The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three groundbreaking journalists saw the Vietnam War differently. It’s no coincidence they were women.

Cambodian Prime Minister Long Boret, center, meets with war correspondent Elizabeth Becker in Cambodia in 1974. (Elizabeth Becker)
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Frances FitzGerald paid her own way into Vietnam. She was an “on spec” reporter with no editor to guide her, no office to support her, and no promise that anyone would publish what she wrote about the war.

She knocked out her first article on a blue Olivetti portable typewriter she had carried from New York and mailed it the cheap and slow way from a post office in the heart of Saigon’s French quarter to the Village Voice, nearly 9,000 miles away.

It arrived, and on April 21, 1966, the Voice published FitzGerald’s indictment of the chaotic U.S. war policy.

“The result was a highly original piece written in the style of an outsider, someone who asked different questions and admitted when she didn’t have answers,” wrote Elizabeth Becker in her new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” which celebrates the work of FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy.

Becker, a former war correspondent in Cambodia toward the end of the decades-long conflict, wrote about these women in part because she had experienced much of what they did — just a little later, and with appreciation for the paths they’d broken.

“I went through it at the tail end, and they were my role models,” Becker told me last week. She admired them because they had broken gender barriers, endured sexual harassment and been belittled by journalistic peers who thought women had no place near a war zone.

But “I wanted to write more than a ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ book,” said Becker, who has broken a few of her own: It’s likely that, as a stringer in Cambodia in the early 1970s, she was the first woman to regularly report from a war zone for The Washington Post. Later, she became the senior foreign editor at NPR and a New York Times correspondent.

What struck Becker about her subjects went far beyond gender. It was the women’s approach to their work. They were more interested in people than in battlefields, quicker to see the terrible cost of violence to the Vietnamese as well as to Westerners, less likely than many of their male colleagues to swallow the government’s party line.

“They brought this common humanity and an originality to their work,” Becker said.

Remarkably early, FitzGerald clearly described what American officials didn’t want the public to see: the chaos, the lack of sensible purpose.

“For the Embassy here the problem has not been how to deal with the crisis — there is no way to deal with it under U.S. Standard Operating Procedures — but rather how to explain what is happening in any coherent terms,” she wrote in that 1966 article for the Voice.

As admired as FitzGerald’s work would be — her 1972 book “Fire in the Lake” won the Pulitzer Prize and a raft of other honors, including the National Book Award — it hasn’t always gotten its due. When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns put together a reading list to accompany his and Lynn Novick’s 2017 series on Vietnam, “Fire in the Lake” didn’t make the cut. As Becker noted in an opinion piece in last week’s New York Times, that was rectified after “You Don’t Belong Here” came out.

Becker chose her subjects well — the women she profiles were from three different continents and did different kinds of journalism. In addition to the American intellectual FitzGerald, Becker tells the stories of combat reporter Kate Webb from Australia, whose obituary was prematurely published in the New York Times after her 1971 capture by North Vietnamese troops; and of the daredevil photojournalist Catherine Leroy from France, whose of-the-moment battlefield images made her the first woman to win a prestigious George Polk award for photography.

Different as they all were, they had things in common: They paid their own way to the war, came without any guarantees that their work would be published, ignored or survived the harassment and dismissiveness of their male peers, and challenged the U.S. military’s ideas of what their access should be.

“Their devotion, their wisdom, their vulnerabilities — you can’t make it up,” Becker told me.

Half a century later, the work of these journalists remains inspiring. So is Becker’s clearsighted book, which puts us at the scene, with the advantage of decades of hindsight and her own deep experience. If there’s a wasted or boring word here, I couldn’t find it.

“My guess is that every young woman filled with journalistic ambition will have a copy in her backpack, perhaps as she ventures into a war zone with her laptop, her satellite phone and a sustaining dose of idealism,” wrote the historical novelist Jacqueline Winspear in her Washington Post review.

As Becker told me: “Covering war captures you. It gets hold of you, and it’s deep, especially when it’s a country you love, and I think every one of us came to love Indochina.”

The American government’s foolishness in foreign policy didn’t end in Vietnam. Neither did sexism in journalism or society.

Sometimes, it turns out, important stories are best told by those who aren’t the members of any cozy club of correspondents or government officials — by outsiders.

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