I reported on combat in the Vietnam War for almost four years and certainly feared getting shot in the face or mortared or hand-grenaded.

But I never had to worry about something as gruesome as being captured by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese and having my head sawed off by an extremist wearing a black mask.

The beheading of journalist James Foley is a searing reminder about how dangerous life can be for journalists covering jihadist wars in the Middle East today.

A member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) executed Foley, a 40-year-old freelance reporter, after the New Hampshire native had been held hostage for nearly two years.

Reporter Denby Fawcett drinks at the Rockpile in Vietnam during war in Honolulu shirt

Denby Fawcett reported during the Vietnam War at a time when journalists risked their lives but didn’t fear something as gruesome as a beheading.

Courtesy of Denby Fawcett

The group that murdered Foley is holding other hostages. If the jihadists’ demands to the U.S. are not met to stop all airstrikes on their positions, they have threatened to behead hostage Steven Sotloff, a freelance writer from Miami, Florida, who contributes reports to Time magazine and the World Affairs Journal.

I am infuriated when I see the picture of Foley in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in the sand as he is about to be beheaded by his Muslim extremist executioner who is afraid to show his face. I wonder what kind of human being could calmly cut off another person’s head.

Tad Bartimus, a close friend and former female Vietnam war reporter for the Associated Press, wrote to me after Foley’s beheading, saying, “I think the horror of what Foley endured … all those months of captivity, the daily terror, the worry that he was being too hopeful, yet that tiny little spark that maybe he would actually get out alive.”

Tad is one of the co-authors of “War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam,” a Random House book nine of us wrote about our experiences as female reporters during that war.

I covered the war in Vietnam for the Honolulu Advertiser from May 1966 through December 1967, and returned to the war on assignment for periods in 1968 and 1969.

Reporters once considered neutral observers are imperiled in Iraq and Syria because jihadists see them as infidel agents of the U.S. government.

Now nearly 50 years later whenever I get in touch with former war reporter friends, we agree our time in Vietnam was much safer than the dangerous situation combat correspondents face today in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In the current Middle Eastern conflicts, the lines of battle are unclear and the enemy alliances are constantly changing. There are factions and sub-factions within Islamist extremist groups, including ISIS, and the Nusra Front — alliances that shift and re-shift.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers fought to oust foreigners and unify their divided country into a sovereign nation. The jihadists want to expand their territory to create a caliphate, a trans-national totalitarian state led by an extremist leader, eager to claim religious authority over all Muslims.

Reporters once considered neutral observers are imperiled in Iraq and Syria because jihadists see them as infidel agents of the U.S. government.

The Freedom Forum, a Washington-based free speech advocacy group, says in 20 years of fighting in Southeast Asia 63 journalists were killed in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Reporter Denby Fawcett with soldiers during Vietnam War

Many of the reporters covering the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere have loose affiliations with the media they work with, and few protections and resources.

Courtesy of Denby Fawcett

Since 1992 in Iraq alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists says, 165 journalists have died, which for a while made Iraq the most dangerous war in modern history for reporters.

But the CPJ says Syria has now taken over as the most dangerous country for journalists, with 69 killed since the civil war began in 2011. In addition, 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria with an estimated 20 local and foreign journalists still missing, many of them believed to be held by ISIS.

Laura Palmer, a former reporter for ABC News in Vietnam and co-author of “War Torn,” recently wrote me, “The danger is far, far greater. I listened to some of the women reporting from Syria and I thought there is no way what we did in Vietnam was comparable in terms of danger.”

The notion of beheading a reporter was unthinkable in Vietnam.

Foreign journalists were not targets for kidnapping as they are today by the various Al Qaeda affiliates, with the terrorists using ransom money they might obtain to help finance their operations. In Vietnam, enemy soldiers never captured journalists to use them as political pawns in exchange for prisoners or in retaliation for bombing.

U.S. pilots, like John McCain, were jailed and tortured by their North Vietnamese captors in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison during the Vietnam war, but in the southern half of the country, non-combatant journalists were largely viewed as neutral and left untouched. That is everywhere except when the war spilled over into Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, an extreme Maoist and nationalist group, routinely murdered the foreign journalists it captured.

In Vietnam, if reporters happened to be captured by anti-American forces, it was usually because they were in enemy occupied territory with U.S. troops, not because they were targeted for abduction.

Reporter Denby Fawcett with Danang patrol in Vietnam War

It was still a time when a newspaper like the Honolulu Advertiser could afford to have an employee cover a far-off war.

Courtesy of Denby Fawcett

Combat photographer Catherine Leroy, who was captured by the North Vietnamese during the Tet offensive in Hue in 1968, was held for just one day after she chatted with her captors in French.

In those days, it was almost as if the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leadership had sent out word to their troops to leave journalists alone. That is, unless the news reporters wandered into the wrong areas and there was no other choice but to deal with them.

Bartimus says, “The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese leaders were influenced by the West, particularly France, and understood the power of using the media to influence and undermine, depending on their propaganda objective.”

Many years after my journalist friend, the late Kate Webb, was captured by North Vietnamese troops operating in Cambodia in 1971, she told me about her captors’ concerns about public relations.

She said the North Vietnamese leader holding her captive, with whom she communicated in French each evening, kept asking, “Aren’t we treating you well?”

The extremists almost immediately posted Foley’s beheading on YouTube. However, their goal of using the video to project power, in the hopes of forcing Americans to stop bombing, has failed.

“He seemed concerned that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were getting a bad image in the rest of the world because of the number of western journalists killed in ambushes along Cambodia’s Highway One,” Kate said.

She and five other news people received the same meager amounts of food and water as the enemy soldiers. No more or no less. Two bowls of rice each day with pork fat in a watery broth. She lost 25 pounds.

Kate said the commander must have felt he was caring for the journalists as well as he could considering his shortage of supplies and the difficulties inherent in stumbling through the jungle in the dark each night to avoid being killed by U.S. airstrikes during the day.

Kate and the other prisoners were released unharmed after 23 days in captivity.

Nowadays, Islamist jihadists don’t worry about being nice to foreign reporters to get good media coverage. They use social media, YouTube and their own outlets to craft their own PR image.

The extremists almost immediately posted Foley’s beheading on YouTube. However, their goal of using the video to project power, in the hopes of forcing Americans to stop bombing, has failed. Many horrified Americans are now OK with increased U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions.

Another factor that makes covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria dangerous is that reporters can get killed almost anywhere there — in the road, in front of a hotel, in a restaurant, at a checkpoint, on a U.S. military base.

A reporter might be driving down a busy city street when a buried homemade explosive detonates. Or journalists might get out of an armored vehicle next to a car packed with a 500-pound bomb, as a CBS News crew did in Iraq in 2006. The explosion set off by a remote phone call killed cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan, and wounded CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier.

 Denby Fawcett reporting in Vietnam during war

In Vietnam, foreign journalists were not targets for kidnapping as they are today in several countries.

Courtesy of Denby Fawcett

Reporters in Middle Eastern conflicts must live with the lingering possibility of coming into the path of a suicide bomber strapped with explosives.

In Vietnam, the enemy soldiers had no intention of blowing themselves up. They clung to life. One of the young North Vietnamese soldiers depicted in author Bao Nihn’s beautiful novel, “The Sorrow of War” says, “I haven’t lived yet. I want very much to live.”

They, like us, wanted to survive and return home from the war alive and unmaimed. There was no culture of suicide bombing in Vietnam.

North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong laid out mines and crafted booby traps but they were usually placed in areas known to be dangerous where everyone’s guard was up.

In Vietnam, the cities were generally safe. We could enjoy crepes and chablis in French restaurants in Saigon and walk freely through parks and zoos and art galleries.

In the Vietnamese mountain village of Ban Me Thuot I liked to dine at a tiny café called La Souris Blanche, which was decorated with cages of the French owner’s pet white mice. Walking back alone along the darkened streets to the house where I was staying was peaceful, not scary.

We knew more or less where the enemy was. Reporters were able to make reasoned choices about how close to danger we wanted to get.

James Foley

Freelance journalist James Foley was held hostage by Jihadist radicals for nearly two years before his recent murder.

The American military issued daily reports pinpointing the fighting. Certain highways known to be death traps were avoided. Maps were constantly being updated to delineate areas that had fallen under North Vietnamese control.

Plus, the enemy spoke French, as former Vietnam reporter Laura Palmer noted.

To get into a combat zone fast, we hitched rides on empty medical evacuation helicopters that were zooming out over the rice fields to pick up injured soldiers or marines from firefights. The helicopter dropped us into the shooting and then took off after filling up with the dead and wounded.

If the fighting got too heavy, reporters could request to be evacuated, so long as there was room on the next incoming helicopter.

Many major news organizations in recent years have closed their international bureaus. They rely instead on freelancers, like James Foley.

The freelancers can face special dangers because they are on their own, unlike us staff reporters in Vietnam who had backup from traditional news organizations.

The only other American journalist known to have been beheaded by Islamist extremists is Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was executed Feb. 1, 2002, in Pakistan. His beheading was videotaped and the recording was sent to news organizations.

Ten years after Pearl’s death, his father Judea Pearl said, in an interview with the Washington Post, he thought life was definitely more dangerous for news reporters today.

“It may be that Daniel Pearl was a precedent, in that the aura of protection was broken,” said Judea Pearl. “It was understood even to extreme elements that you don’t touch a journalist, that you will pay, but that myth has been broken. Now they look at the journalist as an agent of a foreign body.”

Even with the heightened danger today, there will always be young reporters who want to cover wars. I know. I was once one of them.

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