In 2003, the film director Barbara Kopple set about making a documentary about the work of five women reporters in Iraq. In Bearing Witness, Kopple – known for her Oscar-winning portrayal of a grueling miners’ strike in Appalachia – filmed her camera on the work of women reporting on war. She showed sexism and rudeness, but also women struggling with personal difficulties and demons – alcoholism, loneliness and, in my case as one of the women, associating motherhood with war.
Kopple wanted to portray women who are deeply committed to their job – tell the truth under the most hostile circumstances – and at the same time try to be taken seriously in a world of machos.
When I read Elizabeth Becker’s new book “You are not one of them: How three women paraphrased the history of the war”, I notice how little the infiltration of an old boys’ club between Vietnam, where Becker’s book is, and Iraq three decades later has changed. Even today, despite massive technological changes and the way the press reports on wars, all the hallmarks of clubby sexism and bias remain.
In Becker’s compelling book, three extraordinary women – Catherine Leroy, Frances “Frankie” FitzGerald, and Kate Webb – come to Vietnam at the height of the war to try to portray the conflict in a unique way. Each is determined to make a name for themselves and make the war their own. Everyone is captivated by the country, drawn deeply into it and committed to the people and culture. They are equally appalled by the horror of the atrocities and the intent to bring to light the gritty US foreign policy in the region.
Leroy – angry, intense, driven – takes a tremendous personal risk to snap intense, tight photos that highlight the raw feelings of war: the fear, the mud, the boredom, and the chaos. What she suffers – the isolation, the grin at her looks after grueling days in the field, and the tough battle she waged to get accredited as a press photographer by the U.S. military – is annoying. Her sheer courage and her brave determination to keep going despite little support and camaraderie make her the most compelling, albeit self-destructive, figure in the book for me.
Webb also stands for courage. She insisted on going down streets and into the field, even if it was far too dangerous and was captured by the North Vietnamese. Her death has been widely reported. Her family mourned her and began preparing for the memorial service. A few weeks later, Webb marched out of a malaria-struck field, half dead but alive enough to tell the story of her capture.
FitzGerald, a beautiful debutante from a wealthy family, shed a unique light by portraying the war from all three sides – US, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese – and winning the respect of her colleagues. Her seminal history of Vietnam, Fire in the Lake, is still considered one of the most in-depth and comprehensive studies of the war. (In 1980 she was also one of the first women to join the foreign policy department.)
But all of them were mocked at the time. Becker told me that she took the title of her book from a remark made to Leroy by a male French photographer who later apologized to her for the testimony. Sir Don McCullin, the acclaimed English photographer, echoed what these women had to endure in an essentially hostile, male-dominated environment while working under conditions of great stress: “[Leroy] did not want to be a woman among men, but a man among men. Why would a woman want to be under the blood and slaughter? “For McCullin, this shows how hard the work the three women were and how determined they were to keep it going for so long.
The three women Becker told the story of the war could not have been more different. Leroy was tiny and French, lively and brave, a master skydiver and a loner. She loved fashion. “[S]He had become Saigon’s Twiggy, ”writes Becker. Leroy was just as free with her sexuality as most men – but she was a woman and was labeled the Sobriquet bitch, Becker told me. But Leroy was also headstrong, devoted to photography, and was ready to slide past any man to get the shot she needed – which fucking annoyed her. Decades later, my comrades in the field – photographers and camerawomen – suffered the same fate.
A photo by Catherine Leroy of a US soldier and a Vietnamese civilian during the Vietnam War circa 1967. Catherine Leroy Fund
A photo by Catherine Leroy of a US soldier in South Vietnam, circa 1968. Catherine Leroy Fund
Leroy also spoke out boldly, a quality she did not recommend to the mostly male press corps. In one particularly crowning scene, Becker describes an angry Leroy who struts on stage in beautiful clothes to receive a coveted award in New York City. But when she reaches the stage, she begins to berate her bosses and colleagues to the horror of the audience. At another time she would be applauded: You go, girl! But in the time she lived and worked she was shunned and shunned. After Vietnam, she paused for a while before doing some of her best jobs in Lebanon during the civil war.
Webb came from Australia with a dark, traumatic past and a determination to be successful. Quiet, shy, but steadfast, she suffered indescribable humiliation as a reporter in the world of a man – and had to hide her femininity in order to be taken seriously. She became a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, qualified reporter and trustworthy colleague. She got up to run the UPI office in Phnom Penh – unheard of for a woman.
“Webb hated being called a reporter,” Becker writes. “[S]he felt it was a way of dismissing her accomplishments. “Still, she was a woman with a woman’s needs and desires that were often pushed aside to accommodate a tenacity that she needed to maintain.
FitzGerald was perhaps the happiest of them all. Her patrician ancestors included a father who was a CIA colonel and a mother who was a prominent lover of Adlai Stevenson and who later became a U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (mainly because of her connections with the Kennedy clan). FitzGerald’s father gave her a check for $ 100,000, nearly $ 1 million for today’s money, when she graduated from Radcliffe College, which enabled her to live well in Saigon on a freelance income. She never had to sleep in cheap hotels like Webb or Leroy, or struggle to get paid properly.
FitzGerald had a gold address book, and when she landed in Saigon she immediately became the friend of Ward Just, one of the most respected male reporters in the press corps. The relationship protected her from gossip and gave her an instant social life. She later had a romance with Kevin Buckley, a Yale University graduate and a Newsweek correspondent, who helped establish her credibility as a reporter.
FitzGerald’s Saigon wasn’t a tough climb like Webb’s or Leroy’s. When she got sick, her arrogant mother flew in and took her to private hospitals and bedding in Singapore. When she wanted a break from the war, she flew to a distant cousin’s lush castle in Ireland. When she wanted to publish her essays, the New Yorker and the Atlantic opened their doors to her.
Despite her high qualifications, education, and hard work and research, FitzGerald was still not taken seriously until she released Fire in the Lake. She still had to fight to be recognized as one of the few journalists who covered the war from all three sides. Your commitment to the country was justified. As Becker told me: “She was the only debutante who reported from Vietnam! She didn’t have to be there. “
What Becker really wanted to achieve with You Don’t Belong Here is a book about Vietnam, told through the eyes of three women who loved the tragic country. “I wanted to write a book about Vietnam that was readable,” she told me. “Narrative journalism – literary journalism that you could read [in order to] Understand the Vietnam War through the eyes of these women. “
Becker ends the book with her own story of how she came to Cambodia as a journalist and fell under the spell of Indochina and wrote extraordinary programs from the time of the Khmer Rouge. When Becker first met Webb at Hong Kong airport – Becker arrives in Asia and Webb departs – Webb asks her why she left her safe home in Seattle to cover a war. Becker pauses and replies that Cambodia is an integral part of her studies – but in reality she’s more intrigued by the escalation of the US bombing campaign and the legacy of the women like FitzGerald and Webb who worked in Vietnam before her.
Becker’s book brings back what my colleague in Bosnia, the New York Times reporter, John F. Burns, once nostalgically referred to as “that time, this place of war”. She writes beautifully about the grief of women, their serious fights, the laughter, the phone calls, the daily little humiliations that amounted to the heavy accusation of the French photographer: You don’t belong here.
But they were part of it. And the proof is their legacy. The fire in the lake stands alongside the greatest historical records of the Vietnam War. Leroy’s amazing images of wounded Marines being carried by their comrades are some of the best photos of the war; Your “Corpsman in Anguish” is an icon. And, much to the annoyance of her male colleagues, Webb will always be remembered as the first wire reporter to reach the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, hide behind a wall, take notes, and hit her on the shovel. Interestingly, none of the three women had children, and only FitzGerald got married – and only at the age of 50. Leroy and Webb died too soon and tragically. But all of them are legends.
When I first covered the war in Bosnia in 1992, the last Vietnam press corps was still alive and well at work. The stories they told over late whiskey and cigarettes with grenades and sniper fire in the background were often about these remarkable women whose work overcame the grave obstacles they faced.