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The Women Who Covered Vietnam

Published on: November 4, 2017

Filed Under: Featured

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This article originally appeared at the newyorktimes.com.

By Elizabeth Becker.

This year Australia put the journalist Kate Webb on a stamp to commemorate the country’s Veterans Day. It is a reproduction of a famous photo of Kate wearing a safari shirt, holding open her notebook while looking intently at the subject of an interview.

By recognizing Kate, who covered the Vietnam War for United Press International, as a “woman in war,” the stamp quietly acknowledges what has been glossed over in the annals of the conflict. Female reporters covered that war, rewriting the rules so that the phrase “woman war correspondent” would never again be an oxymoron.

Reporters like Kate and me didn’t go to Vietnam because of enlightened decisions by newsrooms; in the 1960s, news organizations weren’t sending women to cover the most important story of our generation. Instead, we had to find our own way to the battle zone. Kate quit her newspaper job and flew to Saigon from Sydney; U.P.I. hired her only later. Jurate Kazickas went on the quiz show “Password” to win the $500 she needed for her ticket to Saigon. The French photojournalist Catherine Leroy, inspired by photos of the war she had seen in Paris Match, arrived in Vietnam as a freelancer. I used money from a fellowship grant to buy a one-way ticket from Seattle to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It seemed almost natural, since the women’s movement was helping us imagine we could have the same opportunities as men.

Once we got to Indochina, we had to seek out news organizations so desperate for reporters on the spot that they would employ a woman. Then again, it’s not as if we were better off at home; if we had stayed in America or Europe or Australia, we would have been confined to covering society, food, fashion and the home.

The American military wasn’t happy to see us at first and tried to revive World War II rules barring female reporters from the front lines, relegating them to the rear with the military nurses. But even in World War II, a few women found ways to work around those rules or become exceptions; two of the best were the reporter Martha Gellhorn and the photographer Dickey Chapelle.

Elizabeth Becker’s press card.

In Vietnam, we became the bridge between two eras: the pioneers of World War II and the women of the modern era, who by the 1991 Gulf war took it for granted that they could cover wars.

One circumstance that worked to our advantage was the United States’ refusal to officially declare war in Vietnam. That meant we had easier access to the battlefield and no American military censorship. With local press credentials we were able to report throughout the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 1967 Gen. William Westmoreland made a halfhearted to attempt to impose the ban on women at the front lines, but it was too late. Dozens of women were already in the field.

What was it like? There’s a reason none of us wrote a female version of “Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s memoir of white nights of drugs, rock ’n’ roll and sex followed by hair-raising coverage of battles. In that book, Herr refers to us as “girl reporters” and treats us more or less like wallpaper.

We didn’t need the attention. We had enough on our hands with the sexual politics of the day and the endless gossip about our personal lives. Brash memoirs à la Lena Dunham would not have worked. Emblematic of my experience in Cambodia was the first news conference held by the newly arrived American ambassador, John Gunther Dean. At one point Dean asked a reporter to repeat a question, saying he had been “distracted by Miss Becker’s legs.”

And we had to prove our courage. Kate Webb did that when she was captured in Cambodia by the North Vietnamese and held for nearly a month under brutal conditions. At one point she was presumed dead; The New York Times even published her obituary. She told that story in her book “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong.”

Kate told me that even though she hated the “bang-bang,” as she called the fetishization of guns and gung-ho culture found among many of our male colleagues, she had to master war reporting to understand the suffering. She showed me how to measure a bomb crater, how to safely follow a military unit and how, in the midst of it all, to save one’s humanity. While we interviewed refugees one day, I told her I disliked the rule against journalists helping these people because it would appear to be paying for news. We returned to Saigon and drove to a warehouse on the riverfront where Kate purchased a 10-pound sack of rice. Her driver took it the refugees as an anonymous gift.

I learned about journalism’s aversion to helping people in another episode. I was a latecomer to the war, landing at the end of 1972. Almost immediately after I arrived, the United States began an intensive bombing campaign across a huge swath of Cambodia that caught news organizations by surprise and short-handed. Within five months I was the contract stringer for The Washington Post, Newsweek and NBC Radio.

The destruction was on the scale of a Sept. 11-scale attack every day, in a tropical rural country with few resources. One night we reporters were filmed rescuing civilians from a rocket attack. That footage was shown on American television. The next day I received a cable from Philip Foisie, the Washington Post foreign editor. It read: “No more Florence Nightingales. Will not, repeat not, pay hospital.”

Being a female reporter was hard in part because our work often went unacknowledged. My friend Sylvana Foa, a reporter for U.P.I., broke the story that the American Embassy in Cambodia was illegally directing the air campaign. It was so explosive she was expelled from the country.

Yet when Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times wrote nearly the same story a week later, he didn’t cite her scoop. His front-page article was treated as an exclusive that changed American policy. Schanberg waited 32 years to admit in print that Sylvana had written the story first.

Some exceptional men championed us; there were bosses who took a chance and hired us, and who made us look good. Foremost was Horst Faas, the photo editor of The Associated Press in Saigon. He made the careers of several women with his simple policy of buying great photographs no matter who shot them.

Since we were often the only women covering a story, we partnered with men we could trust. It is stressful enough covering a battle — you don’t want to have to worry that a guy would make a pass at you. I was lucky. Koki Ishiyama, the resident Kyodo News correspondent, became my first war buddy on the battlefield and in classes learning the Khmer language. Thanks to Koki I broke the story that Solath Sar, better known as Pol Pot, was the real leader of the Khmer Rouge. Trying to dive deeper into the story, Koki was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

James Fenton, a precocious English poet, became my next war buddy. When we were in a foxhole on Christmas he celebrated by singing an improvised carol with the line “I saw three rockets sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day.” Now one of England’s finest poets, James wrote extraordinary verse during the war. His “In a Notebook” is the best poem of the Vietnam War.

Did it make a difference having women report a war? Absolutely. Considering our small numbers — a few dozen, over the course of more than a decade, spread across three countries — we had an outsize impact.

We wrote two of the standard histories of the war. Frances Fitzgerald of The New Yorker wrote “Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam,” still a popular book on the war. She was the first to explore the history of the country and its people to understand the American war, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I wrote “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution,” which has become a classic history of Cambodia and the genocide. Because of the research in my book — including rare interviews with Pol Pot and other Communist leaders — I was called 30 years later to testify as an expert witness in the war crimes tribunal of the Khmer Rouge.

And while the role of female reporters was often overlooked, individual correspondents won accolades then and later. Gloria Emerson, the only woman sent by The New York Times to Vietnam, won the George Polk Award for her coverage focusing on the suffering of the Vietnamese people rather than the military story. Françoise DeMulder gave up her career as a model in Paris and took up war photography in Vietnam and Cambodia, creating a portfolio that captured the rich and often exotic story on the fringes of the battlefield. In 1977 she became the first woman to win the World Press Photo of the Year Award for her images from the war in Lebanon. Sylvana became the first woman to be foreign editor at U.P.I. and later was the first spokeswoman for the United Nations secretary general.

The price we paid for covering the war was often high. Many women never found life partners or never had the children they had wanted. More than a few came back bedeviled by nightmares from the atrocities and deaths they witnessed. Dickey Chapelle, who had made history covering World War II and Korea, was killed in Vietnam in an operation near Chu Lai, becoming the first American female correspondent to die in combat.

Kate remained single, covering wars and countries in crisis until her health failed. She died in 2007. Now, as befits a legend, her story is being made into a film. The actress Carey Mulligan will play Kate, and we will finally have a movie about one of our own.

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