War Torn: Exclusive Club of Women Recounts Stories of War Correspondents in Vietnam

By ALEXIS TONTI

Having been a female reporter in Vietnam, Denby Fawcett said, "We belong to an exclusive club that can accept no new members. Vietnam made me braver, it made me more skeptical. I went thinking it was all always going to be all right. I left knowing that was not always so."

"Every day was different, and there was always a wild card in the deck," reporter Laura Palmer said. "The truism was that nothing was ever as it seemed. Just when you thought you understood, everything shifted."

Such reflections were the subject of a program Thursday night at St. Andrew's parish house, celebrating the release of the book War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. Seven of the nine women who contributed to the book were on hand to share their reflections on Vietnam and to answer questions about their time in country.

"They are here to speak about a war that continues to italicize our minds," said moderator Dana Anderson. "They have made extraordinary efforts to be here, and the spiritual journey they have taken since Vietnam is quite memorable."

Among the panelists were Ms. Fawcett, who at 24 was the Honolulu Advertiser's chief Vietnam reporter; Tad Bartimus and Edith Lederer, who both covered the war for the Associated Press; Ann Bryan Mariano, who opened a Vietnam bureau of the Overseas Weekly; Kate Webb, who was Cambodia bureau chief for United Press International; Anne Morrissy Merick, an ABC News producer, and Ms. Palmer, who traveled to Saigon and ultimately found work in radio for ABC and NBC and as a freelancer for Time and Rolling Stone.

The panelists began by explaining how they came to go to Vietnam. Several went despite resistance from their superiors. Ms. Fawcett, who had been writing for the society pages of a Honolulu daily, said "they went into gales of laughter" when she asked for a war assignment. She quit and was preparing to go herself when the Honolulu Advertiser hired her, though at first even they would only pay her by the column. Ms. Webb - who at 23 was taking copy off the AP wire in Sydney, Australia - also said they laughed when she asked about a job in Vietnam. So she bought a ticket herself, securing accreditation and a job with United Press International once she was there.

Ms. Lederer had a different experience; she traveled to Saigon while on vacation in 1971. She'd been covering the anti-war movement in San Francisco, and while in Saigon the AP staff showed her around. ("I was essentially a war tourist," she said.) A year later, the president of the AP called to offer her a job - a first for the news agency, as it had no women working full-time in Vietnam until Ms. Lederer.

Ms. Anderson then asked the panelists to speak to the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in Vietnam. Several said that one of the greatest obstacles was fighting General Westmoreland's edict that women could not cover war from the field. Ms. Merick explained that Ms. Mariano in particular fought for their rights, doing a tremendous amount of research on women in journalism and then meeting with secretary of defense Robert McNamara and his aide to discuss the matter; the edict was subsequently rescinded.

Those who arrived in the later years of the war said they faced fewer challenges than their predecessors. Ms. Bartimus applauded Ms. Webb for setting a precedent and a standard of reporting: "Kate was there, and I was tearing out all her front page bylines and sending them to the president of the AP in New York. I said, ‘If I was there, those would be your stories.' "

Ms. Lederer said, "It was the cumulative effect of the women who had gone before and performed so brilliantly. We rode their coattails - or skirt hems, as the case may be - into Vietnam."

She added that being in the minority worked to her advantage, as well. "Most men in the military never expected women to know anything," she said. "They were more at ease explaining things, and you could slip in questions and get answers."

Ms. Fawcett concurred: "You were different and so unusual that people would talk to you. People needed to talk to strangers. It helped you make friends and get sources."

Considering whether their attitudes changed over the course of the war, Ms. Palmer said that prior to going to Vietnam she had seen everything in black and white. "I had been at all the anti-war marches and planning to go to law school and get the Black Panthers out of jail. . . . I thought I went with the answers, and I left humbled by my inability to answer questions," Ms. Palmer said. "It was not as simple as I had thought."

Ms. Fawcett described her attitude toward the war as a slow evolution. "I came out of the 1950s Eisenhower era, when everything America did was right, and we could save people from communism and this terrible plight." After she arrived in 1966 - when by year's end American troops had doubled to 400,000, she said - she thought, "Maybe this is a war we can still win for the right reasons, but maybe not do it the right way. By the end I realized this was not a good war, not a winnable war."

Ms. Merick said frankly, "I think we sold them down the drain. This is a war I believe could have been won."

One audience member asked if they thought their reporting was aggressive enough. Ms. Bartimus said her way of being aggressive was tackling stories no one wanted to do: "I spent most of my life looking for the rat hole," she said. "To write consistently and continually about noncombatant issues that broadened the picture of the idiocy of war and the collateral damage. I wanted to let the reader decide, but to give them the complete picture."

Talk extended beyond the Vietnam War to current events. They discussed how the role of foreign correspondents has changed over the years. "It's gotten muddled," Ms. Bartimus said of journalism today. "The lines are so blurred, and CNN has changed so much. People think Bill O'Reilly is a journalist because they see him on TV, because he has a microphone and is talking about current events.

"I'm hesitant to tell people I'm a journalist," she continued. "There is a lack of discrimination in the kind of journalistic efforts that are made. They're all lumped together, and that's why it's difficult for those who are there [in Afghanistan] and are trying to be objective. No one believes they can be neutral."

The women concluded by talking about the legacy Vietnam left in their lives. "Vietnam has always been my teacher," Ms. Palmer said. "I ultimately learned about the power of love. Vietnam erased my fear of death and brought me closer to God and my faith. Not easily, not quickly, but slowly in an evolutionary way.

"I realized the flag on the coffin covers only the obvious tragedy. But the boys are alive in love. If we love well, we never really die."

Ms. Lederer said she learned "to value the lives of people rich and poor. To think about the underdogs, and never to be too pompous to stop and listen to those who have no voice."

"Anyone who went there and says it didn't entirely change their lives isn't telling the truth," said Ms. Merick. "The emotions over there were so heightened, so far above what I had ever felt before. These women," she said of her fellow panelists, "are so special. It was fun, it was serious. It was a time of emotions I'll never forget."

Ms. Webb summed up her experience simply: "Making the best friends I've made, and losing too many of them."