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Books in Review, March/April 2021 -   -  
   

An Eye-Opening Look at Three Pioneering War Correspondents

Elizabeth Becker covered the Vietnam War in Cambodia in the early seventies for The Washington Post. That alone is a notable statement, since only a handful of women surmounted the glass-ceilinged sexism of the sixties and seventies to make their way to the war zone and cover the war. Becker survived the Cambodian Khmer Rouge revolution and went on to a long, distinguished career in journalism. Plus, she wrote two notable books about the Indochina wars: When the War Was Over on Cambodia and America’s Vietnam War, a Young Adult concise history.

Becker returns to the Vietnam War in You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War (PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $28). This is a well-researched, fluidly written concise group biography of three of Becker’s fellow Vietnam War correspondents: the French photojournalist Catherine LeRoy, the New Zealand-born correspondent Kate Webb, and the American writer Frances FitzGerald. All three overcame stupendous institutional odds through grit, talent, and brains. They ferreted out important, sometimes groundbreaking, stories and—in LeRoy’s case—repeatedly braved enemy fire to come up with some of the war’s most evocative and enduring images.

Becker weaves a brief history of the war in Vietnam into the women’s life stories and also tells her own story of overcoming the odds to follow in LeRoy, Webb, and FitzGerald’s war correspondent footsteps. She chronicles the three women’s ups and downs, of which there were many—in LeRoy’s and Webb’s cases caused primarily by their own recklessness. At heart, though, this is an admiring look at the lives of three women whose stories, Becker rightly observes, “offer a new way to see the war.”

Becker misspells the name of VVA’s founder and first president, Bobby Muller (not Mueller)—a minor misstep. Otherwise, this book offers new, revealing details on three determined women who, against great odds, made their mark on journalism during the Vietnam War.

A THOUSAND WORDS

John “Derf” Backderf is one of the nation’s most accomplished cartoonists. He’s best known for “The City,” a comic strip that appeared in dozens of alternative newspapers, and for his graphic novels. Backderf works in the style of underground comics. Think R. Crumb, Bill (“Zippy the Pinhead”) Griffin, and Gilbert (“The Fabulous, Furry Freak Brothers”) Shelton.

Backderf was a middle schooler during the height of the Vietnam War. His brilliant new graphic docudrama, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams Comicarts, 288 pp. $24.99), begins on April 30, 1970, with a ten-year-old Backderf reading MAD magazine in a car with his mother on the way to a burger joint. All of a sudden they come within spitting distance of battle-ready Ohio National Guardsmen putting down a rowdy strike by the local Teamsters union in their Northeast Ohio town.

That night, Backderf and his parents watched President Nixon on TV as he told the nation that U.S. troops had just moved into Cambodia, an event that sent shock waves across the nation. Large demonstrations took place in reaction to Nixon’s surprise move expanding the Vietnam War. College campuses nationwide erupted, including nearby Kent State University. What happened at Kent in the next three days is the subject of this riveting, eye-opening book.

The story of the Ohio National Guard opening up on students on May 2 is well known, but no book, documentary, or magazine or newspaper article has accomplished what Backderf has here. In 250 pages of black-and-white stylized cartoons he puts faces to the names of all the main players in a remarkably detailed picture of virtually every aspect of the Kent State tragedy.

He tells the full story of the three days of student unrest and police and military actions that led to the carnage, including the perspectives of the National Guard troops and their leaders and the students. He illuminates the role the few radicals on campus played in antiwar demonstrations that turned violent in Kent on May 1 and on campus the following two days. He gives us intimate looks at the lives of the four who died and the ones who were wounded. It’s an objective picture, though Backderf strongly condemns posturing politicians and inept Guard leaders, especially Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes and Gen. Robert Canterbury.

Backderf did his homework, as he shows in more than 25 pages of explanatory endnotes. He immersed himself in oral histories, official documents, and contemporary newspaper accounts, and absorbed the best of the secondary sources. If you think you know the main threads of what happened at Kent State, after reading this book you will know a lot more—including detailed, graphic (pun intended) renderings of the violent deaths of the four students.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this book (which also has plenty of words), is worth hundreds of thousands of words that starkly spell out the horrific events that took place in Kent, Ohio, early in May of the Vietnam War year of 1970.

PULP FICTION

Show of hands: How many Vietnam War veterans had a copy or two of a men’s adventure magazine stashed in your foot locker? You know what I’m talking about—the ones printed on cheap paper that featured tales of derring-do by heavily muscled, handsome GIs on the battlefield. Plus pin-up-worthy females, usually of the treacherous variety, corrupting All-American troops in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

I don’t think I ever laid eyes on a copy of Real Men, Stag, American Manhood, Men, Man’s Adventures, or any other pulps in the war zone. I dimly recall some lying around in dorm rooms in my college years (1963-67). Stag, for one, rings a bell.

Which brings us to Gregory A. Daddis’ Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines (Cambridge University Press, 358 pp., $29.95), a thoroughly researched, deeply analytical dive into the impact of the not-subtle messages those macho pulps had for the young troops who read them.

Gaddis—a retired Army colonel and Persian Gulf War veteran who teaches U.S. Military History at San Diego State University—weighs mountains of evidence, concentrating on male troops’ attitudes toward the Vietnamese, especially women. Or as he puts it: The book compares “the fantasy of war as depicted in the magazines with the reality of [the Vietnam War], considering ways in which the pulps contributed to a culture which found it acceptable to engage in violence against the Vietnamese population, especially its women.”

After weighing countless examples of articles lionizing heroic GIs and demonizing Asian women, Daddis does not unequivocally state that the pulps directly caused American battlefield atrocities in Vietnam and violent (often sexual) attacks on Vietnamese. He points out that the pulp mags’ messages were one of many Cold War cultural forces at work on impressionable minds in the war zone. On the other hand, Daddis connects some important dots.

“In their unique way,” he writes, the macho pulps “contributed to a culture which found it acceptable to engage in sexual aggression toward and violence against Vietnamese women.”

This book is aimed at academics and therefore contains academic jargon and an avalanche of detailed endnotes. On the positive side, Daddis is often an engaging writer and his topic is a fascinating one.

Body Count Soldiers
by Charles Smith

Vietnam War veterans have entered the twilight of their lives and many of us have yet to tell our stories. The distance between that war and most of us is now a half century, and the time remaining to capture the experience of serving in the Vietnam War is growing shorter.

Charles Smith, a U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division veteran, has reached back many years, collected his memories, and produced Body Count Soldiers: Vietnam through the Eyes of a Draftee (117 pp., $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a book about his very personal war experiences and a welcome addition to the Vietnam War memoir genre.

Smith, a member of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Chapter 243, presents his one-year odyssey as a young infantryman as a collection of day-to-day vignettes and observations. Because Smith was a draftee, he naturally addresses the unfairness of the Selective Service System and how privileged young men benefited with exemptions, allowing them to avoid being drafted and serving in the war.

I was able, as an enlistee from the underclass, to appreciate his thoughts. His comments about the distance he experienced between draftees and soldiers who enlisted brought back memories. I remember sitting around a campfire as the two groups jokingly commented on how each guy found himself in Vietnam by referring to each other by their service number prefixes, “US” for draftees and “RA” for those who enlisted. The gist was that the RAs were fools because they had joined the Army, while the USs were there only because they were forced to be—as if it made any difference.

Many of Smith’s memories of being in the field are unembellished and low key. He describes what thousands of us faced: mosquito bites, dirt clinging to sweat-covered bodies, enemy fire, friendships, and sometimes tension between soldiers. And exposure to Agent Orange.  

He also recalls a question put to him and heard by too many of us when we came home: “How many people did you kill?” There is no way to bridge the gap between those who fought in a war and those at home asking the question. After returning home, as Smith did, I became totally opposed to our involvement in the war and also angry about how the My Lai incident made all of us who served in Vietnam suspect in the eyes of many.

Body Count Soldiers was easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with shared experiences.

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