|By Carol Amoruso, HAV Editor
“What the hell is a woman doing in a war zone?” writes Jurate Kazickas, the words still resonating as, 40 years later, she recalls the prevailing reaction of soldiers and male reporters to the small cadre of women, like herself, covering the Vietnam War. They’d donned army fatigues, loaded their Nikons and water canisters on their shoulders, and claimed the jungles and the streets as their beat, asserting their right to be just as close to the fighting that their male counterparts by default had always been. These very courageous women made the going smoother for the vast numbers of women covering the world’s hot spots today.
Vietnam was a protracted, bloody, guerrilla war, one that rent the American people and took the lives of unprecedented numbers of journalists. Vietnam—and Cambodia and Laos–came at a time in our history when injustice and inequality were on the scope of a conscious, questioning citizenry, when women began to demand equal opportunity and equal treatment from men. If men can be board presidents, then so can we, they insisted. If men can be doctors and lawyers, pastors and Indian chiefs, then so could they. If men could assume one of society’s most dangerous and most crucial jobs, then so could they. And they marched off to war, steno pad in hand, but for a different use now.
PAVING THE WAY
The Vietnam women’s way—that of Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Gloria Emerson, and several others who went on to illustrious careers–had been paved throughout the years of the Republic in sparsely laid steppingstones adorned with the lace and brownies and women’s auxiliary stories they had been consigned to. It wasn’t until W.W. II—the first major conflagration after women gained the right to vote–that women could step away from the Women’s Page and do some hard reporting. Though many today eschew comparison, few deny Martha Gellhorn her influence on genre or gender. Gellhorn, a grande dame who lived a life of populist crusades, was feisty, intrepid, colorful and relentlessly political. She left a comfortable life in St. Louis in the 30s for the Spanish front where she reported on the Spanish Civil War, a no-brainer peoples’ battle between fascism and progressivism, or radicalism. There, she met and married Ernest Hemingway. It was, predictably, a tempestuous affair, which, when it ended, caused Papa to comment, lobbing a left-handed tribute to his ex, that she was more interested in her career than in him.
Also influential was Margaret Bourke-White. Hired in 1935 by Life magazine as the first female photojournalist, she was also the first female American war correspondent. Bourke-White covered the London Blitz, and other major battles of the War. Along with Gellhorn, she was one of the first reporters admitted to the Nazi death camps, the hideousness of which she documented photographically. She wrote 6 books to tell her tales.
THE STORY TODAY
After 40 years, the United States is in another protracted guerrilla war of unthinkable carnage. Women reporters are on the frontlines and in the streets, women of all nations now. It is a treacherous conflict for journalists, leading the Committee to Protect Journalists to proclaim, “no journalist is safe in Iraq.” Approximately 50 percent of the US press corps there are women. 67 journalists have been killed on duty in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of March, 2003. 6 have been women, and, now, more have been murdered in these 3 years than in over 10 years of fighting in Vietnam. In addition, reporters are being felled more often now as enemy targets than by crossfire and accidents. For the killers, the pen, the camera, and the microphone are the weapons of the enemy.
Just prior to the completion of this article, abducted Christian Science Monitor correspondent, Jill Carroll, was freed after over 3 months in captivity. The world waited anxiously on her fate, as it did that of captured (also freed) Italian reporter, Giuliana Sgrena, as it mourns the deaths of Elizabeth Neuffer of the Boston Globe and Atwar Bahsat of Al Arabiya. The intrepidness of these women in going out into the community to touch the people and source the news somehow affects us in a different way. Perhaps it is because we, still on the underside of this, one of the last of the glass ceilings, continue to see them as more fragile than men.
RESHAPING THE NEWS
Many believe that women have reshaped the news, bringing an expanded context and different perspective to conflict coverage. Women journalists recently polled by the International Women’s Media Foundation overwhelmingly agreed (92%) that women bring a “different, more human perspective” to news coverage “at least some of the time.” Martha Gellhorn made no excuses for her professional disinterest in the “big brass” nor the political leaders on whose grid were millions of lives. She preferred, instead, to tell the story with words from the pinpricks on the grid. “All politicians are bores and liars and fakes, ” she said. “I talk to people.”
The many years of the Indo-Chinese war are seen as the true watershed of a new way to report the news. Jurate Kazickes, whose tour in Vietnam was early on in the war, in the mid- 60’s, notes how reporting of the fighting changed from the nuts and bolts, the day-to-day, at the war’s outset—the body count, how many shells fell over the rapidly wasting countryside, the kind and fire power of the weapons–to softer, more humanized stories that brought the suffering and the folly back home. The women who followed them to Vietnam, including the gluttonous Gellhorn, depicted the soldiers’ bloodied, extinguished faces and mangled meat-grindered legs and put real faces, torn, grief-stricken and bewildered, on the Vietnamese, sending back images so horrifying that they helped turn the critical mass of the American people against the war.
“I remember reading Gloria Emerson’s pieces 5 years after I came back, and just being blown away,” Kazickas recalls. “How movingly she wrote about the Vietnamese people! And I thought to myself, now why didn’t I write those stories?”
While women were struggling back home to leave behind the beatification of Betty Crocker and bird-dogging of Jackie Kennedy in order to focus on the bottom line of inhumanity and carnage, editors, almost exclusively male in those days, would chide the Vietnam women with, as Kazickas remembers, “’Why aren’t you writing about orphans and refugees and the social life of Saigon?’ We were still prisoners of the women’s pages then,” she goes on, “Very few females reported on the war itself.”
300 women gained accreditation to cover the war between 1965 and 1975. By the end of the US involvement, they were having their sway and say. They’d gained the right early on—by organizing to overturn a directive by Gen. William Westmoreland keeping them from overnight stays on the battlefield—of access to any theatre of battle open to men reporters; they reported vociferously and eloquently on the war. Frances FitzGerald, although not a battlefield correspondent, wrote an exhaustive, definitive and influential book on Vietnam: “Fire in the Lake,” a prescient analysis of the U.S.’s tactical and moral misunderstandings of Indo-China. Gellhorn, denied a visa by her government and even blacklisted by the U.S. media for her unapologetic partisanship, ended up stringing for the Manchester Guardian. In one sentence from Vietnam, she was able to distill her worldview: “We big overfed white people will never know what they feel.”
At the same time, the personalization of the coverage was not ultimately the fulminations of an “hysterical” cadre of peaceniks on a mission. Several of the women doing the hardest and the most eloquent work, Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune amongst them, were actually supporters of US objectives in Vietnam.
While the Vietnam era woman and those who followed must take credit for “softening” up the news, the women correspondents interviewed for this article were all quick not to draw hard and fast gender lines. Observes Judith Matloff, “I think those boundaries have dissolved in terms of what you think is a female approach to war writing and a male approach…Some of the most bang-bang oriented people I’ve met in the field have oftentimes been women. They can be the toughest people, and some of the most sensitive, who write the most heartbreakingly compellingly human interest stories are often men, too. But, I think that, certainly, the greater numbers of women at the beginning gave it a softer, more human edge.” Matloff’s stripes were won mostly in Africa, covering the civil wars and urban unrest there–in Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, the Sudan, etc. She spent over 20 years reporting, mostly for Reuters and The Christian Science Monitor.
Hannah Allam comments, referring to her 2 years as Bureau Chief in Baghdad, from 2003 – 2005: “In very general terms, perhaps women were more drawn to political intrigue and human-interest stories, while it was still men out there doing what we call the bang-bang reporting. Still, however, I met several women journalists who were embedded in Fallujah or other hot spots and they went out on the same pins-and-needles patrols and endured the same bombings as their male counterparts.” Allam herself got into a nasty scrape and had to flee with her interpreter and her daughter after the interpreter’s husband and son were murdered. At 27, she is now Middle Esat Bureeau Chief for Knight Ridder, stationed in Cairo.
Janine di Giovanni’s war trajectory, spanning just about every conflict area over the last 18 years–the Balkans, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya, Rwanda, East Timor, etc.–gives her observations great currency. In words as impassioned and unequivocal as is her writing, she begs not to generalize: “I know it would be a lot easier if I said, “Yes, the women write about the orphanages and about children and women’s issues and the men write about the military stuff. It’s not like that! I think we all have a certain amount of masculine and feminine within us, the yin and yang. I mean, I’ve done a lot of stuff that most men are afraid to do.”
An additional factor contributing to the “softness” of current-day conflict reportage has been the shift of hostilities from a circumscribed arena to an amorphous, seemingly endless playing field, with insurgents instead of, or in addition to, standing armies found anywhere and everywhere, defying all old conventions of warfare. A story about a mother who’s lost her child in crossfire on the street, or had her home raided by marines, of hospitals with no medicines, no electricity, or of, as Hannah Allam reports, “big, burly” suspicious-looking Iraqi men tending to a fledgling fallen from its nest, make for more compelling imagery and greater suspense and pathos than the deployments of men on a chessboard. Wars are fought now in the streets, the courtyards, even the houses of worship of ordinary people as war is woven into the fabric of strife-riven societies the world over.
It has not only been the subject matter of the news, but how it is filtered to the growingly feminized press that helped to reshape what we see and hear of the world today. The women who covered Vietnam took on sister/wife/mother/girl-next-door images for female-deprived troops. Their presence encouraged the men to peel away their mask of macho. Recalls Kazickas, “Once over there, I think that the grunts, the young G.I.s, found it easier to talk to me. I think they felt they didn’t have to put on any macho airs. They could talk about being lonely or being homesick, the very real fears and experiences that young people have in a dangerous situation.” Margot Adler, now with NPR, then a correspondent for WBAI radio in New York, and always deeply opposed to the war, carried on a long, deeply personal written correspondence with a young soldier who believed in the cause. Her readings of their letters brought the war home and were a tribute to her ability to reach into another’s soul to elicit a transformative story.
PLAYING THE GENDER CARD
Women reporters will allow that it is their gender that throws their subjects off guard, resulting in more forthcoming, often intimate, interviews. And they are not averse to admitting that on occasion they use that femininity for the sake of copy, or, as Janine di Giovanni says, to get her “onto the back of a truck.” Di Giovanni is quick, however, to frown on women who are overtly provocative in dress or conversation in order to get the story. Hannah Allam relates that, similar to Jurate Kazickas’ experience nearly 40 years ago, her being a woman encourages soldiers to talk. She confesses, “I would much rather be known as a professional, no-nonsense reporter than someone who uses her ‘womanly wiles’ to get information. That being said, however, I don’t ignore the advantage I have in walking into a roomful of U.S. troops who haven’t seen a woman in months and saying, ‘Hey, guys, who wants to talk?”
Allam also points to a more dubious advantage, one she is savvy enough to exploit: “In Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, I have found that being a woman is a major advantage. Women tend to be underestimated all over the world, but especially here, so I find that clerical and political leaders are much more willing to chat when they think what you write doesn’t have an impact.”
All the women agreed that they felt they were under constraint not to show fear, to tough it out the way men (are supposed to) do. Jackie Spinner, who was nearly abducted in Iraq while covering the war for the Washington Post, has written a memoir, entitled “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Reporter’s Memoir of the War in Iraq,” a chin-out, hands in pocket affirmation that she can be just as tough as the guys. She told Terry Gross of NPR that the title reflects her pride in not breaking down during the ordeal in which she was being dragged into a vehicle waiting to whisk her away, perhaps forever. (Today, Jackie Spinner need not hold back those tears: Jill Carroll is her very close friend.)
But what unbreachably separates women’s fears from those of their male counterparts is that of rape, worn like a watch as they navigate the shared perils of kidnapping, accident, being killed or maimed in the thick of conflict. That fear is a defining emotion rarely discussed.
It’s constantly on a woman’s mind, ” says Judith Matloff, “that you’re not just in fear of the danger of kidnapping or being shot, but of being sexually violated. That’s something we always carry with us. I also know women who have been raped by people that they work with.”
“I think the fear of rape is definitely more on the minds of women reporters in conflict situations,” says Hannah Allam, “because rape has been used as a weapon in so many horrendous wars across the globe…And, yes, I found myself very reluctant to discuss those fears in public or exhibit any fear to colleagues or sources because you want them to respect your work, see you as “one of the club.” It is still humiliating for a woman to admit to rape and an unfortunate comment on a male-dominated work culture that, to this day, it cannot be reported openly to one’s superiors.
The biological and related instinctual differences that complicate and inform women reporters’ presence in the war theatre are undeniable. Women carry babies in their wombs. For 9 months. Their normal physical functioning may be hampered for a good part of that time, and they may want to beg off their far-flung assignment in order to secure optimal prenatal care. Once the child is born, unless trauma or severe sociopathology has intervened, a mother’s instinct is, above all, to protect that child from harm. Women correspondents report that their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way diminishes at the birth of a child. Some absent themselves completely from the fray, others weigh risk vs. safety and then make accommodations in their careers based on that balance. Judith Matloff is one mother who, before her son was born, pondered integrating her new role as mother into her reportorial work in the world’s hot spots. But upon his birth, her imperative became clear. “How could I do anything that would leave him motherless?” she thought. And so, she left war reporting to teach and investigate women’s experiences in the field. Currently, she teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and she writes and lectures frequently on mothering and war reporting.
Some women correspondents speak of seeing in the innocence of their newborns the redemption of a humanity gone way awry. Said di Giovanni about her son in a previous interview for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, “For me he is the symbol of purity and humanity and the continuation of life. The cycle of life goes on; it’s not always death, it’s life.” And Matloff, in surveying mothers for an article she wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, found Fox News reporter, Jennifer Griffin, who said, “The birthing process affirms life. I’ve found my sanity in the young innocent faces of my children.” Griffin now lives and writes in Tel Aviv, where despite the fighting, personal danger is at a minimum.
A small number of women are so bitten that they make few adjustments to high-stress, perilous careers that keep them away from family a good part of the year and possibly compromise their children’s development, but they continue, the overriding factor being their great need to serve.
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
A 2002 study by Feinstein et al. published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that, beyond the famously high rate of alcoholism amongst all reporters, women war correspondents evinced a rate of alcoholism 3 times that of their female colleagues in cooler spots around the globe. Although the statistics were not broken down along gender lines, the Feinstein study reported that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) amongst all war reporters was 28.6%, for major depression 21%. Psychologist and former war correspondent, Mark Brayne, spoke at a Dart Center symposium in 2005, saying that women were more likely to suffer PTSD after covering conflict than men.
As mythic as is war, so, too is the addiction to war, traditionally ascribed to combatants and in the literature since ancient times, but increasingly applied to those who bear witness to conflict. The compulsion to return to blood and battle is now another shared domain between women and men as women reporters are finding it hard to resist. Martha Gellhorn was, in accepted lingo, “addicted” to war. Judith Neuffer may have been. Even Anne Garrels, NPR correspondent who does extended tours in Iraq, talks about the “adrenaline rush” that brings her back to Baghdad.
Others stay for different and varied reasons. Jurate Kazickas related that she went to Vietnam because of “youthful stupidity.” But, once there, and after she was wounded, turned fiercely against the war, and lost people she had grown close to, she stayed, buoyed by witnessing how a man, hardly yet a man, could lay down his life for another. Janine di Giovanni’s life commitment is to expose human rights abuses. Her mission finds her on the battlefield because so much of the struggle must reach that point before it is finally addressed, if not ameliorated. Hannah Allam sees herself as a foreign correspondent living out her idealized life of “traveling, storytelling, meeting fascinating people, witnessing history.” War, even after her brush with death, must come with the territory of a foreign correspondent.
All still working in the field believed that, with their work, they could effect change. But, it was Jurate Kazickas, looking back over almost forty years, who said, “There isn’t anybody who has seen a war who willingly really does want to go back into it.”
War is a malignant disease, an idiocy, a prison, and the pain it causes is beyond telling or meaning; but war was our condition and our history, the place we had to live in.”