KP Reads

‘You Don’t Belong Here’ by Elizabeth Becker

How three women rewrote the story of war.


As the former spouse of a Vietnam veteran, I did not think I would ever read another book about that war.

For 16 years I absorbed everything I could find to understand the devastation Vietnam did to ordinary American men and women. I knew everything about the war that someone who wasn’t there could possibly know. At least, I thought I did. This book revealed much that was new to me.

They didn't belong there? Did the American military or the French before them?

Three women — Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy and Frances Fitzgerald — had nothing in common before they arrived in Southeast Asia. What bound them together in their separate experiences was a determination to bear witness to the effect of the western world’s military presence in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Kate, Cathy and Frankie faced ferocious resistance to the idea of women journalists in a war zone. Military commanders found the idea of them going to the front lines preposterous and the male journalists in-country were threatened to their core.

At tremendous personal sacrifice to their physical and mental health, all three women told the story of this war from the point of view of the Vietnamese people and the ordinary soldier. They overcame formidable obstacles to focus on real people losing their homes, their innocence, their families and their way of life. While their male counterparts concentrated on statistics, especially those boosting the idea of American victory, Kate, Cathy and Frankie helped the western world see the human cost.

It is difficult to talk about these women without descending into cliché. They shattered the glass ceiling, they were pioneers, they redefined what women were capable of bearing, they demonstrated that women are just as intelligent, courageous, and resourceful as men, they reset the bar for all the women who came after them. It is all true.

I have always prided myself on being tough and independent, on overcoming obstacles and not letting anyone hold me back. Could I have done what Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy and Frances Fitzgerald did? Did I ever have their raw physical courage and moral righteousness?

Catherine’s intense photographs of soldiers at the front show the terror and chaos but also highlight the long stretches of boredom and seemingly meaningless routine. By parachuting into the battle zones, this gutsy French photographer saw and recorded events that few journalists witnessed.

Australian Kate suppressed her femininity to fit in with her male counterparts more easily. She was a phenomenally successful journalist and eventually became the bureau chief in Phnom Penh for UPI, but the hard drinking, heavy smoking loner lifestyle necessary to achieve it left her troubled and ill.

Frankie, born into a wealthy American family, never suffered the financial deprivation of Kate and Cathy but was just as ridiculed and reviled by the men she was forced to work alongside. She wrote several award-winning books, including one still regarded as the definitive history of that war: “Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam” (1972). It was a bestseller that won the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize and National Book Award.

These woman had difficult personal lives due to their professional struggles. Catherine and Kate died young without enjoying a successful personal partnership. Frankie eventually found happiness with writer James Sterba at the age of 50. None had children.

Award-winning journalist and filmmaker Alex Quade could never have been embedded long-term with U.S. Special Forces on contemporary combat missions if Kate, Cathy and Frankie had not faced down all the insults and obstructions thrown at them in the 1960s and ’70s to change the way the story of war is told.

In her telling of how these young women forever changed the world’s perception of female journalists, Elizabeth Becker gives us a totally new view of what drove the Vietnam War. It is all eerily familiar as we watch and listen to the consequences of America’s long deployment in Afghanistan and the chaotic withdrawal.

Have we learned anything about how we keep women from taking their rightful place in this world? Have we learned how to aid and assist other cultures and countries without interfering in their right and obligation to forge their own destiny? If we have, it is at least in part due to people like Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy and Frances Fitzgerald and to Elizabeth Becker, who told their stories.