Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters who covered Vietnam

Contributors: Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrissy Merick, Laura Palmer, Kate Webb, Tracy Wood
Format: Hardback 340 pgs
Subject: Women reporters in Vietnam War (non-fiction)
Setting: Vietnam
Genre: Non-Fiction, personal recollections
Source: public library

 When I think of Vietnam, I think of the soldier's faces.  Unguarded, innocent, smiling. They were all so young, unprepared for the filth and degradation of war.  No one wanted to be in that distant, strange land, but they did not complain. Some felt it was their duty to come to Vietnam.  Some never stopped questioning why they were there.  But they fought; they died....I wanted to write about these men.----Jarate Kazickas  War Torn, "These Hills Called Khe Sanh"  pg.121.
In 1966, when I graduated from an all-female college, women were just beginning to embrace the concept that opportunities were open to them, that we went to college to get an education-not a husband, although many of us still embraced the "womanly" occupations of school teacher, nurse, and librarian.  I joined the Navy, and found myself (after a rigorous Officer Candidate training in Newport RI) serving in a schools command personnel office in Newport where for the next two plus years, I spent 50% of my time, signing orders and travel papers and getting clearances to send graduates of the Navy's various training schools in Newport to duty in Vietnam.  None of my Newport classmates (all females) served in country.  The only women the Navy sent were nurses.  I signed their orders, but I didn't go through training with them and I didn't go to war with them.  My war was at home, convincing myself that our country couldn't possibly make the horrible mistake the war protesters screamed we were making.

My husband graduated from the Naval Academy that same year, and many of his classmates did go to Vietnam.  Several didn't return.  He went in 1972, commanding a large ocean going tug ferrying barges in and out of that dangerous area.  We don't talk a lot about the war.  To this day, I cannot go to the Vietnam War Memorial (THE WALL) without breaking down in tears.  It's not just for the people we know.  The tears are for all the people we didn't know, that we'll never have the chance to know, and for the loved ones who never had the chance for a long life together like we have had, for the incredible carnage and anguish our country endured because of what is known as Vietnam. was with a great deal of trepidation that I took on the reading challenge War Throughout the Generations: Vietnam sponsored by Anna and Serena.  I wasn't certain I was ready to tackle what I was sure could only be an extremely politicized and polarizing experience. I don't watch war movies, I can't stand to see anything with blood and guts and guns and grenades.  I even have trouble reading some 'thrillers' if they're too graphic. Is it that if I can't picture it, then it didn't happen?  I'm especially sure that I'll probably never be able to publicly blog about my still conflicted thoughts.

War Torn, was the perfect book for me to begin my reading, and maybe even to begin to examine my feelings.  Written by nine women who served as war correspondents in Vietnam during various periods of the conflict between 1966 and 1975, the diverse perspectives, adventures, and experiences of this group helped me to come to grips with the fact that it's ok not to be able to resolve our feelings.  They came from a variety of backgrounds and educations (one had never worked in any journalistic capacity - she got to Vietnam as a pediatrician's girlfriend!), they had an assortment of marching orders (from covering traditional women's items like families and food to going anywhere the military would permit them), and they had a wide range of reactions.

I was struck so strongly by their love of the country and the people.  Anyone I've ever spoken to who went there speaks of the beauty of the land, and the gentleness and integrity of the people.  The government may have been corrupt, and the land may have been decimated by all participants, but these women were all able to find something positive to bring out of their experiences.  I was especially struck by their insistence of getting the word out about what the average GI was really going through, by trying to get to know them, convincing field commanders to let them accompany troops in the field, and then report about soldier's heroism, fears, and battlefield wisdom.

I was also struck by the difference between "the war" as experienced by those who stayed mainly in Saigon, and "the war" out in the valleys, in the mountains, in the villages.
Kate Webb: "...back in Saigon it was different. You got back more often than not stinking, sweat caked, mosquito bitten, and badly in need of a shower, the images of the last week or ten days --the loss, the nerves, the bitterness, the adrenaline, the fear-- to lights, booze, laughter, and martinis on the terrace of the Caravelle (hotel) pg. 68.
The courage (some might say recklessness?) exhibited by this group as they schlepped up mountain sides wearing 100 lb packs, burned leeches off their arms and legs, waded across rivers holding their precious cameras and tape recorders over their heads, ducked into trenches to avoid flying mortars was not what was expected of 'little ladies' of our generation.  Several were wounded, a couple have debilitating physical issues that will follow them for the rest of their lives.  They adopted Vietnamese children, wrote books, and basically did what they were supposed to do--they reported what they saw.

Several admitted however, that they had been unable to think about or reminisce about their time until this project was proposed.  It was only in this book, 25 -30 years after they left, that they allowed themselves to confront some of the very emotional issues they had to bury in order to report in an objective manner.  Kate Webb was taken prisoner (in Cambodia) at one point. In writing about the experience, her ability to detach and report is impressive.
With the lack of any news or reference point, any reality check, in the grey limbo of 'the prisoner'--where you are not among the living or the dead of the war, but trapped in a gray twilight with no links to the living world--you reach a point inside yourself that you wouldn't reach otherwise. Pg. 78

There are other memorable quotes from several of them:

Anne Bryan Mariano: "Being in the field proved to me that while there are many cases of individual courage and heroism among soldiers, there is nothing about war itself that is heroic." (pg. 39)

Tad Bartimus : "In my youth I thought I was invincible, that if I didn't get shot or visibly maimed, I'd get away clean.  But surviving a war doesn't mean you escape being its victim. ongoing health problems (from exposure to Agent Orange?) remind me that thousands of veterans still fight the Vietnam War every day in their own bodies." pg. 188, 217.

Laura Walker, who 'hitchhiked' to Vietnam with no press credentials or experience, writes eloquently of the other group of women who served in Vietnam, and about whom as a group not much has been written, the nurses.
The myth is that women weren't in combat.  In an official sense, that's true...Nurses saw the war from the inside out, from the rotting wounds infested with maggots to the stink of burned flesh, the mangled limbs, and the sucking chest wounds....The nurses wanted, willed, hoped, believed, prayed, and yearned for their patients to live so much that each death felt like a defeat. Nearly every nurse came home with a debilitating and corrosive sense of failure embedded in her soul.  If only she ad been a better nurse, more would have survived.
These are powerful and empowering stories-- for women and men. If you want to start reading about actual 'in country' experiences, this is a great place to start.

Challenge: War Thru the Generations


  1. Tina, Thank you for sharing what experiences you could. I graduated from an all-female prep school and wanted to join the Navy but my parents had a hissy fit so I went to business school and a boring office job. I had always resented that, but now I'm thinking it was best after all. I'm going to look for this book; I can't watch war movies like Saving Private Ryan, but I think I should read this book.

  2. I'm glad that you decided to join us for the Vietnam War Challenge. Great review and this is definitely a book I will have to look for.

    Your review link will go up on monday, feb. 22.

  3. This sounds fascinating. I'll keep it in mind to read for the challenge. And thanks so much for sharing some of your personal experiences.

    Diary of an Eccentric


Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.