My master’s adviser at the University of Washington had rejected my thesis on the Bangladesh War of Independence after I refused to sleep with him. He said the one was not related to the other but would welcome having an affair if I changed my mind.
That infuriating fact introduces us to Elizabeth Becker. Becker is no stranger to reporting; she has covered revolution, war, and genocide all over the world. She has won many prizes for her work, including (but not limited to the) Pulitzer Prize for Public Service shared with her team at the New York Times for 9/11 coverage in 2002. As a young reporter in Cambodia she narrowly escaped assassination after interviewing Pol Pot face-to-face. She’s an established expert and author, and now she has taken the time to tell the stories of three women who opened the door for her and many others to follow.
Holy Hell, do these women have stories worth telling! Catherine ‘Cathy’ Leroy, Frances ‘Frankie’ Fitzgerald, and Kate Webb all marched themselves to the frontlines of Vietnam and Cambodia despite their countries, their male coworkers, and the world at large doing everything in their power to hold them back.
What starts as an introduction to the women reporters who charged the front lines becomes a larger lesson in military history, the long-lasting detrimental effects of colonization, the dangers of imperialism, and the blatant sexism and misogyny that women in war- no matter the role- faced and still face today.
Becker deftly weaves her story throughout those of Leroy, FitzGerald and Webb. She has incredible knowledge of the conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as firsthand experience reporting in the area. She also has access to the notes, letters, and private journals of her subjects. She uses these snippets to create a heartbreaking, maddening, thrilling and frequently disgusting portrait of these women and the conflicts at large. She works hard to undo the old romantic tropes of war reporting. Becker describes awestruck new journalists entranced by the colonial cities in the war-torn jungle. She puts the rosy glow of film and fiction on trial.
Filmmakers and novelists build war stories around passionate love affairs to provide an intimate narrative to the chaos of the battlefield and as a relief from the body count. Buddy movies do the same thing. At no other time are the senses so alive, the chance of survival so low, and a night of companionship so electrifying. A few intense months are as full as a lifetime. A night of tenderness can offer deeper relief from the sights and sounds of death than a night of drinking.
What she does, most importantly, is give Leroy, FitzGerald, and Webb the stage. Three remarkably different women with three unique perspectives talked their way past borders and into the heart of the conflict. These borders are far from just geographical; they had to push past family expectations, long-held sexist traditions, double-standards, and heavily armed soldiers on all sides. They faced a barrage of attacks: attacks against their character, attacks against their ability, attacks against their subjects, and attacks against their own bodies as they joined the frontlines and escaped capture. I am struggling with the prospect of giving away too much; my notes overflowed from this book- there is something shocking, hilarious, and/or worth sharing in general on every page.
Webb’s account of watching napalm rain from the sky is terrifying on multiple levels:
“They are running, laughing at that pretty napalm.” Webb said with alarm. The two of them chased the children, racing to stop them. Frosch didn’t want to frighten them so he laughed when tackling them to the ground, turning the rescue into a game of rice-paddy rugby. Webb did the same and the children returned to their buffalo, Webb shaking her head at “the terrible innocence of those children running towards the napalm, laughing with joy at the pretty colors.”
Leroy’s kinship with “her Marines” bleeds through every photo she took:
The Hill 881 photographs demonstrated Leroy’s very personal approach to photography and her attachment and identification with her subjects. “The Gls were like my brothers. We were the same age, and I loved them. Besides, I cannot photograph anybody for whom I don’t have any feelings. I would rather stay at home, smoke a cigarette, and drink a good glass of wine.”
FitzGerald is cool, calm, and plucky while running for her life:
“We hurtle along,” she wrote. “It’s safer to drive fast as the mines tend to blow up behind you and cause the snipers to miss.”
While they shared similar experiences in the war, the three women featured here all came from very different worlds. They returned to very different lives. They were not part of an inherent and special sisterhood- in fact, they bristled against the Women’s Liberation movement- they were unwilling to be lumped together into any cause based on their gender alone. They all shared the untreated effects of trauma. They treated themselves in the best ways they could: digging deeper into their work, finding company amongst broken soldiers returned to countries that discredited and tossed them away, and drinking. Lots of drinking.
The horrors of war remain, but so do the battles to be respected and relevant. As recently as 2017 these women and their contributions were still being swept aside:
When the 2017 multipart PBS documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick offered what it called a full reading list to accompany the series, the fifty-eight history books did not include Fire in the Lake, the most honored book on the war. Fredrik Logevall, the respected historian of Vietnam, warned that while parts of the book did prove problematic with later research, he feared that some of the criticism was tinged with envy. He said: “Whatever we want to call it-a first-cut history-this book stands up very well even though she didn’t have access to archives. I would put it on a short shelf of really important books on the war. It’s of enduring importance.” But then, Kate Webb’s On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong was not on the Ken Burns list of recommended Vietnam books nor was Catherine Leroy’s Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam. In fact, the Burns list did not include a single published work by any of the female journalists who covered the war.
Becker is fighting the good fight for the women who came before her and for her own work as well. She is filled with righteous fury. You will catch her fire while reading this ferocious testament to the women who rewrote war.
I received this ARC from PublicAffairs via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review