• Speech changes
  • Loss of facial expression
  • Micrographia (small, cramped handwriting)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Pain
  • Dementia or confusion
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Constipation
  • Skin problems
  • Depression
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Memory difficulties and slowed thinking
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Urinary problems
  • Fatigue and aching
  • Loss of energy

The newspapers and her meticulous suicide notes might bring us to conclude that 75 year-old Gloria Emerson took her own life a fortnight ago because she’d finally lost her battle with Parkinson’s Disease. The list of symptoms above, after all, would cause anyone to re-examine her options. But no feeling person who’s read Ms. Emerson's muscular reportage from Gaza, Algeria, Belfast, Biafra, and particularly Vietnam could really believe that one of the world’s foremost war correspondents just gave up at the beginning of the end.

Like so many of the men and women in combat she spent her life contemplating, Gloria Emerson was killed, ultimately I believe, by the very idea of battle itself, which, one notes, is an especially personal thing when it’s you who’s doing the dying. The mind-numbing, heart-crushing uselessness of war is always too much for one lifetime, and Ms. Emerson feared—according to her friends, whom she’d informed of her intentions—that she would no longer be able to work; that she would no longer be able to continue to document the amazing facility human beings have for concealing from themselves the unconscionable moral horror of war.

There has been no more-accomplished female war correspondent in the history of the art. Only Martha Gelhorn, writing of the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the avoidance of her marriage to Ernest Hemingway, comes close.

"I didn't write to be famous; I wrote to keep a record," Ms. Emerson told The Washington Post with laconic understatement in 1991.

In 1971, coming late to the American War of Aggression in Southeast Asia, she decried in the pages of The New York Times false “body counts” and unearned commendations to field-grade officers who were merely ingloriously “punching their tickets.” She wrote of the tragedy and bravery of the Vietnamese people themselves who—let’s face it—weren’t much on the minds of Americans who’d even become numb to the wholesale manipulation of their own misfortunate sons. She was among the most articulate observers of the ubiquitous use of hard drugs by American soldiers from one end of the combat zone to the other, delineating with great sensitivity the complex causes for the phenomenon. She believed that it was of paramount importance for female correspondents to cover war zones because "at heart," she said, "men are boys, easily dazzled by guns and uniforms."

"I could not abide high U.S. military officials,” she recounted in a PBS documentary in 2003. “I saw them as very dangerous, treacherous people who would lie at the drop of a hat. And they weren't so crazy to see me, either. They didn't like women floating around. They were collaborators in the fraud, the military. There were one or two officers who might have been marvelous, but it was not my good luck to know them."


Born in Manhattan to genteelly impoverished socialites William B. Emerson and Ruth Shaw Emerson in 1929, Ms. Emerson began her career as a veritable Brenda Starr, reporting fashion for The New York Times after a brief stint as a freelancer in Saigon in 1956. She remembered the Vietnamese capital in those days as a city of trees, boulevards and flowers, full of gaiety.

I was in Vietnam by chance, wanting to imitate a grandmother who had once gone from Titusville, Pennsylvania, to China and because I knew a charming young man in New York named John Gates, Jr., who was being sent out there as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps although his work was for the CIA.

In 1956 Saigon seemed a soft, plump, clean place of greens and yellows; for fourteen years I remembered it this way, insisting these were its colors. The greens were the tall and lush trees that darkened in the rains, held the water, cooled the air. The trees seemed to have a faint sweet smell; some had leaves which flashed silver underneath when the wind tickled or rubbed them. There were tamarind trees, flame greens, mango trees and, on some streets, rubber trees…Behind their walls and gates, the villas were yellowy, with shuttered windows.

Saigon was a calm place then, not yelling and choking with traffic; a lame dog could stroll back and forth on rue Catinat without being troubled. It was not yet called Tu-Do street. The women carried parasols in the pale colors of their ao dai—violet and blue, white and rose—so the sun would not darken their faces or confuse their eyes.

Unbearably weary of writing about clothing and shoes, she left the Times abruptly in 1960 to marry Charles A. Brofferio, whom she divorced after a year. The paper wooed her back in 1964 to cover the haute couture collections in Paris twice a year, and it was in the City of Light that she met numerous Vietnamese political exiles. As she wrote in her own obituary, dated Tuesday, August 3, 2004, she “often sought solace in Vietnamese restaurants in Paris over countless bowls of noodle soup.”

It was the plight of these intelligent, passionate, gentle, patriotic people that caused her to request, while working in the London bureau of The Times in 1969 “that she be sent to Vietnam because she had been in that country in 1956 and wanted to go back to write about the Vietnamese people and the immense unhappy changes in their lives, not a subject widely covered by the huge press corps who were preoccupied with covering the military story.”

Fifteen years later, after half a million Americans had turned the country red and black with smoke and blood, Ms. Emerson found the romantic city of her youth “malignant, cruel, crowded, costly and furtive, but never gay.”

She committed the rest of her life to documenting the mechanism and the result of that change, particularly as they applied to the individual, to the families of the victims of imperialism, to the history of humankind as it plummeted from the Gates of Eden to the depths of degradation.

A tall, angular, chain-smoking woman with a nervous and imperious manner, her writing style was somewhat formal, as if her subject were too important to be rendered in shades of gray. In person, she was well-groomed with a very precise speaking voice. Her friends found her “eccentrically funny.”

"If I hadn't married," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said, "I might have had a life very much like Gloria Emerson's."

As Ms. Emerson wrote in her own obituary: ”Her dispatches from Vietnam won a George Polk Award for excellence in foreign reporting, and, later, a Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications. Her nonfiction book on the war, Winners & Losers (Random House, 1977), won a National Book Award in 1978 but she described it as 'too huge and somewhat messy.' Its subject was the effects of the conflict on some Americans, or 'an absence of the effect,' as she once said."

Re-reading the monumental Winners & Losers almost 35 years after I shared half a pack of Marlboros with Gloria Emerson on a firebase whose name I’ve forgotten, but which (I’m sure) she probably noted in her ubiquitous journal, I am reminded yet again why writers are compelled to “get it right” when they tackle the enormously complex matter of American imperialism in Southeast Asia. It’s the size of the story, the absolutely Shakespearean quality of its inherent conflicts. She noted that day, chiding gently, that photographers were the ones who would capture history's lasting views of Vietnam and all the wars to follow. "Words," she said, "are like ice cubes in the sun." She caused me to consider going back to try to photograph the things we—everybody—saw, but fate and a woman intervened. We parted with survivors' lifetimes of words unspoke and yet-to-be-writ.

My hallucinogenic recollections of a brief trip through the looking glass, though useful I suppose as a kind of perverse funhouse lens through which the curious reader may view the rear end of the proverbial elephant of war, pale in comparison to Gloria Emerson’s sober structuring, layer upon layer, of what amounts to the greatest Aristotelian tragedy of the 20th century. It is through the accretion of detail and incident, much of it back home in the backyards and churchyards of America, that Ms. Emerson builds her juggernaut of indictment against American hegemony. For every page recounting the sorrow of the mother of a dead quarterback, of the quality of life a triple amputee can expect to enjoy, of the guerilla theatre troupe that shoots its children with BB guns, there are passages like this one:

Americans cannot perceive—even the most decent among us—the suffering caused by the United States air war in Indochina and how huge are the graveyards we have created there. To a reporter recently returned from Vietnam, it often seems that much of our fury and fear is reserved for busing, abortion, mugging, and liberation of some kind. Our deepest emotions are wired to baseball players. As Anthony Lewis once wrote, our military technology is so advanced that we kill at a distance and insulate our consciences by the remoteness of the killing. A very large part of the war's moral horror, he said, has been our ability to conceal its human significance from ourselves.

Another book, Some American Men, published in 1985 by Simon & Schuster, examined deeper, with the perspective of maturity, the souls of her countrymen and their afflictions in sports and love as well as in war.

Gaza, a Year in the Intifada, about a year she spent with Palestinians in what she called "an occupied land," was published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1991.

"Made to feel inferior, treated with contempt and cruelty, the Gazans struggled to transcend their own feelings of helplessness," she wrote.

"The book provoked hostility among friends, and others felt it was anti-Israel, but Ms. Emerson insisted this was not the reason for writing it," she explained later, again in her auto-obituary. "She hoped to provide a primer for those who felt the situation in the Middle East was too complicated or too controversial to understand.”

Gloria Emerson, in her later years, was accused by many a jaded American with more “important” things to think about of not being able to “let it be.” War consumed her, you see; consumed her in a manner different from the 58,000 dead Americans, the millions of dead Vietnamese, and the countless number of physically and psychologically wounded, but consumed she was nonetheless. Expended. Burnt up. Chewed-down. Devoured. Destroyed. Spent.

Parkinson’s Disease was small potatoes compared to what she’d seen in her amazing life. But not being able to write about it? That, friends, for Gloria Emerson was a fate worse than death, which after all comes to all in time.

"Nobody had as much compassion for the Vietnam vets as she did," said author Seymour Hersh, a former Times colleague in the 1960s. "She was always adopting somebody, and giving money to them, and the soldiers really loved her."


The aircraft was called a dustoff It was an ordinary thing for a reporter to do, riding choppers collecting the wrecked. One American, named John, was picked up for a head wound and lay on the floor, not dead or not alive. The medic could not stop the bleeding. There were never doors on the helicopters, so the wind moved his hair where the blood did not make it stick.

"It all becomes normal," the other correspondents, men, would say. "In time, you’ll see."

They lied.

—Gloria Emerson, 1929—2004

In addition to her reportage for The New York Times, Esquire, Harper's, Vogue, Playboy, Saturday Review, and Rolling Stone, Gloria Emerson also wrote the following books:

Winners and Losers, Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War, Random House, New York, 1976.
Some American Men, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1985.
Gaza, a Year in the Intifada, The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
Loving Graham Greene, a novel, Random House, New York, 2000.
The New York Times, August 5, 2004

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers