Four years ago today, Michael Kelly became the first journalist to lose his life in Iraq while covering The U.S.A.’s most recent war there. He was young, 46, and remarkably accomplished, having recently been named editor of a reinvigorated Atlantic Monthly. This after he had made a name for himself writing for some of the big boys, the Sun and the Globe, the Times and the Post, the New Yorker, and then editor of the New Republic at an age when many men these days are googling the term ‘quarter-life crisis’ on their under-used laptops. He was a rare individual, and he left behind a wife and two sons, aged 3 and 6, when he died.
Twelve years before he left home for the last time, Michael Kelly, who was raised on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (his parents and mine remain close friends and neighbors), wrote the definitive account of the Gulf War, the first Iraq War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. It was a war that went by many names, America’s 1991 military foray into the Persian Gulf. But the book goes by just one: Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War (Random House, 1992). It is based on the revealing, carefully crafted pieces that Kelly, stringing to the Boston Globe, GQ, and the New Republic while bouncing around the Middle East on his borrowed freelancer’s scratch, sent over the wire. Often mentioned in the same breath as Michael Herr’s searing account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, Martyr’s Day stands among the very best in a decorated tradition of American war correspondence.
On April 3, 2003, Michael was no doubt pulsating with his writer’s instincts and observations, which surely would have become the follow up to Martyr’s Day. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, U.S. Army, and headed down the road to Baghdad International Airport in a Humvee driven by an army staff sergeant, Michael was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. The city of Baghdad at that moment was being liberated from Baath party control by the Marines. Here, on this very roadway perhaps, was an opportunity for Michael, twelve years removed from covering his first Iraq War, to reflect on the fact that this was the one event that neither he, nor anyone, had witnessed back in 1991: the fall of Saddam’s Baghdad. They took mortar fire, the Humvee went off the road, landing upside down in a ditch, and both Michael and the staff sergeant were killed.
In 1991, Iraq was a nation led by a belligerent, authoritarian dictator, Saddam Hussein, who had ordered Iraq’s tanks and battalions into the oil-wealthy and blithely vulnerable neighbor state of Kuwait. The ensuing military conflict pitted a coalition of many nations, with the U.S. in command, against the Iraq army. It was soon apparent to the reporters at the “front” that the Iraq army was composed of men who felt about as much motivation to fight in defense of their tyrannical leader’s capriciousness as you might expect from right thinking, sane individuals – none at all. The rout was on.
Maybe the most indelible passage in Martyr’s Day is Kelly’s description of an encounter he had with a ragged band of Iraqi soldiers on the road to Kuwait City. He and another reporter were eager to chronicle the post-liberation conditions in the invaded capitol and were driving their rented pickup truck hard to get there. Their nervousness at seeing Iraqi soldiers on the road gave way to astonishment when the soldiers, unarmed, under-clothed, and numbering around ten, eagerly surrendered to them, two American journalists.
Now, said the lieutenant, he and his men were very cold and hungry and they would appreciate it if we would take them prisoner. I am five feet six inches tall and bespectacled and running slightly to poundage. Dan [Fesperman, Baltimore Sun reporter] is taller and doesn’t wear glasses, but he is not an overwhelming figure either. I don’t think either of us felt that we were the sort of men that take other men prisoner.
Instead, they gave the men food and water, and piled them into, and onto, the pickup, driving a ways down the road, where they ran into a Saudi army unit, out doing its part for the coalition, though there was nothing much to do.
It is at this point in the narrative, when the reader’s laughter at the perfect absurdity of the scene is beginning to subside, that Kelly brings it back to reality, to war, or the sobering specter of it. The Saudis, a bit starved themselves – for combat action – rounded up the Iraqis, now proper prisoners, and began hectoring them, and taking aim with their automatic rifles as though they meant to execute the men then and there.
They screamed and shouted and made as if, any moment, they were going to shoot. The Iraqis, stunned and terrified, sat down in the dirt, their hands on their heads still, and their faces to the wind, in a ragged little line. One man clutched his Koran to his chest for protection and rocked, moaning, back and forth on his haunches. Another cried for Allah, and wept, and clutched at his crotch and hair in little paroxysms of terror. I watched them weeping and begging for their lives, and I had to turn aside so they wouldn’t see me crying too.
Reading this passage reminded me of the battered canteen, olive green, and with liquid of dubious nature still sealed inside, that Michael gave to me upon his return. It belonged to an Iraqi soldier, he had said. I was fourteen years old. The soldier was probably dead.
As the subtitle of Kelly’s book suggests, the Gulf War was a “small” war. It was a nasty, pathetic affair. It was not World War II, so well chronicled in multiple theaters of battle by Ernie Pyle, whose collection of dispatches, Ernie Pyle’s War, remains a benchmark classic of war correspondence journalism. Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper on a Pacific Island, his war so close to its end.
What Kelly witnessed in 1991 was a far cry from Ernie’s War. And as a consequence, his book was necessarily more than blood-and-guts war journalism. This is not to say that the Gulf War was not a horrible, traumatizing, and often deadly experience for many people. Kelly describes many scenes of suffering. The squalid Kurdish refugee camps come to mind. But there is a bemused puzzlement, indeed, at times an absurdity to many of the proceedings. Kelly’s description of wartime Tel Aviv, under constant threat of a Saddam Scud missile attack, is memorable. What emerges is a vision of a modern day London during the Blitz – with kibbutz, and bits of rhinestone fashioned by the ladies to their government-issue gas mask kits to match their eveningwear. The Scud raids were infrequent and ineffective, and on the whole you’d have to say that 1991 Tel Aviv, with its discotheques, its beaches, its conscripted, no-nonsense army, and its irrepressible pro-American fervor, was a safer place than London in ’40 and ’41.
Kelly’s engaging, funny, conversational writing, his man-on-the-street (of Baghdad, of Amman, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Dhahran, Kuwait City) perspective, assisted by his broad but honest impressions of some of the maddeningly complex political relationships among Middle Eastern states, regions, and peoples (of which there are a few), these qualities add much to Martyr’s Day. In addition to being a book about war, Martyr’s Day is history (the opening discussion of the history of Iraq from ancient empire to modern dictatorship comes to mind), and it is also armchair cultural anthropology: “I knew by now that in Arabia [Egypt in this case] office life was patterned after an older rhythm. An official in his government room received visitors in much the same fashion as his grandfather had in his courtyard – casually, endlessly, and with a good deal of overlapping, since no one was ever in any particular hurry. The love of talk and the love of manners dictated against hurrying into any matter at hand.” The book can sometimes sound like a very amusing travel guide to the Middle East, such as when Kelly describes the grand farce that is traveling into and out of Israel, for which he needed to carry two passports, one of which would never show a mark of having been to Judea, in order to appease the firm policy of non-recognition adhered to by Israel’s neighboring Palestinian nation states.
There is one final important tonal element to Martyr’s Day, and it emerges early on, as Kelly describes the culture of Baghdad, where he spent a good deal of time in the days leading up to January 17, 1991, when American bombs began to fall on the city. This final element is a mixture of pride and disgust. The disgust is evident in his appraisal of the Saddam Hussein regime, its moral bankruptcy, its physical and ideological feebleness, and the mostly closeted dissatisfaction of an Iraqi populace that had been too long under the thumb of a tyrant, but had not the first clue of how to live in any other way. The pride is that of a patriot: being on the right side of things was important to Michael. His book of collected writings – essays, dispatches, op-ed pieces and the like, published in 2004, is called Things Worth Fighting For, and the book is a testament to his conviction as a man, a father, husband, citizen, and reporter. The strength of this conviction is evident in his words, the words of someone who believed in America, and freedom, and the inalienable right to drive a pickup truck out into the Arabian desert in order to Get The Story, which for Michael was not so much a right as a need.
It is hard not to wonder where that need would have taken Michael Kelly if he were living today. It is hard to imagine that his pride in American global authority, so evident in Martyr’s Day, when the world really was on our side, would not now be muted, or questioned outright. He would have to confront the divisions in our society and in our government, divisions that have deepened as the state of the U.S.A.’s latest Iraq war has worsened, those heady days that witnessed the fall of Saddam four years ago slowly bleeding into a morass of sectarian violence and a mounting toll of American dead.
Sometimes it seems like the needle in our country’s collective moral compass has been set spinning, as though in the presence of a malevolent magnetism. While I did not always agree with Michael’s opinions, I do believe that he was someone whose compass rarely failed him, and this sure-footed approach, honest, blue collar reporting, is something that is sorely lacking in our current climate of partisan rancor. I may not know exactly what he would write today, but I do know that he would make his voice heard, and do it with his unfailing wit, wisdom, and grace so that, agree or disagree, time spent reading his words would still be, as it always has been for me, time well spent.