You Don’t Belong Here
How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War
Carlton, Victoria: Black Inc., 2021
Paperback 320pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, June 2021
It is not often that one finishes reading a book that is hard to put down. This was one of those occasions.
Elizabeth Becker has written a clear and vivid account of the work of three quite remarkable women war correspondents who made a huge contribution to the press coverage of the Vietnam War, and of the later three-sided war between the Cambodian Government, the Khmer Rouge rebels and the North Vietnamese. These conflicts ended in suffering for the ordinary people, and in what could be called a ‘victory’ for oppressive, totalitarian neo-Fascist elements which masqueraded under the banner of “free, democratic, Socialist” leaders - and were not so. These two over-lapping wars were not the ‘victory for Democracy’ that at least two US Presidents, numerous politicians and some military leaders claimed.
Ms Becker has clearly documented the work of three accredited war correspondents, French-born photographer Catherine Leroy, and two print journalists - Frances FitzGerald, from a socio-economic upper-class background [her father was a senior American diplomat], and Kate [Catherine] Webb, from a middle-class Australian/New Zealand background.
All three devoted their vast skills to telling the truth, as they perceived it, about two of the bloodiest wars of the latter half of the 20th century. This was done despite opposition from male correspondents, Vietnamese and Cambodian political leaders and American military authorities, all of whom actively discriminated against women correspondents. This was so strong that it gave rise to the book’s title - for the attitude of these men was ‘you don’t belong here…’ in Vietnam and Cambodia.
All three had to pay their own way to Vietnam, fight with authorities for accreditation and then for access to the war they had come to cover. All were, early in their time in Vietnam, naïve, with limited experience, [although Leroy had previously qualified as a civilian parachutist and was able to join U S paratroopers on their jumps into combat] and had to overcome their initial limited knowledge of the country, the culture and the language.
Vietnam had been, before World War II, a French colony, and this gave the French woman, Catherine Leroy, an advantage - she could talk to the local people, many of whom were bi-lingual - French and Vietnamese [although few spoke English].
All three worked under extreme difficulties, and at great personal risk, as neither the North Vietnamese soldiers or the irregular Viet Cong militia showed any mercy to these or any other correspondents. All three suffered both sickness and psychological stress, with one, Kate Webb, being hospitalised with PTSD.
In Becker’s evaluation, the American military and political leaders of the time did not come out well from the Vietnam and Cambodian wars. They went in with limited and ill-formed political objectives and military strategy, and, in the end, achieved little.
Their military tactics were those of World War 1, backed up with the technology of World War 2 and the Korean War. The tonnage of US bombs dropped in Vietnam and Cambodia exceeded that of the American air war in Europe 1942-45, but achieved much less.
In total the US deployed over 500,000 men to the Vietnam War, and more than 50,000 were killed in combat or died of other causes directly related to the war. Yet, little was achieved, and President Nixon was finally forced to negotiate a peace agreement. Vietnam was, for the Americans, about as successful as the Dardanelles Campaign had been for the Anglo-French forces a generation earlier.
Sadly, Leroy and Webb, neither of whom married, died relatively young [both of cancer], after having successful award-winning careers as war correspondents; one such award is now made in honour of the memory of Kate Webb. Frances FitzGerald, born in 1940, is still alive. She married, later in life, and was author of a highly-regarded and best-selling book on the Vietnam War - Fire in the Lake, which is still in print.
All three have left substantial and significant archives, which have been preserved, largely by their colleagues, and which are freely available for historical researchers and biographers. Ms Becker, herself an accredited and experienced war correspondent, has made excellent use of these valuable resources in telling their stories.
Few American military chiefs and politicians of the period came out of this war with very much credit, and Ms Becker has shown how their failures were disclosed, through her excellent coverage of the work of the three correspondents who are central to this book, and to their many colleagues, who shared the same risks and hardships, and in some cases gave their lives, to uncovering the mistakes and misguided actions of these leaders.
It is saddening to read this book, with its stories of discrimination, incompetence and failure by many of the secondary characters. It is uplifting to read of the dedication of the three central characters - Leroy, FitzGerald and Webb - brave women and accomplished war correspondents.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.