Catherine Leroy lived an all-but-typical life. Born on the outskirts of Paris a few short months before the end of World War II, she was trained as a classical pianist, and became a licensed parachutist in her teens. In 1966, at age twenty-one, she bought a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia in hopes of covering the conflict in Vietnam, armed only with a Leica M2 camera, a few rolls of film, and a fearless commitment to “giving war a human face.”
Over the next decade, she would do just that: her photographs would become some of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War, capturing moments of intense intimacy and human emotion rarely seen in war photojournalism.
Leroy is one of three journalists profiled in You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, a new book by veteran foreign correspondent Elizabeth Becker.
“When the women show up in Vietnam,” Becker said in an interview on the latest episode of Press the Button, “they’re not staff members of any news organizations because women weren’t considered fit for it—they were literally told they didn’t belong there.”
Weaving together the individual stories of Leroy, Australian correspondent Kate Webb, and American journalist Frances FitzGerald, the book explores how the dynamics of the war would enable these women to challenge established rules and set a new precedent for women war correspondents.
“During World War II, women reporters could not be on the battlefield; women reporters had to be back with the nurses,” said Becker. “The reason they were able to evade that rule [in Vietnam] was because President Johnson did not want to declare a war – so the old rules were not imposed. It was the most open war for journalism before or since.”
Deeply researched, the book outlines how each of these women’s backgrounds would come to inform their reporting from a previously inaccessible battlefield. “Catherine was French, so she understood the colonial context,” Becker recounted to host Tom Collina. “Frances FitzGerald came from a patrician wealthy American family – she was not naïve, she understood what the elite was like.”
It was precisely this background, argues Becker, that would engender a deep skepticism of the official narrative. “[FitzGerald] made the radical decision that she was going to cover the country – the culture, the people, the landscape, the damage – to see the whole picture of the war, and not concentrate so much on the battlefield and what the officials said back in Saigon.”
Becker’s own career began as one of a few western journalists allowed into Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, an experience not dissimilar to those of her book’s protagonists. “All of a sudden, we became reporters who got to delve deeply into the most unsettling part of life, which also had moments of joy and exhilaration.”
A year after landing in Vietnam, Leroy would become the sole accredited journalist to make a combat jump into battle, deploying with the 173rd Airborne during Operation Junction City. Briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army at the Battle of Hue, she was one of a few photographers who was able to capture life behind enemy lines, images that would ultimately land on the cover of Life Magazine in February 1968. FitzGerald would go on to write the highly acclaimed Fire In the Lake, the first comprehensive history of Vietnam written by an American.
Despite the significance of these accomplishments, Becker stresses the discretion of her protagonists: “they effectively ended the ban on women [on the battlefield], because it was never reimposed,” she noted, “but they kept it quiet – they did not tell their story for 30 years.”
The story of the Vietnam War is often told through the words of those who covered it: credibility gap, stalemate, and quagmire define our collective memory of the war—rhetorical analogs to the images of a self-immolating monk, an execution in Saigon, or a young child burned by napalm. But notably absent from this meta-narrative is the story of how the women who reported from Vietnam quietly shattered the barriers to women covering war, and ultimately changed the very nature of war reporting itself.
“You Don’t Belong Here” finally tells that story.
The entire interview with author and journalist Elizabeth Becker is available here on Press the Button. To order the book or read more about the author, visit www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/elizabeth-becker/you-dont-belong-here/9781541768215/
Harry Tarpey is the Development and Operations Associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Image: Reuters