked them about the experience, I venture to say they would tell you to look somewhere else for sympathy. After all, they might say, just doing my job.

 

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Vietnam Redux by Ron Steinman

As originally published in the Mekong Revie w’s current issue. Here it is in its entirety.

Our review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War has been at the centre of a debate on the merits of the new PBS documentary series. This letter was a response to the review. Please write to editor@mekongreview if you wish to contribute.

“When I recently thought about Ken Burns and his upcoming documentary series on Vietnam, much went through my mind about that divisive war. I covered that story between 1966 and 1973 in South Vietnam as Saigon bureau chief for NBC News and then many years after that the Paris peace talks from my base as bureau chief for NBC News in London.

I have read more than a dozen reviews about the series, including the extensive and thoughtful critique in the Mekong Review by Thomas Bass in which he questions Ken Burns’ weak understanding of the war, its origins and its effect on geopolitics. Other equally critical reviews written by mostly well-informed people, make me believe there is absolutely nothing new in Burns’ vision, insight, and reporting, which is usual for all Burns’ films whatever the subject.

The Vietnam War will never die. Almost no one today has any doubt that America had the right to launch and fight a war not only far from home, but one that many eventually realized was unwinnable. People of good sense knew the war was wrong. Saying it again, even to a potentially fresh audience changes nothing. Stating that good intentions started the war is meaningless. In the minds of those who start wars, their goals are never bad. Might always makes right for aggressors. The end they project always justifies the means. To have Ken Burns and Lynn Novick fight the Vietnam War again for eighteen hours on PBS defies reason.

Though I do admit there is an audience in the legions of people everywhere who can benefit from the lessons the Vietnam War can teach us about the overreach of what America then thought of its role as the “world’s policeman.” But I am not sure this series answers that question.

Purists will ask how I can judge a film without seeing it. Correct. I cannot. I am not judging the film as much as I am questioning why I should waste time viewing another of a genre, a life, really I lived through and that still informs something of what I am.

The reviews have been long, complex, filled with moral muscle flexing and hard-nosed facts, equally permeated with worn, sometimes thoughtful philosophy about war, foreign policy, perceived wrongs and mostly nothing good about what took place in Vietnam, and the war’s effect on the world. In the thousands of words already written about the series, passion dominates some reviews while ignorance infuses others. A few facts and heavy opinion in those reviews help the tub-thumpers make their points, but they do not necessarily add to our understanding of why the war happened or why it continues as one of the main stains on America as a nation.

This is not a critique about whether Burns and Novick got the story right. Many reviewers criticize the filmmakers for missing important points of the war. I would have to view the film carefully to make that judgment. The question is why more Vietnam now. Burns and his team rarely provide a deep and penetrating interpretation in any of their films. Without knowing for certain, I am sure the Vietnam series is no exception. Both the film and its many critics are looking for what they hope is the truth about a story already deeply ingrained in our individual and collective psyches. Neither the film. apparently, nor any reviewer finds that truth because it is an impossible task. Maybe that is the only story we can hope for. Vietnam defies any ultimate understanding. It is the story of a war. It is the story of all war. It is our fate. More is the pity.

 

 

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Linkedin, Listen Up by Ron Steinman

 

LinkedIn, Listen Up by Ron Steinman

In planning this piece, I thought of several other titles, such as:

“Now Here This, LinkedIn.” Or, “LinkedIn, You Got to be Kidding.” Maybe: “LinkedIn, You Can’t be Serious.”

I joined Linkedin not to find work but to get a glimpse of what some of my old colleagues or even my contemporaries, whatever age they may be, were up to in the rapidly changing life we lead. I did not join the social media site to get a job, or to seek employment. Nevertheless, job openings come my way.

Now and then I cross-pollinate, meaning when I post on one site I post on many sites. When I blog, I automatically post on Facebook, though of all the social media sites I, abhor it the most for it is so obsequious, fawning, sycophantic and self-serving. I also sometimes post intentionally on Linkedin. I call myself a slow blogger because I almost never post on consecutive days and sometimes do not post for weeks. It takes too much effort and too much energy. And I wonder if anyone really cares.

I will not name the companies that are offering the jobs I will now cite because I want to protect the innocent. They don’t know me from a speck of dust. Yes, an algorithm is at work. I feel sure that a real person would know better and, knowing who I am, knowing my profile, background, and age and that I’ve spent my life in broadcast news and as a documentary filmmaker, would not make the following offers. But I am not certain. Anyway, here are some of the positions LinkedIn believes are for me collected over several months. By the way, the best offers are the ones that say, “Positions you may be interested in.” Here goes in no special order.

Designer. Sr. Development editor. Content producer. Sr. writer sports and/or money. Sr. web editor. Head of copy and editorial. Line producer. Intern. Intern. Intern. Communications executive. Staff writer. Among the big names offering jobs there was NBC Universal, Getty Images, Facebook, A+E, Sirius Radio and the Wall Street Journal. It makes me feel wanted.

I am sure that Linkedin helps many people connect and secure jobs. But for me, it is irrelevant. On Facebook, even though I have to tolerate much that is cute and filled with petty, overbearing philosophy and opinion about everything, I do not have to or want to suffer the endless round of silly and always useless job opportunities on Linkedin that I do not covet.

So, maybe I should smile just a bit and, in the end, blame it all on robots. I mean, why not because at least for now who else lacks the depth of feeling of a person but a robot. I think.

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