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War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam


War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam

I was the college kid who got the summer job as an editorial
assistant at Look Magazine. In 1966, that was a big deal. I
wasn't appropriately grateful. I wore beads and grew dope on my
windowsill and tried to impress the slightly older women --- that
is, college grads --- who worked on my floor. In my serious
moments, I questioned the casualty figures that famous Americans
inserted into their articles about our glorious war to defend
freedom in Vietnam. Such was my modest contribution to peace that

One day I looked around and noticed that one of one of those woman
--- a leonine beauty named Jurate Kazickas --- wasn't there any
more. She'd gone to Vietnam. Later, I heard, she'd been trapped at
Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive.

Flash forward 30 years. Jurate --- married, a mother and a writer
--- now lives in my neighborhood. I see her all the time. But
despite the fact that Vietnam is indisputably the central fact of
the lives of everyone in my generation who still has a conscience
and a pulse, despite the dozens of underlined books on my shelves
about Vietnam, despite views about the government that were formed
during the Vietnam war and have never ever changed, Jurate and I
have had no conversation about Vietnam. I don't think I could bear

It turns out that very few of the women who went to Vietnam as
reporters could bear to talk about what they saw and did there. A
few years ago, however, the floodgates opened. Now I am holding a
book --- WAR TORN: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who
Covered Vietnam --- in which nine women, Jurate among them, look
back at their time at the war. And as I turn the pages, I come to
know just about everything of their experience there. The writing
here has almost uniform greatness; it's so vivid, so acute, so
achingly and unflinchingly honest that it transports you across the
years and miles.

That's not just because Vietnam was the last war that allowed
journalists to work without censorship. It's also because these
writers are women --- they traveled with the troops, they saw their
share of death, but because they could not fight or conceive of
themselves as soldiers, they were forced to test themselves in
other ways. At the war, Denby Fawcett learned "the benefits and
perils of making friends with the untamed side of yourself."

Yes, that meant just what you think: "My relaxation was friendly
sex, made intense by the situation of the war." That "situation"
was, of course, that brave men were fighting and dying and killing
for reasons that were, for the first time in American military
history, not wildly popular with the folks back home. Vietnam was
thus a hell and a haven, with big learning moments out of Conrad
and Crane: "In the fear of death, I felt most alive."

Fawcett finds a soul sister in Tad Bartimus, the book's editor. "I
kept close to the ground," she writes. "My world was rice cooked in
the streets, shit beside the road, babies born in fields. If I was
hungry, I ate whatever was in the pot. If I needed to sleep, I
found a bed or lay down in the mud…"

That's an intimate relationship. In contrast, Jurate Kazickas holds
herself back; she's out to prove that she's as worthy of being here
as the toughest Marine. So she tramps --- in 110-degree heat and
unspeakable humidity, through bamboo and l0-foot-high elephant
grass --- with a troop of soldiers. When they nickname her
"Hardcore," it's like a validation. But it doesn't buy her
immunity. She will see American men, dead for three days, blackened
and bloated in the sun. A soldier gushing blood will moan, "I don't
want a woman to see me die this way." And she will witness, time
and again, "the unabashed love that men showed one another." By the
time she's wounded by shrapnel in the face and spine, her injuries
seem almost…incidental. This woman had bravery to burn.

That these women could live with such extremes is hugely
impressive. But as a reader, I came to feel emotionally whipsawed.
Which is why I was so grateful that the book ended with Laura
Palmer's piece. She's our innocent, our narrative link to the
children we were, back home. "I grew up in the glass house of
idealism that Camelot built, and when it was shattered, ran into
the streets," she says. "I was a very good girl who wore mascara
through the revolution."

In Palmer's piece, we start moving away from the world of men and
battles and events and closer to the war that begins, as she notes,
when the shooting stops. The super-power leaves; people look back
with grief, to the future with astonishing resolve. We see how big
life is, how much pain it holds, how magnificent we are just for
enduring it. "If there were parades for people who survived their
lives, the marching would never stop," Palmer concludes. The wisdom
in that idea could take you an hour to explicate.

So here's to nine female journalists who didn't have to go to war,
but nonetheless put themselves in its path. Nine women, now
distinctly middle-aged; but as with all things about Vietnam, time
and the mind play tricks. We don't learn much about what happens
"after" the war for them, and we don't care, for their work here is
all about looking back. And as the memories flood in, they become
once again the young and committed and beautiful women of their
youth. Thank you, all, for the solace you gave to your lovers and
brothers, and now for adding one more volume to the classic
literature of war.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 24, 2011

War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam
Tad Bartimus et al.

  • Publication Date: August 20, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0375506284
  • ISBN-13: 9780375506284