Meet the Three Women Who Changed the Face of War Reportage
Elizabeth Becker on the Groundbreaking Impact of Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy, and Frances FitzGerald
When I encountered her at the Hong Kong airport, a cigarette dangling from her free hand, I had never met anyone like Kate Webb. It was January 1973, and I was on the penultimate leg of my flight from Seattle to Cambodia to become a war correspondent. She was immediately recognizable from the news photographs: the thick-cropped brown hair, shy smile, and intense brown eyes. After I waved to her, she steered me through arrival formalities and into a dim sum restaurant with a view of the harbor. Our mutual friend, Sylvana Foa, had arranged for Webb to host me overnight and make sure I caught the morning flight to Phnom Penh.
Webb had been in the news for surviving capture by the North Vietnamese and then writing a book about the experience. Soft-spoken and to the point, she asked, Why had I crossed the ocean to cover a war?
The short answer was a nightmare I was all too keen to leave behind. My master’s adviser 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. I had worked my way through college, petitioned to create a degree program in South Asian studies, and won a fellowship to graduate school. The professor essentially kneecapped my academic future. So, determined that he would not control the rest of my life, I found another dream: I would use my education to become a journalist. I filed a complaint against him with the campus Women’s Commission, a meaningless but important act for me, cashed my fellowship check, and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia.
That’s where Foa came in. For a year she had been urging me to join her in Phnom Penh and become a reporter, as she had done. We’d met by chance in India when we were both traveling students in 1970. She left graduate school and went on to Vietnam and Cambodia. She sent me heart-stopping letters that were anything but tempting: “War has broken out in the southeast with a ferocity I have never seen in Cambodia—tanks, B-52s, everything and despite the fact that the major battleground is 40 miles from here, the smell reaches Phnom Penh,” she wrote in 1972. “Take care of yourself and think again about coming to live here… It’s more important than graduate school.”
As a member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars that used historical and political research to oppose the war, I had never wanted to go within 100 miles of a B-52 raid. But once I was pushed out of graduate school, Foa’s invitation suddenly looked like a lifeline.
I justified the decision to Webb by pointing out that Cambodia was integral to my studies of India and the countries influenced by India.
Webb looked at me, a flicker of a smile in her eyes. She had been through so much more than my sad tale. Then she laughed out loud. She had done the self-same thing—bought a one-way ticket from Sydney to Saigon with no idea whether she would find a job in the war zone. “You’ll do fine,” she said. And that was that: I left the next day.
Foa was waiting for me at Phnom Penh’s Pochentong Airport, from where she drove me into the city. I was dazzled by the city’s beauty—the golden spire of the Buddhist temples and the shaded sidewalk cafés—but mostly by Foa’s self-confidence. The friend who had shared dosa and thick chai with me in Delhi was now a war correspondent with an office, interpreters, a manager—and a desk for me.
That day I was under the wildly mistaken impression that it was normal for young women to show up in Indochina and become battlefield reporters. In my backpack I carried a careful selection of paperback books on the war and one hardcover: Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald, the American woman who had made her name as a reporter in Vietnam. I thought I was ready. I was 25 years old and had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
Foa was expelled from Cambodia three months later at the beginning of April. In the middle of a massive American bombing campaign, she published her investigation revealing that the United States embassy was illegally directing the pilots. Washington was furious. The US ambassador Emory Swank told her boss that “Miss Foa distorted the US role and activities in Cambodia” and it would be best if she stays out of Cambodia.
Sydney Schanberg wrote nearly the same article in the New York Times one week later with no dire consequences to his reputation or career. With Foa gone, I was the only female foreign correspondent in the country. The Far Eastern Economic Review, an Asia-wide news magazine published in Hong Kong, hired me after a two-week trial period that I passed thanks to Foa’s help. My base salary was $150 a month, and I rented the least-expensive room in the best hotel for $50 a month. (It came without hot water and was “cooled” by a colonial-era ceiling fan.)
I had arrived in time to cover the escalation of the American bombing campaign in support of the Cambodian government army that was fighting the guerilla Khmer Rouge with machine guns, rockets, and mortars—the heavy artillery of war.
I was paralyzed the first time I saw the smoldering wreckage from a bombing campaign. Tropical palms were reduced to black stubs. The carcass of a water buffalo lay bloated in a cratered rice field. Displaced villagers told me they had no idea why fire had fallen from the sky. In the three months of March, April, and May 1973, 140,000 tons of American bombs were dropped.
The risks were beyond anything I had imagined but so were the rewards. In the US, I would have been lucky to write for the local women’s page. In Cambodia, I was covering the central story of the war and learning the trade alongside reporters like James Markham of the New York Times, H. D. S. (David) Greenway of the Washington Post, Ed Bradley of CBS News, Tiziano Terzani of Der Spiegel, and Jacques Leslie of the Los Angeles Times—a cumulative masterclass in journalism. But they didn’t live in Cambodia.
They arrived on assignment from their bases in Saigon, Hong Kong, and a few other cities. That meant news staffs were stretched thin and news organizations needed a resident reporter, or stringer, in Cambodia to fill in the gaps. They were sufficiently desperate that I became the contract stringer for the Washington Post, NBC radio, and Newsweek magazine in Cambodia just four months after I arrived.
When he hired me, Tom Lippman, the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief, said that I was the only person vaguely qualified for the job, and it did not matter that I was a woman. Not to him, perhaps, but mine became a rare female byline from the war, and I quickly became a target.
An anonymous parody written on Reuters stationary was circulated among the press corps casting me as a woman with “high school cheerleader looks” who had used her feminine wiles to win prize assignments. (I still have a copy.) I learned to barricade my door at night in case a colleague decided I was lonely. At a news conference, US ambassador John Gunther Dean asked a reporter to repeat a question, saying he had been “distracted by Miss Becker’s legs.”
I found friends: Ishiyama Koki, the correspondent for Kyodo News Service and translator of George Orwell into Japanese; Stephen Heder, an American freelancer who became a top scholar of the Khmer Rouge; and James Fenton, a British poet and unlikely war correspondent who wrote the best poetry of the war; and the diplomats Louis Bardollet, first secretary of the French embassy, and Renji Sathiah, head of the Malaysian mission.
Writing for the Post was more than a privilege. It felt like a higher calling, and I broke several important stories: I witnessed a US Army officer illegally advising the Cambodian army under attack, and I published an investigation of the Khmer Rouge identifying their leader for the first time as a man named Solath Sar (who would later be known as Pol Pot) and describing his revolution as brutal and ruthless as well as antagonistic toward their Vietnamese allies.
As the war neared its end, the great women correspondents returned. Kate Webb arrived in Cambodia on assignment, and we reported together; she showed me how to use my feet to measure a bomb crater and surreptitiously send rice to refugees, circumventing the journalist stricture against helping anyone you interviewed.
One night we went to Café le Paradis for Chinese noodle soup. I complained about various indignities I had endured, but her frustrating advice was that I should keep a low profile. Perhaps my troubles seemed slight to her. She said her problem was nightmares. She would wake up trembling and not know which atrocity she had remembered in her sleep.
Frances FitzGerald was also back reporting on the war from Vietnam, crossing over to the Viet Cong area with Greenway, one of my bosses at the Post.
Then, out of the blue, two French women my age showed up in Cambodia to work as photographers. Françoise Demulder, a novice, arrived on a motorcycle with her boyfriend and a camera. Christine Spengler was something of a veteran after photographing the troubles in Northern Ireland. Suddenly I found myself alongside these French dynamos who were breaking into the rougher male world of war photography.
They were the unofficial protégées of Catherine Leroy, the diminutive French photographer whose images in Paris Match changed how the Vietnam War was imagined. During her first year, Leroy was the only woman photographer on the battlefield. She became the first woman to win important photography awards and became one of the photographers who helped make Paris the center of the photojournalism world. Demulder and Spengler were right behind her, inspired by her raw courage and winning their own share of prizes.
We were all so fixated on reporting the war that it took us decades to understand what we had accomplished as women on the front line of war.
Before Vietnam, the US military forbade women on the battlefield, and news organizations routinely sent men to chronicle war. Nearly every woman had to pay her own way to Vietnam and then find work and prove herself once she arrived. After Vietnam, that era was over. News organizations sent women as well as men to cover wars, and the US military dropped its prohibition against women covering the fighting.
The few dozen women who managed to cover the Vietnam War forever changed who wrote about and photographed war. The term woman war correspondent was no longer an oxymoron.
Leroy, FitzGerald, and Webb were the three pioneers who changed how the story of war was told. They were outsiders—excluded by nature from the confines of male journalism, with all its presumptions and easy jingoism—who saw war differently and wrote about it in wholly new ways.
Catherine Leroy spent most of her time on the battlefield taking striking photographs of war in the moment, stripped of patriotic poses. Frances FitzGerald, the American magazine writer, filled a huge void by showing the war from the Vietnamese point of view and winning more honors than any other author of a book about the war. Kate Webb, the Australian combat reporter, burrowed inside the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies and society with such determination that a top journalism prize for Asian journalists is named in her honor.
They kept a low profile, as Webb commanded me, and shied away from publicity, especially any that pigeonholed them as “girl reporters,” as if that were a different and inferior category to male war correspondents. They didn’t write their memoirs. Two of the women have already died.
They made their way to Vietnam at the beginning. I came at the tail end, following their paths, which I’ve retraced, scouring their diaries, notebooks, letters, photographs, classified military files, and writings and interviewing those close to them. Together, their lives offer a new way to see the war. And it is long overdue.
Excerpted from You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. Used with the permission of the publisher, PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Becker.