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Brooke: Before the Vietnam War, there was a law that banned women from reporting on the front lines of any war for the US. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam an opening appeared no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance, and little or no formal training.
Reporter Elizabeth Becker, former Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, and then NPR's foreign editor and the National Security correspondent for The New York Times has just published, You Don't Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. Chronicling Catherine Leroy, a French photojournalist Frankie Fitzgerald, an American long-form journalist, and author, and Kate Webb, an Australian combat reporter. Elizabeth, welcome to On The Media.
Elizabeth Becker: Well, thank you, Brooke, it's great to be with you.
Brooke: I want to start with where you started, you give your initial experience very short shrift, when asked, "Why did you cross the ocean to cover a war when you were so young?" You said, "The short answer was a nightmare I was all too keen to leave behind. My master's advisor had rejected my thesis on the Bangladesh War of Independence after I refused to sleep with him and he said one wasn't related to the other." Just tell me what happened?
Elizabeth: This was 1972 and there weren't that many women in graduate school and he made a move and I said no. He pressed on and I said no. He rejected the thesis that I had to work harder on it, then resisted any idea that one related to the other or that he even made a pass at me. You're young enough that you think that you have your whole life ahead of you and wary enough that I said, "I'm not leaving my life in this guy's hands." I took my fellowship money and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia.
Brooke: Well, of course, that's what anybody would do.
You said that you didn't know it was the first war for women, women reporters that is?
Elizabeth: Nobody knew. Officially, the United States military still had a ban against women on the battlefield and that ban was at least as old as World War II, if not older. Famous women like Martha Gellhorn, they weren't on the battlefield.
Brooke: She covered World War II, but is probably better known for her association with Hemingway?
Elizabeth: Yes, well she got around the ban and most famously for getting on the beach in Normandy for D-day, but who knew? I didn't know any of this. Certainly, the three women I profiled didn't know it until you ran up against it. What was interesting is that there was space for us more than anything else because President Lyndon Johnson did not want to declare a war. He had his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that allowed him to send American troops in beginning in 1965, but there were no official guidelines about who could cover the war.
If you got press credentials, and you could talk the commander into allowing you to cover that unit, then your press credential was like a Eurail card as one of the correspondents said. You showed it to the helicopter guy and you're on the helicopter, you could get on an APC, a truck and that's how women slept through.
Brooke: Why did you decide to tell the story of these three particular women?
Elizabeth: These were the women who made the path for all of us. They were the women who broke the thick glass ceilings. They were the ones who totally changed how you coverd a war. These were the original pioneers and they got lost. I was shocked at how quickly they were forgotten. Everybody knows Martha Gellhorn and wanted to make sure they were remembered.
Brooke: The first of the three profiles, although they weave in and out of each other, begins with Catherine Leroy, the French photojournalist. Explain how she came to be in Vietnam?
Elizabeth: She's a very petite French woman about 5 feet tall, barely 90 pounds. She was something of a rebel from her childhood, rebelling against her petite bourgeois French Catholic background. She was a pianist. She quit piano playing then she was a parachutist, and then she was bored. She decided looking at [unintelligible 00:07:02] that "Why not become a war photographer?" I'm serious there was no more to it than that. She had no reason to think that she could take a photograph, but she got one of those boring jobs in an employment office in Paris, bought a Leica camera and a one-way ticket to Saigon, and arrived, the Leica camera around her neck tied with a shoelace.
Brooke: Tell me how she was instantly welcomed into the fold of photojournalists?
Elizabeth: Well, first she was a curiosity. She was lucky that a great photographer named Horst Faas, a German who was himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer said he'd take a chance and he'd buy a good photograph from anybody, even a woman.
Brooke: He was an AP.
Elizabeth: Associated Press correct. He was head of the photography. As the custom back then, he gave film to Catherine and if she took a decent photograph, he ran it. She started to be good, very good, and very competitive. Her welcome was, in fact, an attempt to get rid of her.
Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.
Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she's got three cameras around her neck and you'd think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.
Brooke: Tell me about some of her other photographs.
Elizabeth: She's totally untrained so she teaches herself, which is one of the reasons she has such original photographs. She makes a rule for herself, the photograph has to capture their eyes, which makes sense if you're in a photo studio, but when you're in a battlefield, it's crazy. She uses her teeny little body like an acrobat, crawls in the mud, gets unusual angles, and gets those eyes. For instance, a very famous photograph of hers is from the Battle of the Hills. She sees a medic trying to revive another soldier, that soldier dies, he lifts his head. He makes a cry, smothers his face in a guy's body then gets up screams, and runs after the Vietnamese who killed him.
The photographs are everywhere and the guy sees them he says, "Where was she? I didn't see her." That's the way she does everything. She's so close, she's so small. It's like this magic sprite all over the place and her photographs become legendary because she captures that moment. There's not heroes, it's the humanity she always captures. Horst Faas said he hadn't seen that kind of photograph since World War II. That's the reason she became the first woman to win the George Polk Award in photography.
Brooke: Something else she observed? I don't know whether she was the first or the only photographer to capture both sides of the war at great personal risk. You said that hadn't happened as far as you could tell since Matthew Brady in the civil war.
Elizabeth: That's certainly the most famous example, but she was the only one during Vietnam and this is in the great Tet Offensive and this is in Huế, which was the center of it, dangerous beyond belief and she, and Agence France-Presse reporter, they get on a bicycle and cross to the other side, which is crazy. They're immediately captured by the North Vietnamese.
They take away her cameras. They handcuff them, but speaking French and using charm, the two of them convince them that they're not Americans. They aren't part of the other side and she gets her camera's back, takes photographs, convinces them to let her go, sends the photographs back to Saigon, and then she'd photograph the combat from the American side. Nobody else did that during the war and the courage it took is unbelievable.
Brooke: Let's talk about the double standard, the behavior that was acceptable in male correspondence and what was acceptable in women correspondence and how this quirky, kind of clastic character, this woman got caught in the middle and who almost went down in flames.
Elizabeth: As I said, she became very competitive and the men resented her. She's the one who was told repeatedly, "You don't belong here." The Agence France-Presse Bureau chief got together with some other reporters and wrote complaints about her to the military McPhee in Saigon, the press officers, they joined in because they didn't like--
Brooke: But why?
Elizabeth: Because she was coarse, because she was pushy, because she didn't--
Brooke: What did that have to do with them?
Elizabeth: This is 1966, it's misogyny. They called her unwashed, nobody took showers out in the battlefield. They wanted to get rid of her. They made up this whole new category of being coarse, vulgar, et cetera. They took away her press credentials, but then she fought back. Horst Faas, again, stood by her and she learned her lesson and she went out of her way to avoid all the troublemakers who tried to get rid of her and they continued to gossip about her sex life. One guy who talked about how she liked men and-
Brooke: How she was libidinous.
Elizabeth: Yes. Of course, none of that went the other way for the men. The men were great romantic heroes, swashbuckling reporters, and she probably had to put up with more of that gossip than anybody else.
Brooke: She nearly died.
Elizabeth: Yes. She was wounded. Your luck always runs out at some stage when you cover battle quite as much as she did. They were out in the field, they had to be brought back on a APC and she went on a hospital ship and she recovered. She had shrapnel in her body, the rest of her life. Again, this one big hero Horst Faas made sure that Associated Press paid for her recovery because as a freelancer, she would have had to pay it. I can't stress how much these women risk by paying their own way having nothing to fall back on.
Brooke: Let's talk about Frances FitzGerald, the daughter of a CIA officer, Desmond FitzGerald, and absolutely irresistible social light Marietta Peabody Tree. How did this upper-crust Radcliffe graduate get involved in reporting on Vietnam?
Elizabeth: Sort of almost in a classic way, she wanted to do serious reporting. Her degree was in Middle Eastern History. She went to Newsweek and she asked to apply for a job as a reporter or writer and they said, "No women aren't qualified for that. Women are only qualified to be researchers." She got some profile work as a freelancer, but that wasn't really much. So she bought a ticket to Vietnam.
This is a woman who grew up with limousines, chauffeurs, servants, stables full of horses and she lands in Vietnam, of all of the three, she's never seen anything like the horror, the destruction, and immediately Vietnam gets inside of her. It's a story that moves her like nothing else in her life. In fact, it's her privilege that was held against her oddly enough. Of course, she's going to do well.
Her dad's number three in CIA, she's got plenty of money. She knows everybody, not on your life. One of her old friends from childhood Frank Wisner was a diplomat in the embassy. He was nice to her, but he didn't take her seriously as a journalist. He wanted her to help him as a hostess. She rejected that, she had not come to Vietnam to do that and she created a very serious alternative way to view the war.
Brooke: You note that she wrote to herself, "You must not forget, you simply must not forget that this war is a tragedy, that the greatest sin is to speak of politics in the abstract. You must stick to the concrete because that way you'll be able to see far more points of view than the abstract."
Elizabeth: Fabulous, isn't it?
Elizabeth: She's not a trained journalist, but that should be at the head of every journalist notebook.
Brooke: She ended up in Vietnam because her father had a long-standing interest in Indochina, so the region was of interest to her.
Elizabeth: It was also the most important story in the world and in the United States. It was the story. In New York with her society, mom, and all the connections through her mom's lover, Adlai Stevenson, she knew that this was the topic. She had arguments with her dad and all these people about "What are we doing here?"
She went there completely untrained as a foreign correspondent, but as a woman who understood the elite and that abstraction that the elite used, and that's not what she wanted to do. She wanted to look at Vietnam, the real Vietnam and what was going on for the people, the landscape, the culture, where it fit in history, and what all of this fighting was doing to the country.
Brooke: You do observe though that as unfamiliar with war as she was, she knew a great deal about Washington politics and couldn't be snowed?
Elizabeth: That was very much to her advantage because all journalists claim to be skeptical. Yes, particularly in a war and this is at the beginning of war. You're very much pushed to not betray your country. You're very much pushed to, maybe you have some problems being skeptical about how they're doing this, that and the other, but down below, underneath it all, you support your country's war effort. When you see people dying, that's what happens. She was skeptical all the way and that's hard, but because she was so fluent in the ways of the elite and elite politics, it was possible for her. You're absolutely right. That's one of the roots of her genius.
Brooke: She also understood the importance of the Buddhist protest movements in Vietnam in a way that most of the political experts just basically ignored.
Elizabeth: For her, it was the key. It was one of the first things she covered and she'd read the newspapers and she thought she had done a good bit of homework, but she was shocked by the strength and the size of the Buddhist movement against the Saigon government. Then, it opened up her eyes to all kinds of things she did not understand about Vietnam. Even though they didn't meet at that point, Catherine Leroy herself was covering the same Buddhist demonstrations and coming to the same conclusion.
Those protests told them the Saigon government was not what it was supposed to be and that instead of just looking at who does what in the government, they were going to look at, "What do the Buddhist represent and what do they represent in terms of more for the people of Vietnam?"
Brooke: The irony is that the political and military elite didn't seem to recognize that the only real bulwark against the communists that they were so afraid were going to create a domino effect across Indochina were, in fact, these Buddhists.
Elizabeth: Why was she able to see that and the people running the war weren't? That's a very important question because she dug deeply enough so she not only saw the Buddhist, but she saw that, in fact, this goes way back to when the French were fighting and the French were defeated. Early on, she saw, "No matter what you think the Americans are not going to win."
Brooke: Her colleague and her lover during this period was Ward Just, a great journalist in his own right. You quote him saying that FitzGerald took a turn down a road no one saw, she was looking at things in a completely different optic, a whole new meaning to the phrase "foreign correspondent" and the job she undertook for herself was difficult, very, very difficult, much more difficult than battle coverage.
Elizabeth: That's because the classic mainstream appetite was who's winning on the battlefield. Who's on top in Saigon and she went out to places like civilian hospitals after a battle to see how poorly they were cared for. She covered Saigon from the slums to show that all the money was going to the predictable corrupt people and what was left for those Vietnamese fleeing the war whose villages were being destroyed. There was stuck in these slums with nothing.
Brooke: Let's go to Kate. She's the woman who first welcomed you to the war. The Australian Kate Webb.
Elizabeth: Kate comes in 1967. She's from Australia, intellectual family. She has a horrible experience where her best friend commits suicide in front of her using a rifle that Kate gave her. Kate's charged with homicide. The charges are dropped, but you can imagine what that would do to a sensitive 15-year-old. Then a few years later, while she's in college, her parents are killed in an automobile accident.
By the time she arrives in Vietnam, again, with no resume to speak of one-way ticket a portable typewriter, she's already had more trauma than most of us will ever have in our life. In some ways, that made Kate more sensitive, but also more vulnerable. She's the one who decides that she's going to be like the guys. She cuts her hair into a gorgeous pixie that makes her even more attractive.
She wears fatigues, she drinks with the best of them, she smokes with them, but she knows when to leave so she doesn't have to hold off a guy. She eventually worked with United Press International, and she makes her big moment during the Tet Offensive, but in Saigon, not in Hue, she's one of the first at the US embassy when the Vietcong break through, take over the bottom of the embassy. Completely stunning the United States because this was the moment in the war where General Westmoreland had promised that the end is near, there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Instead, the Vietcong were in Saigon, inside the US embassy. Kate's there, she writes an amazing dispatch and uses a phrase that becomes quoted in all the history books that it looked like a butcher shop in Eden, the amount of destruction in the beautiful new US embassy in Saigon. From there, she just does amazing combat reporting. Again, like the others, she wants to know the South Vietnamese army better than the Americans were covering it. She uses her vacation time to cover South Vietnamese and get to know them.
Brooke: She's captured?
Brooke: She comes back from the dead, ultimately?
Elizabeth: She did so well in Vietnam that when the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, they asked her to go and help open up the New Cambodia Bureau in Phnom Penh. She's the deputy and a man is the Bureau chief. This is a very dangerous time because the United States has opened up the war in a previously neutral country. Cambodia had been neutral up until 1970.
Now, there had been a coup beforehand so the new government was welcoming of the United States, but totally unprepared to fight in a war. The United States Congress said, "You cannot send our soldiers in there." They had to leave and so the only thing the US could do was essentially bomb and provide money to the small Cambodian army. Needless to say, no one could tell where the frontline was. It was chaotic and within the first four months of that war, as many journalists were killed as in the previous six years in Vietnam. Kate's boss was one of them. Within months she becomes the bureau chief.
This is extraordinary for a woman. I tried to find a precedent and I couldn't and then her luck ran out and she was captured one year later by the North Vietnamese inside Cambodia and held for 23 days and while she was captured, some Cambodians falsely said that her body had been found. Now back home in Sydney, her sister had the feeling that this couldn't be true, when they were released, it was if she came back to the living from being killed and that's when the Kate Webb legend was secure.
Brooke: Tell me about her evolution as a reporter. What drove her? A lot of people listening to this whole think, "Well, these are just like the men who run to danger, they need to be adrenalized."
Elizabeth: No. First of all, like the other two women, Kate was involved in the whole country and it's not just adrenaline. War is the most amazing story you can cover. All three of these women truly fell in love with Indochina and I'll throw myself in there too. You get to know the people, the culture, you want things to turn out well, and it doesn't, and it gets into you so that your whole life is covering the story and it's not just battlefield and it's not just adrenaline. It's an entire society.
I have to say, Frances never covered another war and neither did Kate. Catherine covered the Middle East but then quit. These were not junkies. These were people committed to the story. In those days, there's not even the word PTSD, much less an understanding of it for soldiers or a female reporter, so she and Catherine never treated. Kate essentially after the war became a functional alcoholic. Catherine had severe problems, trust problems, and kept shooting herself in the foot.
Brooke: What do you mean?
Elizabeth: Even during the war? She turned on people who were her friends. She even turned on Horst Faas at one stage. She didn't know if people were really being honest when they were selling her photographs. Should she trust this person? And should she trust that person? She alienated people that she didn't need to and that's very much a part of PTSD. Even though, as I said, she won those awards, she was the first George Polk, she was the first Robert Capa Gold Medal woman to win those.
Her career petered out and she died essentially broke in Los Angeles. The interesting thing about Frances is that she realized at what point she had to leave, she became very ill. She was having a hard time keeping up. She knew she had to leave so she went on her own back to the United States, still very committed to Vietnam, and spent the next few years doing amazing research on the history of Vietnam and wrote the book Fire in the Lake.
I was surprised, I'd forgotten what a smash it was. The New Yorker made it five or six-part series of it. It was enormous, particularly for a 31-year-old woman war correspondent. That alone is worth the price of bread and then she wins the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bancroft, in the process beating out one of the great heroes of the American press Corps, David Halberstam, because that's the same year Best and the Brightest came out. She won all the prizes and that did not go over well with her former colleagues.
Brooke: Why did she win all the prizes?
Elizabeth: She answered the questions that every American wanted to know, "What are we doing in Vietnam?" "What is Vietnam?"" Who are the Vietnamese?" "What does this have to do with the history of Vietnam?" Whereas Halberstam wrote a good book about the roots of the war in Washington, The Best and the Brightest about the John F. Kennedy cabinet and how they continued the war. Daniel Ellsberg had already published the Pentagon papers more on how did we get into the war from the American point of view.
Frances FitzGerald wrote from the Vietnamese point of view, as well as the American. You could see it was exactly what Americans wanted to know. I think Taylor Branch in the Washington Monthly said it all. He said, "Why didn't I read this earlier? Why did it take a young woman named Frances FitzGerald to go to Vietnam and tell me what's going on?"
Brooke: The response was ecstatic, except pretty much from her colleagues who covered the war?
Elizabeth: They thought she relied too much on this French sociologist, Paul Mus, which was, I think, a red herring. They thought she didn't really understand Vietnam because she's not a scholar. I interviewed Fredrik Logevall at Harvard--
Brooke: Who is that?
Elizabeth: He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Vietnam War. Embers of War was his big book. He also wrote, Choosing War and he's universally recognized as the authority. I said, "Tell me, how do you see this book?" He said, "It was seminal." This was the book that opened up a whole new way to see the war and he was a graduate student when he read it. And he said it just changed his outlook. It's a classic. It belongs on the short shelf of the most important books on the war.
Brooke: What difference does it make ultimately?
Elizabeth: Well, Brooke, it makes a lot of difference to you and all of us because thanks to these women, the next American war, the Gulf War, women on the staff of newspapers, television programs, and PR, et cetera, went over as staff, war correspondents. These women are the missing link. Before them, woman war correspondent was an oxymoron. After them, it became taken for granted, but it's more than just breaking that huge glass ceiling, making it forever possible for staff women to go over and cover a war with the full weight and support of their media organization and the permission by the military to cover the same thing as the men, but also giving a true new vision of what it means to cover a war.
Brooke: The big glass ceiling was broken by these women, but does it make a difference fundamentally, in how wars are covered?
Elizabeth: I was lucky enough to follow in their footsteps. Diversity does matter. Going through and reading the articles and looking at the photographs, I was more impressed than I thought possible at how they changed things. For instance, Frances' first long foreign peace, Life and Death of a Village, December 1966, New York Times Magazine, that was a precursor for all of the immersive work that's done when you go to a village and you watch how war is destroying it. You talk to the people that everyday life.
This was the first, this was before Jonathan Schell's Village of Ben Suc. When you look at Catherine's photographs, nobody had done it before. Our critics later, photograph critics just are amazed at the way she used her positions on the ground, above, below, with a sense of humanity, but also action, no heroic poses. Kate, reading her stuff, it was so much better than I remembered and stands to the test of what it means to be a war reporter, not just write baseball scores, good guys, six, bad guys, seven. That's pretty much a lot of what was going on then. She's covering some pilots of a helicopter, and just as she's writing the story, they're killed.
She writes that. She writes about covering a battle in Saigon and she's having fun with a couple of the mid-level Saigon military officers, who she knew, she talks about them by name, what they look like and how much fun they are. Then she goes to file her story comes back and they're dead, and she writes that too.
Brooke: She writes about her captors?
Elizabeth: Yes, she makes fun of herself. When they say, "We believe you're spy because why would you a woman be going down that highway?" She says, "I'm a journalist, and I'm trying to find the truth." They said, "The truth?" Then she says to herself, "I guess the truth in the battlefield is as rare as a flower, and I guess all I'm saying is I don't know myself, why I do it." That's the kind of reporting you did not read back in those days.
Brooke: I was struck by what turned out to be premature obituaries that you quote, where she is praised repeatedly for being a war correspondent, but never losing her femininity.
Elizabeth: Oh, there are so many examples of that. This piece in the Women's Wear Daily, where the reporter wanted to write about the news hens who are working with the news hawks, that would be the men, and what it felt like. One of the women goes out of her way to say, "Oh, she never wears fatigues, she only wears silk blouses to the battlefield, so she'll remain feminine." Another one says, "It's really a good way to find a boyfriend." Kate would have none of that. [chuckles] She just ignores the question, as we all learn how to do, and says, "Well, the real important issue is, whether or not the South Vietnamese Army have the right M16 rifles." [laughs]
Brooke: After Lery was severely injured, she was visited by General Lewis Walt who tells her, "I can't give you a purple heart," and gives her a manicure set, instead?
Elizabeth: Several women have noted that one, yes, "You're not feminine enough, you're too feminine, you don't believe in women's liberation, you're up against the walls." It was unbelievable. They'd love to take pictures of the women in the field putting lipstick on. So many photographs I saw of that. I did not include them in my book.
Brooke: When you were a kid, you were in Cambodia, you wrote a book called, When The War Was Over: Cambodia, and The Khmer Rouge Revolution, do you think you were better prepared because of them? You came so hard on their heels, did you go through much of what they went through and what were you able to avoid because of them?
Elizabeth: Because of them, I had the confidence that a woman could do this. That's a gift you can't even measure. I knew that it could be done and that's huge. I knew from them what the cost was. So I wrote to my family when I decided to leave, "If I don't leave pretty soon it'll either be in a body bag or a straitjacket." Then, their example was such that I understood when I went back to Washington as a reporter at The Post, that I wasn't the only one who couldn't forget Indochina. I made sure that I got a visa to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot. It's not consciously, "Oh, I think, blah, blah, blah." It's just, it was part of the atmosphere that they created for us.
Brooke: Elizabeth, thank you very much.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke: Elizabeth Becker is a journalist who's worked for The Washington Post, National Public Radio, and the New York Times. She is author most recently of You Don't Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote The Story of War. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. You can catch the Big Show on Friday, posted roughly around dinner time. Be sure to check out our newsletter. It's really good.
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