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.
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.
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.
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.
Dolce Vita Confidential by Shawn Levy, 464 pp. W.W Norton & Company, Inc. $27.95. Review by Ron Steinman
In the early 1960s I worked on several documentary films for NBC News that took me to Europe. Over the many weeks abroad, I always spent some time working in Rome. I remember vividly the nights after shooting and dinner. We would wander over to the Via Veneto, Rome’s busiest and most fashionable good time street. After a few drinks while looking for a celebrity or two among the so-called beautiful people, and sometimes after a late snack of Roman pastry and an espresso, we would walk back to our hotel to get a night’s sleep and prepare for our next day’s activity.
Those markedly innocent nights, especially in the warm Rome weather when sitting on the Via Veneto in the hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife, were just that — innocent. I knew much of the role Italy played in the world’s popular culture. but I took that history for granted. Because today we spend most of out time in the present, we often forget the past and its impact on how we think, how we act and if it is in us, and we have the capacity to do so, how we create. Case in point is the remarkable part Italy played in our artistic life in the last century, especially the years after World War II and how the world of cinema, of literature and fashion still resonates today even if some do not recognize what it has given us.
Now comes a new book, “Dolce Vita Confidential,” by Shane Levy, Norton, that puts 1950s Rome into perspective. Replete with solid history and enough gossip to fill even an incurious mind, Levy writes with ease, expertise and with confidence about an important era and the men and women, the power brokers, producers, writers and directors who masterfully created art forms that have influenced much of movie making in the 20th Century and into the 21st. The worlds of film and fashion dominate the book. Levy even has time for critical appraisals of many of the movies cited in his work.
Reading the book you will learn much about life in Italy before World War II as the precursor to the 1950s after the war ended. There are stories about romance, love, love affairs, murder, heavy drinking and drugs, divorce, and scandals galore. There are stories about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the making of “Cleopatra.” We get insight into Anita Ekberg, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Grant, Tyrone Power, Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, and even King Farouk of Egypt, just to name a few of the players who grace these pages. In the world of fashion, the author has stories about Pucci, Valentino and Brioni, among others.
There are profiles of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paulo Pasolini, and Vitorio DeSica, Luchino Visconti and other great directors who changed forever how anyone makes films. Immediately after World War II, Italian filmmakers, often because of small budgets and a deep-seated social need, gave us films dominated by naturalism, realism and impressionism. In time small budgets gave way to bigger budgets. Major stars emerged. Movies were box office hits. But social commentary still dominated movie making even though life grew better for the average Italian.
In the mix is the often tawdry story of the growth and rise of the paparazzi, and the way those daring and sometimes unprincipled photographers changed forever how the world of popular culture was covered by the press.
In reading this book you will get profiles of the famous and the infamous, snatches of life before and after in 1950s Italy, plenty about life inside that world, all the bold face names you could handle, and hopefully, lead you on a journey to view the great movies of that era. It will be worth the trip.
Now comes a story that the youth of America (and probably everywhere) are more addicted to their cell phones than they are to known drugs such as opiates, alcohol, other hard stuff such heroin and cocaine and marijuana. The stories postulate that addiction to smartphones replaces those and other drugs not mentioned. The theory reads as if an academic has run amuck, written by a person who does not have enough to do. This falls into the realm that all things are possible but only when dreaming.
More people than ever, especially the young use their phones to connect to reality or what they assume is the world as they think it is as if it belongs only to them. That is nothing new. People now forgo personal connection, one on one, for what they get through social media where everyone is an open book.It is not personal. It is not connected to what is real. Instead, distanced by clicking on a keyboard via texting rather than looking in someone’s eyes to ascertain what is true or not. In searching for whatever it is people are looking for, they talk and talk, sadly without losing their voice.They use thumbs to text because their fingers never seem to wear out. Do other fingers work as well or does it not matter. Do folk these days have that much more to say than they did, say twenty or thirty years ago before the over-reliance on mobile phones? Or are people today so lonely and distressed they seek solace and sun — or darkness, if that is what they want — wherever they can find it? In the time when there were pay phones on every corner, I do not remember that people talked as much as they now do. Maybe they did not have a nickel for the phone or whatever it cost in each era to make a call.I know that in my family that every nickel, dime or quarter counted and the calls we made on the telephone for real money had better been made for good reason or we might suffer the consequences, depending on the mood of our parents.Today that no longer matters. Thus there are no penalties for the misuse or overuse of a phone.At least none are visible.There is simply avoidance because it seems to me that reality as once defined, is no more.
Dog Story 3: Lacey’s Eating Habits by Ron Steinman
(On my Notebooks blog, I posted “A Dog Story,” 8/11/16 and “Dog Story 2, Lacey’s Routine,” 9/19/16. These are part of a work in progress called, “The Zen According to Lacey,” with photos of Lacey. Part 4, “Lacey’s Last Years” is coming soon.)
When Lacey, my purebred Shih Tzu, was 11 she had a serious stomach problem that put her into an animal hospital for an overnight stay. The vet inserted an IV to feed her and hydrate her in his effort to keep her alive. She was in bad shape. I thought I might lose her but, stronger than I thought she was, she came through. Her vet recommended home cooked chicken and vegetables based on the simplest food that one could find on the healthy diet menu of, say, the steamed food column at some Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering in every night, I started to cook for her and did so for most of the rest of her life.
Her menu included slow baked chicken breasts that I marinated for twenty minutes with a touch of sea salt. I placed the chicken in a tabletop oven, usually for twenty minutes until well cooked, but not dried out. Into the same oven, I put a sweet potato or yam and baked that for about forty-five minutes. Sometimes I baked an Idaho potato for one hour. I boiled broccoli stalks but never the florets. For some reason, she did not like eating florets. She never explained why. I boiled fresh carrots cut into small pieces. When everything was ready, I cut the meat, the sweet potato, and the Idaho potato. I served her both the Idaho spud and the sweet potato or yam without the skin, always in chunks but never mashed. She did not enjoy mashed food. After I cooked her food using no spice or condiments, I placed it on a large dinner plate, brought it to her spot in the living room where she attacked it with gusto. Friends of mine contended she ate better than I did. There was no argument from me. But she was Lacey and deserved every bit of warm attention I could give her.
In the morning after her walk, I gave her three noshes that I cut into small pieces. I put them on the floor. She enjoyed a snack called Snausages. She had a small mouth. I broke those in half. She usually ate those immediately. Then I took a handful of her dry health food that she sometimes ate, or whatever else she enjoyed, and put it in a small pile near her water. She usually went right to it and chomped away, slowly and deliberately. Sometimes she let me know she wanted more food by coming to me and staring. She did that as if she were sending me a signal by mental telepathy, something I believe all dogs do.
I admit I fed her table scraps. For some reason that got her taste buds going, making her want to eat her own food. I never gave her sweets, but if I had dry cereal, I gave her small desert plate and added a spoon of skim milk. The vet said that was good for her. She loved tomatoes, so when I ate one I gave her a few small pieces. She loved cheese. If I had a piece of Swiss cheese or American cheese — she not like cheddar because it was too crumbly– I gave her a few tastes of those as well. That always satisfied Lacey and she would then sleep through the night.