At first impression, Girls Don’t: A Woman’s War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 256 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle) seems implausible and irreverent. The cartoon illustrations on the book cover don’t help, but they accurately reflect the colorful, rebellious personality of Inette Miller, a 23-year-old journalist who married her draftee boyfriend in order to follow him to Vietnam in 1970. Their marriage was an ill-kept secret.
Besides being an unusual chronicle of the war, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. An emerging feminist who protested the war in college, Miller fought her own “war within” of conflicting pressures and emotions.
From 1965-73, a total of 1,742 accredited American reporters covered the Vietnam War. Only 232 were women. Half were in country less than a month and most, Miller claims, never left Saigon.
In contrast, Girls Don’t begins with Miller in a Medevac helicopter out of Khe Sanh. The chopper is hit and then “the worst” happens. Miller–who covered the war for Time magazine—lived to tell the tale, but the reader doesn’t know fully what the worst was until later in the book.
Covering January 1970 to March 1971, Miller draws from her journal and letters she sent home. Written mostly in the present tense, her descriptions and dialogue seem pulled verbatim from those sources, giving the narrative a sometimes disjointed, but vivid, flow.
Miller’s tone often seems naïve, or at least cringe-inducing. She describes skies above Quang Tri, for example, as “crystal blue like a chlorinated swimming pool” and the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “visible from above as a dirt road through a country fair.”
As events unfold, though, her voice evolves, and her observations become more insightful. Most notable are her descriptions of three trips into Cambodia. The first came when she flew to Phnom Penh in March of 1970, where she was “the only Western correspondent to enter Cambodia in years,” she says. (You have to take her word for it; some statements inspire skepticism).
In May she went with other journalists on a short press junket, which she compares to “a fifth grade field trip.” On the way there, an Army private told Miller: “I liked the Vietnamese when I got here. Now I hate them. They’re out to get us. I just want out of here. I want to go home.”
In June, she hitchhiked with two other reporters from Saigon to Phnom Penh, and saw burned villages and bodies and barely camouflaged landmines left on dirt roads by the Viet Cong.
Other chapters are equally vivid. Descriptions and reflections about life in Saigon, her marriage, Army pettiness, and the impact of the American presence on Vietnamese social and cultural norms are all intertwined. Many anecdotes are tragic; others ironic and humorous.
Assigned as a typist in the Army Provost Marshall’s office, Miller’s husband was busted after displaying antiwar cartoons around his desk. When not on duty, he donned civvies and curled up in “a private world” with Miller in a room she rented from a Vietnamese family.
Occasionally, her husband joined her to watch American movies with generals and colonels. During M*A*S*H, they “laughed [their] fool heads off” while the officers sat in “stony silence.”
On the streets of Saigon, they took once had to take cover as a sniper fired at motorcyclists. When an Army truck hit a 12-year-old boy and roared off, they stopped to help, only to be surrounded by an angry mob.
The Medivac that barely made it back, Miller writes in the last chapter, had its tail “wrenched apart” and its body riddled with jagged holes—“the most dramatically destroyed helicopter I’d ever seen bring its crew and passengers back alive.”
By this time she has matured, and, in her telling, won the respect of male colleagues and combatants. Still, at that moment she felt “utterly exposed, raw and vulnerable.” The approval she had been seeking,” she realized, “had been my own.”
Inette Miller wanted to go home. With her husband’s tour of duty ending, they returned stateside in April 1971. Fifteen years later, they divorced.
Miller’s website is inettemiller.com