THE WOMEN WHO WROTE THE WAR by Nancy Sorel  (1999)


YOU DON’T BELONG HERE by Elizabeth Becker  (2021)

June 2021

I dedicate this month’s blog to the memory of murdered Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to the courage of jailed Belarussian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.  

Earlier this year I saw an interview with Elizabeth Becker about her new book You Don’t Belong Here.  I knew about Sorel’s book, had been intending to read it for some time.  Her book was about women in World War II while Becker’s was about Vietnam and Cambodia.  They seemed like books that go together; like 2-generations in the same profession, just in a different time and half a world apart.  I wondered:  had anything really changed from one theater of war to the next, one generation to the next?

Women writing about and photographing wars was really a 20th Century phenomenon made possible by technological advances in transportation, weaponry, medicine, machinery of all sorts (including cameras), and resulting in social changes.  Women who wanted to indulge their drive for adventure, but not having to be a nurse to do it, were able to break away from the confinement of home.

In so doing, they brought the war home for everyone to experience through their writings and photos.  Women on the home front created a demand for news from areas where their husbands and sons were stationed.  Magazines such as Collier’s, Life, Look, and other media hired women to provide their own unique and sometimes exclusive points of view for women at home.  This was new in the 20th Century.

Were these women accepted by the men and allowed to work where assigned?  At times this was an issue they had to overcome by whatever creative method worked.  The most opposition tended to come from the older males in higher ranks.  They saw the presence of women as a problem and seemed to have issues seeing them as professionals.

Males near their own age, younger ones actually doing the fighting, were the most accepting of the female correspondents and photographers.  They realized that the women were facing most of the same dangers and being just as scared and brave.  It didn’t take long for their respect to manifest.  This was the case in both wars.

Sorel’s book includes so many women, it’s possible to mention only a few here.  Most of them were in the European theater, where it was easier for them to move from place to place.  The island-hopping nature of much of the Pacific war made it more difficult for the women, who were banned from actual combat (although photographer “Dickey” Chapelle managed to get around that prohibition on Iwo Jima).  China was so large and so primitive in many areas that it too was difficult to cover, as Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway discovered.

Gellhorn and Hemingway had met in Cuba, then met again in Spain covering the Spanish Civil War.  That affair led to their marriage, which WWII ended when Hemingway met his future and final wife #4 at the same London hotel where he and sometimes Martha were staying.  Mary Welsh was also nominally married, but recounts that Ernest proposed to her anyway.  “I don’t know you, Mary,” she recalled him saying.  “But I want to marry you….I want to marry you now, and I hope to marry you sometime.  Sometime you may want to marry me.”  Welsh reminded him they were both already married, told him he was “very premature.”  [pp. 221-222]  (Perhaps she meant IMMATURE?)

As his marriage with Gellhorn deteriorated, he became more bullying and ruder to her.  When she got the assignment to cover D-Day for Collier’s, Ernest succumbed to professional jealousy.  They made their separate ways across the Atlantic and to France, but she beat him there by stowing away on a hospital ship crossing the English Channel to become the first woman on the Normandy beach.

Gellhorn covered many places in the war and went on to write numerous books in the coming decades.

One of the best photographers was Lee Miller.  As an amateur photographer, she decided to get serious about it.  She went to Paris and managed to talk Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) into allowing her to be his apprentice.  Later they became lovers.

Like other women who continued through the end of the war, Miller did not flinch in the camps.  She went to Dachau and photographed everything.  She took a bath in Hitler’s bathtub in his Munich apartment.  The photo of that event on p. 363 “became a classic of the noncombative side of war.” [p. 362]

Margaret Bourke-White was famous for her photography when the war started, and she continued to take some of the best and most memorable photos throughout the war.  All the journalists and photographers were dedicated to and produced good work.

The one fact that struck me most when reading the book is about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Helen Kirkpatrick, who worked for the Chicago Daily News, had good social connections among the English aristocracy.  In her diary entry for Nov. 29-30 1941, she mentions a weekend visit at the Tree estate called Ditchley.  She says Ronnie Tree “who lunched at Chequers with the Churchills says that FDR talked to the PM Friday night and said war with Japan within a week.” [p. 129]

That stunning fact is enhanced by the fact that:

“Japanese nationals in Rome were being mysteriously overfriendly to those few American reporters left.  On December 4 Japanese counselor Ando honored Japanese and American correspondents with a lavish cocktail party and buffet at his new home….[S]imilar parties were taking place wherever both Americans and Japanese still resided….[A]t the evening’s climax Ando raised a glass of straight Scotch and toasted “the continued friendship of America and Japan.’”  [p. 130]

In hindsight, this unusual behavior seems to be a deliberate attempt to quell any suspicions the American correspondents may have written about the unexpected attack that came only 3 days later.  What remains unexplained is why FDR made the above comment to Churchill, as though he knew about the coming attack.  We’ve always been told that the Japanese attack was a complete surprise about which no one knew.  I’m left with the question:  is that true; and will there ever be an honest answer to that question?

Sorel’s book has a cast of dozens of women.  When it was time to go home, they felt they had “proved themselves.”

“The recognition they had earned was not only for themselves, because most of them thought their achievements were just what any woman lucky enough to have been in their place would have accomplished, but for their sisters coming after them.  If they had not exactly made rough paths smooth…they had made them passable.  Passable would do.”  [p. 389]

Becker’s book features 3 of those sisters who wrote about the Vietnam/South Asia war in addition to her own experience in Cambodia.

Catherine Leroy was a French photographer with a special feeling for Vietnam because it had been a French colony until 1954.  She was tiny, but all 5’ of her was energy.  She left school early, and couldn’t find her niche in France.  She discovered a love for parachuting, made her 85th jump in Vietnam, and started taking photos.  Her small size was an asset because it allowed her to get very close to her target, often without being noticed.  Before long, her photos won great acclaim for their excellence.

Frances “Frankie” FitzGerald, author of the famous book Fire in the Lake, and Leroy both arrived in Vietnam in February 1966.  She and Leroy were opposites in many ways.  Frankie had an upper class American background, a Radcliffe degree, and didn’t need to worry about money.  Her birth father worked at the CIA, but she didn’t know what his role in Vietnam was.

For a brilliant and privileged young woman who didn’t have to do anything besides be a socialite, Frankie observed with a keen eye, developed ideas, then wrote about them.  Her book, published in 1971, is still a classic and perhaps the most important book about the Vietnamese culture and war.  She still writes today.

Australian Kate Webb arrived in 1968.  She was particularly independent and sensitive about being seen to do her job as competently as possible.

“She did not want to be accused of using women’s liberation as a crutch, which was how her male colleagues viewed feminism.  To be called a women’s libber was an insult:  women’s liberation was for those who couldn’t make it unassisted….Whenever she was asked, Webb replied:  ‘I don’t believe in women’s liberation.’”  [pp. 152-153]

Webb was the only one of the 3 women who made a point about the Women’s Liberation movement.

Webb was also the only one of the 3 women who was captured in Cambodia by North Vietnamese.  She and her companions were kept for most of April 1971.  At one point, she was declared dead with an obituary and elegy (another body was mistaken for her).  While she wasn’t beaten in interrogations or mistreated by their captors, long marches, inadequate food, and boredom took their toll on her health.

Of the 3 women in Becker’s book, West had the most difficult time with health issues.  All the women in both books suffered to a greater or lesser extent with health and other issues.  More than one left their war with what we now recognize as PTSD and nightmares, just as so many soldiers did.  However, I don’t think a single woman regretted her experience.  They learned to be strong and independent; that they could do whatever they decided to do.

That is not to say that they had an easy time with romantic and marital relationships, or even friendships with other women around them, however.  I did notice that there were more divorces than successful marriages throughout both books.

Some of the women formed relationships with men also in the war.  A few worked, but there were others that did not survive.  Webb agreed to marry a soldier she’d dated for a year, quit her job to follow him to North Carolina.  There she discovered he was already married and was lying to his wife to explain his absences.  At least she discovered his lying ways before they married.

So DID the first generation of women writing war smooth the path for the next generation?  I must agree that they made the paths “passable.”  There were still the old men who weren’t up to speed on how valuable the women were to the cause, but there were ways around them.  The women still were paid much less than they were worth…just like women in any field.

I liked both books a great deal.  One would think after 650 pages I’d be glad to finish them, but I wasn’t.  Not only were these stories about real people; the authors also placed those people in history.  Both books are also stories about their respective wars.  Both are exhaustively and meticulously researched, with primary sources such as diaries and letters.  Notes are included.  I guarantee you’ll learn lots of new information; e.g., Pol Pot’s real name is Solath Sar!

I’m finally going to read FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake—a task I’ve delayed for decades.

These books will be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.

–Donna Rueff—