Elizabeth Becker, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, Public Affairs Books, $16.99.
The first time I dealt with small arms fire, I was in a wooden tower buttressed with sandbags looking out over Highway 1 which ran to Saigon. I was on guard duty sometime before midnight when the shift would change. I was trying to stay awake when I heard ka-rack and saw red tracer rounds arcing over my head.
I knew that every eighth round was a tracer, so there were a bunch of rounds I didn’t see. I knelt behind the sandbags, my rifle resting on top, my helmet tipped forward and peed my pants.
Multiply that little scene by a million and you might get close to what three amazing women did for several years during the Vietnam War. To use a grunt phrase, they wanted to be “in the shit.” They got their wish.
Catherine Leroy, a 5-foot tall, 87-pound, brown-haired French photographer; Frances FitzGerald, an East Coast blue-blood American writer; and Kate Webb, a New Zealand-born reporter who moved to Australia at age 8 and who later had a black hole in her past.
Elizabeth Becker memorializes this trio of journalists in her just-published You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the History of War. Becker, herself a highly respected war correspondent, tells story after story about these three storytellers. While the clause after the colon in her book’s title may exaggerate their impact, the three did show sides of the decade-long struggle that their male counterparts didn’t cover.
The result was that their audiences – on three separate continents – saw slices of conflict and human tragedy and heroism from a different, and in some ways more empathetic perspective.
As Becker puts it: “They didn’t write their memoirs. Two of them (Webb and Leroy) have already died. They made their way to Vietnam at the beginning. I came at the tail end, following their paths. Together, their lives offer a new way to see the war and it is long overdue.”
To do shorthand violence to this memorable work, it might be said that the male correspondents focused on the blood and guts of Vietnam. Webb, FitzGerald and Leroy focused on the hearts and minds.
Becker puts us, the readers, in a C-130 cargo plane with Leroy, getting ready to parachute-jump near the Cambodian border; at a party for Fitzgerald on the rooftop of the Caravelle Hotel arranged by a senior US embassy official (FitzGerald’s father was near the top of the CIA); in the 23-day captivity of Webb by the Viet Cong.
Becker’s diligent research into the three women lets us feel as if we are shadowing a Vietnamese doctor making his bloody rounds in Saigon or traveling with a Vietnamese infantry division or being captured by the North Vietnamese Army during the battle for Hue in Tet 1968.
Becker’s scrupulous use of thousands of pages written by the women themselves and now, in two cases, consultation with their families, places us alongside the reporters as they report.
By doing this, Becker transforms what could have been a good book into a prize-worthy page-turner of tension, suspense and drama. The tone of the book intensifies with each chapter (all deftly named). Becker never loses sight of her goal to illuminate these women in the larger context of America’s biggest foreign policy disaster of the 20th century.
As Frankie FitzGerald wrote in a note 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 will be able to see in more points of view than the abstract.”
We learn the myriad dimensions of each woman. Kate Webb, for instance, had inadvertently led her teenaged best friend into committing suicide in Australia; not long after, both her parents were killed in a car wreck.
Frankie’s past included a degree from Radcliffe, a Vogue-like model of a mother and two years on the Left Bank in Paris. Leroy had to endure public ridicule by male reporters and officers and was the victim of that hoary standby slander that she slept around to get information.
Both Webb and FitzGerald experienced heartbreak in wartime romances. A male writer could not have described these with such sensitivity as does Becker. We feel their loss.
Becker shows them pursuing stories in their inimitable ways:
“In the village of Co Luu in Quang Ngaio Province, Leroy photographed Marines moving several hundred villagers into tents surrounded by barbed wire. Leroy took images of an interrogation, which she later described in a diary: ‘A South Vietnamese officer is asking standard questions to an old man who is wrinkled and trembling: “How old are you? Where are your sons.'”
“Frankie FitzGerald spent Christmas 1974 in Hanoi and stayed on through the New Year of 1975, becoming one of the very few journalists who reported from all three sides of the war (the US, North Vietnam and South Vietnam). She wrote that the (North Vietnamese) landscape hadn’t changed since ‘the nineteen-twenties or the seventeen-twenties.'”
In April 1971, Kate Webb and five Asian journalists covering the war in Cambodia were captured by the North Vietnamese who were fighting the Cambodian army of Lon Nol. The NVA held them for 23 days as they marched through the jungle.
On May 1, the biggest holiday in the communist calendar. they were released. Earlier reports had misidentified as Kate a white woman who drowned, so the newspapers down under went wild: BACK FROM DEAD; FREED NEWSGIRL ON CONG: TOUGH MEN, HIGH MORALE; OUR GIRL KATE IS ALIVE AND WELL.
Although all three women were feted during their war years, and won some of the highest awards in journalism, their legacies became murky. For example, FitzGerald’s epic work Fire in the Lake wasn’t listed among the 50 history books on the war recommended by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in the 2017 PBS documentary.
Neither was Webb’s On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong. Nor was Leroy’s Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam.
Becker’s tour de force preserves those legacies. In a Zoom meeting with the Overseas Press Club earlier this month, she said: “I don’t think I could have done it without them, without them paving the way. I don’t want to say it’s gender per se but, as outsiders, [the three women] were much more interested in the humanity of the story, and they dug deep into what would be called ‘the locals,’ ie, the country where the war is being fought.”
Dana Kennedy, a veteran journalist now at the New York Post, said this about them in an email: “These three women were incredibly courageous but not just because they were pioneers who paved the way against great odds for scores of female journalists who followed them.
“What they did was arguably much more admirable and their work all the more profound because they got none of the splashy attention, instant ego gratification and six-figure salaries enjoyed by so many of today’s war correspondents.
“They didn’t have websites showing them in PRESS helmets or bulletproof vests, nor were their exploits caught in YouTube clips culled from the networks. They did hard, scary work with little reward for what I imagine is still the best reason: They loved being reporters on big stories.”
Thanks to Elizabeth Becker, the world now knows they did belong there.
Mike Tharp served in the army in Vietnam with the 16th Public Information Detachment 1969-70. He was awarded a Bronze Star. He’s a veteran Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review and US News & World Report. He’s covered six wars as a civilian.