Under a shade tree so spindly it couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, a man sat at a folding table, resting his hands on a small stack of paperbacks. Here, in the dusty courtyard of Tuol Sleng Incarceration Center, a former prisoner of the Khmer Rouge sold his life story.
We stood at a noncommittal distance—watching him smile and sign copies for the tourists who had entered the complex ahead of us—before we turned away to meet our guide, who would recount the history of this place. Once an airy school full of laughter and gentle discipline, the building changed during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was occupied and designated as the police headquarters, for the express purpose of torturing and executing Cambodian citizens.
We walked the halls, meeting the gazes of the men, women, and children whose portraits line the walls like tiles. We stood at the doors of the cells where they had been held captive. We listened to the history. We read the pamphlets and the posters. And then our guide brought us back down to the ground floor and invited us to bear witness to the last evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. It ended because of the intervention of Vietnamese soldiers, and only after US troops had left Southeast Asia. Our guide paused before a glass case the size of a large terrarium, piled full of bones. “These are just some of the people we couldn’t identify,” she said flatly. My stomach lurched. A couple in front of us stepped forward and turned toward a phone held by their friend. They smiled and posed, flashing the v sign. We pushed past them to the door. Late that night, we boarded a bus bound for Ho Chi Minh City, the place my mother still called Saigon.
In 1973, when my older brother was a baby, his father—Johnny, a Vietnam veteran—was killed. Growing up, whenever the subject was touched on, the story was always that Johnny had died in a car accident. I was nearly 30, and my brother had been dead for almost two decades, when I learned that Johnny had put himself in the way of oncoming traffic on a highway in Tennessee. Nineteen years later, at the age of 21, my brother—a discharged Army Reservist who had joined up near the start of the Gulf War—shot and killed himself. To my mind, there was an undeniable connection between the two. The PTSD and possibly drug-induced psychosis that may have sent Johnny down that highway, the self-destructive attempts that my brother John made in the years before his suicide: they were inextricably bound.
It all seemed to have started in Vietnam. I wanted to understand why Johnny kept going back. I wanted to know why he volunteered for multiple tours, to the point that he lost his mind and his son, a chain of events that ricocheted through the lives of people he had never met. So, when we stepped off the bus into Ho Chi Minh City that steamy morning in August 2013, I thought that I would finally be able to bear witness to what had happened, even though I was 40 years late.
Forty years earlier, the journalists Cathy Leroy, Kate Webb, and Frankie Fitzgerald had been in the midst of it all. And—as detailed in Elizabeth Becker’s You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War—they worked to understand what was happening in Vietnam.
Like Johnny, who had voluntarily returned on multiple tours, Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald were misfits of one kind or another. And it seems to have been their awkward relationships to their backgrounds—from Leroy’s working-class Parisian suburb to Fitzgerald’s life among the US political elite—that motivated them to go to Vietnam.
Though Leroy was barely five feet tall, she had no shortage of swagger: “I am a paratrooper,” she insisted to Horst Faas, photography editor for the Associated Press, and she proved him right. A year later, she was selected by the US armed forces in Saigon as the best reporter to jump with the parachutists who would launch the first airborne assault.
Webb, who grew up in Australia, struggled with her mental health due to the traumatic deaths of her best friend and parents when she was an adolescent. She found refuge in her work; in Vietnam, she found refuge from her work in her drinking. Becker suspects that it was on one of Webb’s binges that she wrote the poem “War Groupie,” in which she tussled with her motivations for being in Vietnam and her coping mechanisms for dealing with what she witnessed.
Fitzgerald’s first writing job was at the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, a front organization for the CIA. The post was engineered by her mother’s boyfriend, Governor Adlai Stevenson. When Fitzgerald witnessed the Buddhist insurrection in 1966, she observed the sharp disjuncture between US propaganda and what she saw unfolding around her. From then on, her “goal was to explain the social and political dimensions masked by the daily military reports.” This required her to overturn the perspectives not only of her social class but also of her closest family. For example, Becker tells us that Frankie’s father, “Desmond Fitzgerald’s fingerprints were all over Vietnam.” Fitzgerald’s last report, “Behind the Façade: The Tragedy of Saigon,” anticipated the failures that the US government would refuse to admit.
In Leroy’s last major magazine spread, “This is That War,” Look magazine used full-page, sometimes two-page full-color photographs accompanied by Leroy’s own text. “We all belong to the same war,” she wrote. “We all have the same God. We’re all in the same adventure. This is that war.” Her tone was tragic, not heroic: “The Americans here are boys of 20, with the idealism of their age, but they are fighting a war without glory.”
Decades before she wrote You Don’t Belong Here, Elizabeth Becker (alongside her fellow journalist Richard Dudman) was the first and last American journalist to visit Democratic Kampuchea, the name of the state during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule. Becker’s 1986 When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution remains a compelling firsthand account told with documentary precision. Now, 35 years after that book was published, she returns to the conflict in Southeast Asia with You Don’t Belong Here. This group biography is told with the clear poignancy that characterizes Becker’s reporting. And it brings to the fore the compassionate witness that Becker, and the three women who “rewrote the story of war,” brought to the conflict.
Take Cathy Leroy, who jumped with paratroopers, trekked through the lowland rainforests with ground troops, and was arrested and interrogated by the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. After negotiating her own release, Leroy sheltered in a cathedral alongside 4,000 refugees, whom she saved from shelling by US Marines, shouting: “They aren’t VC. They’re just people.” Leroy’s insistence sums up the perspective of all three journalists on the conflict. Throughout You Don’t Belong Here, Becker shows us Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald’s heroic compassion, and through her restrained style illustrates not only their political awakening but also the irreversible psychological and physical trauma that they underwent.
Fitzgerald took risks to report from “strategic hamlets”: US code for what were effectively prison camps, “barbed-wire enclosures” where Vietnamese citizens were forced to migrate. Webb was captured by the North Vietnamese Army in the Cambodian countryside and marched in rubber sandals until her “legs felt like bones with no muscles and the jungle was like a black-and-white movie undulating past.” She was interrogated again and again, given up for dead by her family back home, but was returned nearly a month later to the site where she had been captured. Reflecting on her treatment, Webb remarked on the NVA soldiers’ “incredible discipline.”
In 1967, the US military threatened to impose a ban on women’s reporting from the front lines. Five American journalists, supported by Leroy, petitioned the Pentagon against the regulation. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara sent a deputy to meet the journalists in Saigon, where he was quickly persuaded to drop the proposed rule. In a backhanded appeasement, the women were notified that they would be permitted to stay but were told they would not be allowed to request special treatment in the field. They had never requested special treatment in the first place.
There were no sides to the representation of the conflict, no moral victory of the kind 21st-century imperialists still seek.
Since the US never officially declared war in Vietnam, the usual rules did not apply. There was no official censorship, and there were no sanctions against women journalists’ presence in combat. Freed from those constraints, women reporting from Southeast Asia faced a more insidious threat: betrayal by their fellow journalists, who on more than one occasion lobbied to have their press credentials suspended.
At key moments such as this, Becker’s book reaches out into a broader narrative of—as Kathleen Courtenay Stone describes it in They Called Us Girls—not necessarily a history of feminism, but a history of “female ambition.” Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald shared an oblique relationship to feminism. They were always conscious that as women working in a war zone in an already male-dominated profession, they walked the edge of permissibility: gender was a weapon that could be leveled against them at any point. Webb was so insistent on putting distance between herself and feminism that whenever she was asked about gender politics, she declared, “I don’t believe in women’s liberation.” She even committed to print her resolve not “to be known as ‘a six-foot, fat, pistol-whipping women’s libber.’” Webb, Leroy, and Fitzgerald had a sense that if they drew attention to what set them apart, they would risk not only reducing their accomplishments to tokenism but also losing their access to the battlefield. For years, Leroy was the only woman combat photographer in Vietnam, and Becker notes she was “the only accredited journalist [ever] to jump” in Vietnam.
Despite Leroy’s self-consciously antifeminist self-presentation among the troops, her fellow photojournalists held her distinctiveness against her. One male colleague remembered his inability to understand her motivations: “She did not want to be a woman amongst men but a man amongst men. Why would a woman want to be amongst the blood and carnage?”
Feminist histories often emphasize the opportunities that the Second World War created for women on the home front. Yet, Becker reminds us that there was a ban on women reporters that specified they must “stay behind with military nurses.”
Those earlier wars followed Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald in other ways too. Becker shows how, throughout the war in Southeast Asia, politicians, the public, and sometimes even journalists sought parallels and drew false equivalencies with the two world wars. They did so in order to assign logic to a mode of conflict and to explain an unprecedented shift in US foreign policy. The mud and mortar fire of the DMZ, which drew Leroy back even after she was wounded during Operation Hickory at the 17th parallel, was compared to Verdun. Leroy’s iconic photographs of the assault at Khe Sanh, where she captured navy medic Vernon Wike cradling a fallen soldier’s body on the crest of Hill 881, were published around the world as testaments to the heroism of US soldiers. Time magazine reported the photographs’ impact on the American consciousness, saying they “evoked ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill.”
Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald resisted the historical logic that equated the ghosts of the past with the present conflict. On a trip to New York to accept the George Polk Award for Outstanding News Photography, Leroy was commissioned to photograph people in Harlem who were grieving the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She wrote home to France: “Two days in Harlem. It’s war there, too. No need to go to Vietnam.”
Make Allies, Break Empires
When the war was over, Leroy took an assignment to photograph a music concert that was happening in upstate New York. Soon after she arrived at Woodstock, she put her camera down. She fell in with the dropout veterans who flocked to the festival and went with them three years later to Miami to protest at the Republican National Convention. She teamed up with Vietnam veteran Frank Cavestani and filmed the caravan traveling from San Diego, collecting footage for their documentary Operation Last Patrol, which featured a disabled veteran they had met named Ron Kovic.
Inspired by Leroy and Cavestani’s film, Kovic wrote his memoir Born on the Fourth of July. But Leroy isn’t credited in his book or the blockbuster film adaptation starring Tom Cruise. Nor is she—or any other woman journalist—cited in Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary The Vietnam War.
How much we have lost up to now, and how much Becker has given us back through this history of these women’s careers. Becker, Leroy, Webb, and Fitzgerald wrote the story of the Southeast Asian conflict from a groundbreaking perspective and returned, like the soldiers, nursing wounds that their countries would refuse to acknowledge and with which their families would have no means to cope.
On an August evening in 2013, we walked out of our hotel into the cool air that followed the afternoon storm over Ho Chi Minh City. We had spent the morning at the War Remnants Museum, where photographs of children maimed by chemical weapons hung alongside pictures of disabled US veterans, and grieving Vietnamese families were memorialized next to the orphaned children of US soldiers. There were no sides to the representation of the conflict, no moral victory of the kind 21st-century imperialists still seek.
We crossed the road into a park where office workers and teenagers, released from the day’s duties, played soccer and practiced tai chi on sidewalks still dark from the rain. I admitted that I had been a little afraid of coming to Vietnam—wondering what it would mean to be an American here, how my freighted prehistory would weigh on my experience. As we made our way through the park, I tried to think about Johnny. A single sentence kept running through my head: I can understand why he wanted to be here. After Vietnam, it was impossible to return to the old certainties.