“She was looking at things in a completely different optic, like she was from a different country—a whole new meaning to the phrase foreign correspondent,” Ward Just, The Washington Post’s correspondent in Vietnam and FitzGerald’s sometime lover, tells the journalist Elizabeth Becker in her new book, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. FitzGerald used her “different optic” and formidable intellect to pursue investigations that culminated in Fire in the Lake, published in 1972, one of the most important and decorated books of the war.
You Don’t Belong Here tells the story of FitzGerald and two other women in Vietnam—the French photographer Catherine Leroy and the Australian correspondent Kate Webb. Becker is a former correspondent in Cambodia and the author of When the War Was Over; she was the first journalist to interview Pol Pot, and barely escaped the Khmer Rouge alive. Her theme in You Don’t Belong Here—conveyed, with controlled anger, in a riveting narrative using unpublished letters and diaries—is that women reporters changed the way the war was covered. Before Vietnam, they had been barred from combat by the U.S. government (which didn’t stop a few legendary writers from slipping past the barriers, such as Martha Gellhorn in World War II). Vietnam was an undeclared war, so the rules were never clear. Women journalists were still subjected to discrimination, harassment, and contempt, but they didn’t have to ask permission in order to go where the men went, and often where the men didn’t go. Vietnam became the first war in which women had a fighting chance as reporters. The difficulty of gaining acceptance forced them to find their own way, which led to groundbreaking work.
Leroy was utterly without experience on arrival in Vietnam. She was diminutive and brave to the point of recklessness, and she won respect by outdoing the men. She accompanied the marines into battle and made herself so inconspicuous that her camera caught the face of combat with unprecedented intimacy and pathos: “Few photographers got closer to soldiers than Leroy, who crawled in the mud alongside them if necessary, aiming for the eyes and subtle shifts of expression. She was a silent presence; soldiers were rarely aware of her.” When she showed her close-ups to a medic who had cradled the body of a marine during the battle of Hill 881 at Khe Sanh, he exclaimed, “Where were you? I didn’t see you.”
Leroy was a type familiar to anyone who has covered war in our era. Women correspondents are now commonplace, but they still have to overcome powerful stereotypes, and for some, the only way to be seen as legitimate is by being tougher than their male colleagues. Leroy forced her way onto helicopters and then made herself invisible. Kate Webb’s tactic was to defeminize herself. Whereas FitzGerald went to Vietnam to get away from a controlling society mother and to impress an absent father, and Leroy rebelled against her petit bourgeois French Catholic upbringing, Webb was in flight from a very dark past. The daughter of intellectual New Zealanders, raised in Australia, she was implicated in the suicide of her best friend in high school and nearly tried for homicide. A few years later, her parents were killed in a car accident. Like FitzGerald and Leroy, Webb went to Vietnam in her mid-20s without any assignment or relevant experience, out of sheer curiosity and will.