Jim Smith and I used to goof around in the Newsday sports department. He was going to college and covering high-school sports, just as I had started.
Then he came up with No. 34 in the draft lottery and wound up in Vietnam, first as a typist, then on guard duty, then covering the war for Stars and Stripes.
When he came back, he was different. They all were, the ones who came back.
Years later, in 1991, my wife and I were in Vietnam through her volunteer child-care mission, and I came back with new friends and mostly good memories. I saw Jim at a game, and offered to show him photos. He shuddered. Didn’t want to go there.
Now Smith is 67 and retired, and has written a touching and valuable book, “Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam,” published by iUniverse, also available on e-book.
The words come back. Tu Do Street. Hootch. Charlie. Tunnels. ARVN. Words from history. Words people live with.
Jim is very clear about the journalism he produced, under orders to write only positive stories. But he has fleshed out the details with memories and notes he stashed and letters he sent home.
He makes it clear that he was no hero. He had only four months up close to the fighting, in 1972, when casualties had been downsized, and he only began inching closer to combat near the end, so he would know what it was like. He came under fire twice, never fired a shot.
Most Vietnam books go for the big picture – how LBJ and McNamara and Westmoreland and so many others ignored and misrepresented and lied.
Smith’s book concentrates on the people who did the dirty work; some thought they should go harder, others thought it was all a waste. Smith fluctuated from dove to hawk. He kept his hair fairly short, so officers would give him stories.
He concentrates on the mundane, the down time, the bitching, the carousing, but the old horrors creep in, nevertheless.
Mostly he saw the humanity – some young Americans who discovered they were quite good at firing a machine gun from the door of a helicopter or seeking out Vietcong in the brush. They were warriors. Others were not.
Smith was a reporter, glad to get back to base, to Saigon, to his apartment and civilian clothing and the girlfriend he almost brought home with him.
The closest thing to a big picture comes from meetings with Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who questioned the war and later was the hero of Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
“I had more respect for Mr. Vann – for that is what I always called him – than for anybody else I met in Vietnam.”
After Vann died in a helicopter crash, Smith held back from punching a captain who said Vann had been a showoff.
Smith displays admirable journalistic curiosity about the South Vietnamese, Montagnards and South Koreans he observed in combat.
Then he came home to cover local news and we resumed goofing around during a fractious school-board feud in Great Neck. (How petty it must have seemed to a reporter back from war.) He married a colleague from Newsday, Lynn Brand, and they have a son, Peter.
In retirement, Jim Smith is on the board of United Veterans Beacon House and is donating the profits from his book to veterans’ causes. He served. As he reminds us of that war, I would say he is inching closer to hero status all the time.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.