Elizabeth Becker had a “nightmare” of a reason to relinquish her graduate studies — a professor who “kneecapped” her future when she wouldn’t sleep with him. She filed a complaint and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia. It was 1973, and 25-year-old Becker was off to be a war correspondent. That angry grad student went on to become a highly respected journalist with an array of awards to her name. In 2015, based on her reporting from Cambodia for The Washington Post and her subsequent book, “When the War Was Over,” Becker was called as an expert witness at the Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal in Phnom Penh. It was during those hearings that Becker realized, “No one knew what it had meant to be a woman covering the Vietnam War.” Now, with her new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” Becker not only shines a light on the contributions of those correspondents — along with the risks they took to show and tell the raw truths of the war as they saw it — but provides a valuable depth of cultural and historical insight into the conflict.
Becker met Australian journalist Kate Webb during a layover in Hong Kong on that fateful journey to Cambodia. Webb was already a reporting legend, owing both to her work and to her kidnapping by the North Vietnamese. She, too, had left home clutching a one-way ticket to war. Twenty-six-year-old American Frances “Frankie” FitzGerald had done the same in 1966, as had French photojournalist Catherine Leroy, who was 21 when she landed in Vietnam with her Leica M2 camera. Arriving in a war zone, not one of those women imagined the impact their work would have — and not just because of their gender in what was considered a man’s world.
FitzGerald was the daughter of Desmond FitzGerald, who became deputy director of the CIA, and Marietta Peabody, a socialite who represented the United States on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights during the Kennedy administration. Following the couple’s divorce, Peabody had affairs with John Huston and Adlai Stevenson. Though Frankie FitzGerald was well connected, it was a thorn in her side that other correspondents assumed those connections helped her up the ladder to publication. She landed hard in Saigon. She had been writing “personality pieces” — the usual fare assigned to women in the newspaper business — when she left for Southeast Asia. Becker writes, “Vietnam hit FitzGerald like a thunderbolt,” adding that on the way from the airport, she “inhaled dust and fumes from decrepit buses and military jeeps and was jarred by the sight of the once beautiful city — the Paris of the East — defiled by the demands of war.”
In one harrowing scene, Becker describes FitzGerald, along with other guests at the 35th birthday party of Daniel Ellsberg, then a Pentagon aide serving as an intelligence officer, jumping into Ellsberg’s jeep and heading off to witness a protest erupting in Saigon’s Chinese quarter. With cars overturned and dissent violent, it didn’t take long for the group to realize their error. According to Becker, Ellsberg thought, “We’ve had it” and was relieved that FitzGerald seemed so calm. In fact, a “white-knuckle fear burned underneath a stoic exterior.”
FitzGerald was serious about reporting the “truth of war” without necessarily supporting the American position. She wrote her first article on spec for the Village Voice, positioning herself as “someone who asked different questions and admitted when she didn’t have the answers.” That mind-set underpinned her work, and Becker describes a maturing war correspondent, one not afraid to dig deep. FitzGerald’s final report before leaving Vietnam was titled “Behind the Facade: The Tragedy of Saigon” — it predicted the outcome of America’s failure.
FitzGerald’s relationship with veteran reporter Ward Just meant she avoided the sexual advances and innuendo that trailed Leroy. The diminutive photographer — she was five feet tall and weighed 87 pounds — brought certain advantages to her work. She was an experienced parachutist, and given her stature, she could weave her way into places others couldn’t. And she was brave beyond measure. It was a series of photographs taken in the midst of combat that sealed her reputation. Becker writes that “intimate portraits during battle became Leroy’s hallmark” and describes the way Leroy would crawl in the mud alongside the soldiers, focusing on their eyes and changes in expression. In Khe Sanh to report on the Hill Fights, she was following the company when the Vietnamese opened fire at the summit. A 20-year-old medic, Vernon Wike, ran toward a fallen Marine, took off his helmet and leaned forward, listening for a heartbeat. The look of anguish on his face is searing — and Leroy kept clicking as Wike came to his feet and charged the bunker, the dead man’s M16 in his hands.
Becker’s nuanced storytelling follows Leroy’s career with respectful sensitivity, not drawing back from recounting the personal trauma that began to get the better of her. She quotes Leroy: “Those images rest inside of you with the violence, madness and fear and agony.”
By the time Webb arrived in Vietnam, violent images were already resting inside her — a friend’s suicide by gunshot, for which Webb was accused of murder because she provided the weapon, and the death of her parents in a car accident when she was 18. According to Becker, Webb developed “a loner’s mystique within the press corps.” Given Becker’s descriptions of the way female war correspondents were often undermined as conflict groupies or incompetent hangers-on, it was probably a wise move, especially since her work was gaining the kind of attention that male correspondents considered their exclusive domain. Webb spent time immersing herself in the local culture to go beyond “that impersonal language of an Army war report.” Becker’s account of the circumstances surrounding Webb’s kidnapping and eventual release reads like a thriller — the sick and skeletal reporter emerging from the jungle only to become the story.
There is a fourth woman who rewrote the story of war, and that is of course Elizabeth Becker, who with a depth of research and an abundance of grace gives fresh insight into the background and achievements of three extraordinary war correspondents — and the price they paid for the intensity of their work. Yet there is a certain undercurrent, another crucial layer emerging as the narrative progresses, and that is the parallel story of American political naivete in committing a military with a World War II mind-set to a war against a people whose history and culture — and ways of fighting — they made little attempt to comprehend. Webb, FitzGerald, Leroy — and Becker — quickly shed any naivete they themselves may have had as they reported on the war and chronicled the desperate human cost of American hubris.
In recent years a number of memoirs and biographies have been published focusing on female war correspondents (I’ve probably read every one). Hollywood has taken notice too, with the critically acclaimed “A Private War,” about the life of Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012, and a film reported to be in the works with Carey Mulligan as Webb. It’s a compelling narrative: Young woman dons khaki and takes notebook into the terror of war. But perhaps what attracts us is a more fundamental passage, one that mythologist Joseph Campbell would recognize — except it’s a woman who heeds the call to adventure, who meets challenges and temptations along the way, and who is transformed by the experience. If that is so, then Becker has written “The Heroine’s Journey” about three very different women who answered the archetypal call to adventure — and found themselves immersed in the chaos that was the Vietnam War.
“You Don’t Belong Here” is deserving of a wide readership. 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.
You Don’t Belong Here
How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War
By Elizabeth Becker
320 pp. $28