Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Media Revolt Kandahar and then Some

This piece compiled from notes on 2012 Kandahar embed. 

.KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN:  Reports from most media sources here regarding coverage of Operaton Dragon Strike in the Arghandab district northwest of Kandahar City, are that even those reporters with long time embed assignments are being denied access to the field of battle.  Reportedly even some that made it to the operational staging area at FOB Nelson ? were promptly shipped back to the Media Center for unexplained reasons.

The feeling is that General  Petraeus has taken the gloves off regarding former rules of engagement applied to the operation in Marjah last February conducted by the US Marines.  According to Ben Plesser of CBS news, Marjah was primarily a battle between M-16s and AK 47s to control civilian casualties.

Right now in Arghandab reports are that Petraeus is using bulldozers to push large roads through villages which entails knocking down houses in the way as well as anything else preventing a right of way for large vehicles.  Artillery and heavy air strikes are also being reported as well the shooting of suspected insurgents.  Civilians have been leaving in droves and according to one reporter have already organized a rather large refugee camp near Kandahar City.

These reports are word of mouth from reporters that have been on the scene and thrown out or refused transport elsewhere or whatever.   These people are all more or less permanent residents in Kabul and seem to know their way around the military and Afghanistan in general.
Famed French war photographer Patrick Chauvel, who
 has covered the wars from Viet Nam to Afghanistan
One reporter’s piece recently in the NY Times baffles many of these regulars.  Carletta Gall the former bureau chief in Kabul recently toured the battle area with a two star general whom I can’t recall.  Her resulting piece declared the war in Afghanistan won….apparently because of a supposed victory in one small river valley NW of Kandahar.  These full time Afghan reporters state also that touring areas in the field with a general, or in the company of celebrity reporters like Katie Couric never present an accurate take on events.  Obviously.  They feel almost unanimously that if you aren’t in a position to get a grunts eye view of the operations you will never have an accurate story.  In fairness to Carletta Gall, she left this media center two days ago with the bulk of those reporters that were held up previously for Arghandab but no word has filtered back with results.

CBS reporter Mandy Clark and producer Ben Plesser had been down there for a week or so early in the month.  Mandy is young and lives in Kabul.  Ben in London but has years here and in Iraq.  After three weeks they’ve given up, returned to Kabul and are organizing a protest in the Pentagon and Congress to have free access to the news here as is required by the law.  They say they haven’t got anywhere near enough footage for the time involved.  The same goes for Paul Wood of the BBC.  He had no usable footage in two weeks of more or less waiting at an FOB for transport nearer the action.

Other media on site:  Regis Le Sommier of Paris Match, Tom Bowman of NPR, Joao Silva NY Times Photographer, Ben Farmer of the Daily Telegraph (England) , Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times (lost her eye in Siri Lanka sp. from RPG shrapnel, wears a patch), Drew Brown of the Stars and Stripes and Gordon Forbes of the National Geographic.

I would add here that the opinion of many media I’ve met is that Petraeus makes his decisions for political, not military reasons.  He has his eye on the Presidency for 2012 or 2016 and will need something that looks like a military victory here to pull that off.

From another source:  Karzai’s brother that is the powerhouse in Kandahar besides whatever dealing he has in the drug business, also controls two security companies that are hired by the us for many millions to guard convoys etc in the south here…also kickbacks for each of these concrete barriers that are every where, in the many thousands at least.  He is from a minority Pashtun tribe of perhaps 10% total population but these people also hold 90% of government jobs in this area.

And another:  Before the English aid worker was killed recently during a rescue attempt by US soldiers, ten tribal leaders in that region offered to meet with the captors and arrange her freedom.  They needed assurance that the US military would guarantee them safe passage to the area where she was held but that guarantee was not given. That’s according to more than one reporter who lives in Kabul.
The new replacement of the old jeep from the VN era that cost
$2K.  This model MRAP goes for nearly a million dollars.
And finally, the cell phone service that the military uses here to communicate locally among themselves, and overseas is provided by an IRANIAN COMPANY.  There is one large mineral deposit nearby (I’ll get the type later) however it is owned by the Chinese who obtained it through a $30M bribe.

And more….some of the recently built barracks here, we all figure for the surge, have rows of Direct TV satellite dishes along the front below the air con units.  I asked if they were for the GIs.  They are for food service people that are already making six figure, tax free money.  The GIs have to buy their own civilian internet service, for $70 per month, which according to a Sgt. Major I was talking with this morning seldom works.

Is this place fucked up…or what?


Addendum:   Joao Silva, the South African Photographer for the NY Times, lost his legs in the Arghandab a day after I wrote the above piece, while on patrol with Calotta Gall.

Marie Colvin was killed a couple of months ago in Syria.

Tim Hetherington, who was up in Kunar in 2007 with me for Operation Rock Avalanche was killed last winter in Lybia.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

'My Friend You' - Screenplay Synopsis

The North Vietnamese side of this story is adapted partially from the book “Novel Without A Name” by Duong Thu Huong.  She was an entertainer for the Northern soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one of the few who survived from her troupe.
An old American soldier from the Viet Nam War is flying into Hanoi.  His Vietnamese wife has recently died and he is returning in search of her sister.  As the plane begins its approach, he scans the countryside of endless green from the window.  His mind drifts into memories as the stories begin.
As the war in Vietnam draws down in 1975, the lives of an American GI, CAPT. EDWARD WINSLOW, and a troubled North Vietnamese soldier, QUAN, converge during the evacuation and fall of Da Nang.  The soldier from the North has endured immeasurable hardship during the previous ten years, many described in flashbacks, much of it through a beautiful countryside before the destruction caused by US bombing.  There have been horrendous battles.  His girl back home, HOA, is probably gone. 
The GI is ‘stuck’ in Viet Nam.  It’s become his home, and he’s involved with a girl from the North, LIEN, who works the bars.  At this point he is an adviser to the South Vietnamese military.  They all still fight, but the cause is fading….looking bleak.  Refugees from cities north of Da Nang fill the highways leading into the city.  Chaos reigns, as no one seems to be in charge.  The Americans begin an evacuation to the south of all who can board the last aircraft, ship, or road vehicle.  World Airways flies in for a last flight south to Saigon and barely makes it off the ramp. The last attempts from the air are made from the Marble Mountain airfield.  The overflowing barges from the river in town have left for ships in the South China Sea.   The last stragglers are swimming toward the ships from My Khe Beach.

With Duong Thu Huong in Thai Binh, 1996

Amid the confusion the American soldier tries to arrange transport out for his ‘Vietnamese family.  He is abandoned and captured by the North Vietnamese Army.  A younger officer, his superior MAJOR BARNS, a helicopter pilot, fills in arranging what he can.  Most Vietnamese personnel of the Americans are left to their own devices.  There’s no other choice.   The Major doesn’t leave.  He manages to crank up his old Huey after Da Nang has fallen.  He’ll fly to Saigon, but scours the countryside to the south looking for his friend Winslow, and finds him.
In present day Hanoi, Edward Winslow ties up with a friend from the US State Dept. who now works at the US Embassy.  He eventually finds the sister and they begin to talk of the past, each so differently.   They meet up a few times in the countryside, then in Hanoi.  They strike up a friendship….dig into their pasts in the old Viet Nam.  They discover things unknown.
Hanoi is peaceful.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Paris with the Stars and Stripes-1919

I had an interesting experience while reporting for this newspaper from Iraq in 2007.  Embedded reporters work with and from the Public Affairs office of the military unit that they’re been assigned to.  In this case it was the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division with headquarters in Camp Victory outside of Baghdad; the officer in charge being Maj. Webster Wright III.

Mark S. Watson (on left) on the balcony of the
Stars and Stripes office in Paris, 1919

“So you’re from Plattsburgh” said Maj. Wright “and you’re with the Press Republican.  So how long have you been with them?”

“Oh, I’m a freelancer” I said.  “They credentialed me to come over here and print what I send back.  It’s working out well.”

“So how did you get into war reporting” said the Major.

“Well, when I left Viet Nam after 13 months with the Army in 1967 I intended to go back and give photo journalism a try.  Even bought a couple of Miranda cameras in the PX to work with, but never got around to it till now.  Actually I like being back with the troops”.   Somehow the conversation got around to the Stars and Stripes, the soldiers newspaper.  I mentioned that my Great Uncle Mark S. Watson was the officer in charge of that publication in Paris after WWI.

“Really, let me google that” said Web Wright. Then “J**** C***** !  “Do you want me to print this out for you?”

As I knew of course, Mark Watson had been with the Stars and Stripes after WWI.  He was with the Baltimore Sun for most of his professional life and became the assistant managing editor in 1920.   Later on he was the Sunday editor. He won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Europe after WWII. President Kennedy made him one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
Until his death in 1966 at age 78 Mark S. Watson was the senior defense correspondent working in the Pentagon press office.  In May of that year Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara unveiled a plaque above the desk where Watson had worked for many years.   He said at the time.  “Mark Watson’s sense of personal integrity and very deep understanding of the will and desire and purpose of our people is a standard that will affect actions of all of us, both his colleagues of the press and those of us in the department, for decades and decades to come.”

Mark Skinner Watson graduated from Plattsburgh High School in 1906.  His first job in journalism was reporting for the Plattsburgh Press.  It's worth noting that Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker magazine and Alexander Woollcott of the New York Times were enlisted men working under Watson on the Stars and Stripes in Paris during that period.
Maj. Web Wright, PIO 2nd Brigade Tenth Mountain Division

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mr. Shemin

On June 2nd, the President of the United States Barack Obama* will award the Congressional Medal of Honor to William Shemin posthumously, for his service to this country during World War I.   

Mr. Shemin, who died in 1973, and his family were longtime summer residents of Chazy Landing.  He bought a camp there in the late 1930s, and his wife, Bertha, and daughters, Elsie and Ina, came for the summers from then on.  Mr. and Mrs. Shemin were life-long friends of my mother and father, Tom and Mary Conroy of Beekmantown, where my mother gave riding lessons to their young daughters.  Elsie, now Elsie Shemin-Roth, will accept the medal on her father's behalf. 

Mr. Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917, after graduating from the New York State Ranger School. He was sent to Fort Greene, N.C., for basic training.  Upon graduation, his unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 4th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, was sent to the trenches in France.

Sgt. William Shemin (second from left) in France during WWI.

A sergeant, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during early August of 1918. His citation reads as follows:

"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress ... takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant William Shemin (ASN: 558173), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism ... on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France, 7, 8, and 9 August 1918. 

"Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space (of) 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. 

"After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on 9 August."

According to Capt. Rupert Purdon, a superior officer who recommended Sgt. Shemin for the Medal of Honor at that time, "he sprang from his position in the trench and dashed out in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire all the while Sgt. Shemin was rescuing the wounded.”

He took over the command of his platoon for the next three days, leading it until shrapnel wounds and a bullet to the back of his head forced him from the field.  After a hospital stay of three months, he was discharged, partially deaf and lame.

Upon returning home, he finished his schooling and established a successful landscaping and greenhouse business in the Bronx.

I knew Mr. Shemin all of my life, until his death in 1973, and he was always horribly lame.  The shrapnel left him vulnerable to a crippling form of arthritis that he endured without complaint.  He could not walk without the use of a cane.  My brothers and I, throughout our youth, were his hands in planting his property along Lake Champlain with every kind of tree, shrub and flower, which he shipped up from his business in the Bronx.

“He was the best man I ever worked for,” said Tom Conroy recently. “Back on the farm, we were making $4 a month, and Mr. Shemin immediately started my brother Will and myself at $2 per hour.  On our first payday, he drove us to the bank and helped us open a bank account so we’d learn how to handle money.  He was a thoughtful, caring, exacting person."

Elsie Shemin-Roth campaigned long and hard to have the government take a second look at her father's war decorations after reading that Jewish soldiers, along with African American, Asian and Native American military members, were sometimes denied full merit in the awarding of service medals.  She was the driving force behind a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of December 2011, called the William Shemin World War 1 Veterans Act, that provides for a Pentagon review of Jewish soldiers and sailors who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor simply because of their faith.

Ina and Elsie Shemin with President Obama at the White
House ceremony awarding their father William Shemin
the Medal of Honor posthumously May 26,  2015.

Mr. Shemin had been awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds, along with the Distinguished Service Cross, but his actions in those days under fire in France were in the same league with Sgt. Alvin York, who was the most famous hero of World War I and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.  Mr. Shemin was not portrayed in a movie by Gary Cooper, however, in our family any soldier who survived the trenches of World War I, much less went over the top to rescue the wounded, deserved a medal.  Mr. Shemin did it all.

In the late 1950s, the Shemins retired to their property in Chazy, where they had built a new house on the lake shore.  It was during those later years that we saw the most of Mr. Shemin.  He and his wife spent the remainder of their lives living happily there surrounded by the trees and flowers that he had planted.  

He was always "Mr. Shemin" to the members of my family, old and young.  His presence and dignity commanded that kind of respect.

For a time, the late Clinton County Judge Robert Feinberg and his wife lived in the Shemin house on Lake Shore Road.  It is now owned by Jim Carter.

At the same White House ceremony that posthumously recognizes Mr. Shemin, Pvt. William Henry Johnson will be honored, as well.  An African-American World War I veteran, he will also have the Distinguished Service medal that he received for bravery under fire in France upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

*A version of this article was published by the Press Republican on May 24, 2015.

*I received a White House pass from their press office to attend the ceremony for Mr. Shemin but wasn't notified early enough to obtain a ticket to DC in time for the event.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Phnom Penh: 40 years after the Fall

PHNOM PENH:  The world knows much of the story on the fall of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from the acclaimed movie “The Killing Fields."  On April 17, 1975, five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Cambodia and the installation of the Lon Nol government, Phnom Penh was taken by the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge.  This secretive organization, which was founded by left-wing Cambodian intellectuals from the Sorbonne in Paris, was known by the population at the time as "The Other."  It soon proved to be one of the bloodiest regimes in history.  The intent of the founders was to return Cambodia to "Year Zero," to remake the country into the ultimate and perfect agrarian society. Their model was to be the Chinese “cultural revolution."

Daniel Hung Meas, a Cambodian by birth and a Frenchmen by education, lived for nearly four years in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime.  He and his mother, father and five siblings survived.  Four of his older brothers were already living in Paris.

“You cannot imagine 2 million people, the population of Phnom Penh at that time, all in the streets trying to leave the city," Daniel recalled of the fall.

"No one could move. The Khmer Rouge told us that the Americans were going to bomb the city, so we had to leave, but that it would only be for a few days. So we brought next to nothing with us.  We were very lucky in that my father worked for the French Embassy and had an inkling of what was to happen under this new government.  He saw that we smashed up our glasses, watches, books - anything that would identify us as the educated class.  He told us to never, never speak a word of French … to anyone.”

Of the group of 300 families that the Meas family lived among, near the town of Neak Luong between Phnom Penh and the Vietnam border, half were to perish.

The highway from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh today is lined with industrial zones filled with new steel warehouses and manufacturing facilities.  A great deal of the business in Cambodia is Vietnamese controlled, much to the displeasure of many Cambodians, who have mixed feelings about their former liberators - and long-time traditional enemies.  However, though this country has a long way to go before it catches up with Vietnam, it is eons from Year Zero.
Monks along the riverfront in Phnom Penh.

The 30-year prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has been the subject of much criticism because of alleged human-right violations and other anti-democratic actions.  Members of his family hold positions of power in the government and in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.  His son Hun Manet was a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  Whatever the truth of the accusations against Hun Sen, it must be said that great progress has been made in Cambodia since the Vietnamese-led overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

Though the ruins at Angkor Wat outside the town of Seam Reap in northwestern Cambodia remain the country’s most famous tourist attraction, Phnom Penh is a bustling tourist town of its own, and rightly so.  It boasts a strikingly beautiful park along the Tonle Sap River, and that area of the city is loaded with hotels, bars and restaurants catering to the international tourist.  Most of the traditional government buildings and museums can be found in this vicinity.

The Tuol Sleng prison, a former high school, was the site of the infamous Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center in mid Phnom Penh.  This site, along with the Killing Field museum on the outskirts of the city, are must-sees for most tourists who come to Cambodia.  Between 1 million and 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge reign.
Tourists at the Killing Fields where 17,000 victims of S-21 were finished off.

C-Kong, the Tuk-Tuk driver, has had a hard life, as do most of the Cambodian working class.  Too young to remember the liberation of his country by the Vietnamese, he nonetheless carries the traditional resentment of Cambodians toward his neighboring country.

“They control most of the big businesses,” said C-Kong, “and more than a million Vietnamese have moved to this country for the good jobs.  At the same time, more than a million Cambodians have moved to Thailand for employment there."

Ralph Conroy (left) and C-Kong (right) on the streets of Phnom Pehn..

The Hung Meas family made it to France after escaping to Vietnam during the border fighting between the two countries that led to the Vietnamese invasion beginning Christmas Day 1978.  Phnom Penh was liberated from Khmer Rouge control on Jan. 7, 1979.  

Daniel lives in Ho Chi Minh City these days with his wife and daughter.  Two children from an earlier marriage are being educated in Paris.  He recently turned down a part in a French movie playing ‘"Duch," the warden of Tuol Sleng prison.  He feared being recognized as the convicted war criminal and having revenge taken on him by a victim’s family.  

He played the Vietcong agent that killed “The Quiet American” in the 2002 film of that name, which starred Michael Caine.  A former photographer for Agence French-Presse, Daniel still makes his living with a camera.

Daniel Hung Meas as he would look playing Duch in the French movie.

*A version of this article appeared in the Press Republican on May 24, 2015.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Saigon, 40 years after the Fall

HO CHI MINH CITY:  It’s midday here in Ho Chi Minh City on the 30th of April, 2015.  

Forty years and one day ago, almost to the minute, the voice of Bing Crosby came over the airwaves of Armed Forces Radio Vietnam, singing the classic Irving Berlin song "White Christmas."  For those in the know - the remaining American civilians and military personnel here - this song signaled the beginning of the final evacuation of Saigon.   They had all been assigned a point to arrive at where they'd be picked up by a helicopter or bus to begin the journey to U.S. Navy Ships offshore in the South China Sea.

The celebration of the 40th anniversary of that event, Liberation Day, as it’s known to the present population, is being led by officials from Hanoi.  Anyone in attendance has a formal invitation from the government. 

Old soldiers, war heroes from the North, who were guests of honor at the Liberation Day celebrations.

There is tight police and military security throughout Ho Chi Minh City.  All streets leading to the parade route have been cordoned off and are manned by armed police or military personnel.  

“We’ve been told to watch it on television,” said the clerk at the hotel.  That appears to be what most of the residents here are doing, though there is much activity on the streets.  When the high officials have left, the parade grounds will be opened to the public.  The government has released nearly 8,000 prisoners, some of whom are political detainees, for an anniversary amnesty.  The only foreign dignitary of note appears to be Raul Castro of Cuba.  His brother Fidel was the leader of that island nation when that country provided strong backing to Ho Chi Minh and his cause from the early 1960s on.  

Independence Palace in the aftermath of the Liberation Day Parade.
This being Vietnam, there are rumors which appear to be just that.  One is that right-wing Vietnamese from the U.S. will be trying to cause a disturbance.  Even more preposterous is the rumor that some old U.S. GIs will be up to something.  

Actually, a large number of U.S. Vietnam veterans do live in the Vietnam of today.  Many are on VA disability for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.  Most say they are happy and well received here and can live well on this economy, whereas in the U.S., they barely get by.

“I pay $400 a month for a corner apartment in a state-owned high rise,” said Greg Kleven, who was a U.S. Marine based in Chu Lai in 1966 and '67.  He has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly 25 years and is a participant in the soon-to-be-released documentary, tentatively titled “Echoes of War,” by filmmaker Kaley Clements.

Vietnam veteran Ralph Conroy (left), former U.S. Marine Greg Kleven (center), and Kaley Clements (right) at a Ho Chi Minh City noodle shop discussing Mr. Clements' new film.

The "Saigon" of today bears little resemblance to the city that fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975; however, it’s been a long struggle to get here.  

The first 10 years were spent coping with a destroyed country with no economy.  It was run by jungle fighters who had no experience running a modern country - or, in this case, building a modern country.  The strictly regimented communist economic system certainly didn’t help; neither did the fact that it was isolated from the world community of nations by the U.S.-led trade embargo.  Nor did it help that little-to-no aid was offered from other countries to rebuild.  There was no Marshall Plan for Vietnam, carrying the lesson, apparently: Never win a war over the U.S.   

The decisions by the Vietnamese government in 1987 to open up its economy to the free market and by the U.S. to end the embargo, in the early 1990s, led to the surge of growth and development that knows no end.

South of Ho Chi Minh City, in what was once rice paddy, is now "Saigon South," a completely new, modern city full of high rises, four-lane highways, parks, universities, economic-development zones, a modern container port and everything else that’s required for a metropolis. This level of development has spread throughout old Saigon and all of its suburbs - in fact, throughout the country.

Still undeveloped canal and cargo boat in the new city, Saigon South.

Presently, the per capita income in Ho Chi Minh City is $5,131 (U.S.).  In 1976, it was $360.  The city accounted for 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 30 percent of the government revenues this past year.  With nearly 1,500 schools, it has been able to offer universal secondary education.  The health-care system is vastly improved, with 105 hospitals in use, totaling 34,000 beds.

Forty years ago, this country was on its back with more than 30 million bomb craters, the result of the heaviest bombing in history.  Much of the country was poisoned by the infamous chemical spray "Agent Orange."  Ninety percent of the houses in the countryside had been burned.  The war dead numbered between 4 million and 5 million in a combined population of 30 million.

From that carnage and destruction, Vietnam today is rapidly becoming a first-world country.
War correspondents from the Vietnam War days would not recognize their old haunt, the bar on top of the Caravelle Hotel.  The entertainment hails from Cuba, and it’s the best show in Saigon.  The hottest, most musical female singing trio this city has seen has been drawing crowds for three years now in this venue, and no end seems in sight.

*A version of this article appeared in the Press Republican on May 7, 2015.