Last week we remembered the death of journalist Michael Kelly four years ago near Baghdad, and examined his 1992 book, Martyr’s Day, chronicle of the first Gulf War.On to Bob Woodruff, ABC newsman, who was critically wounded on January 29, 2006, while reporting in Iraq. Exposed atop a patrolling tank, the 44 year-old Woodruff was preparing to shoot the day’s segment on the security handover supposedly taking place between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Twenty-seven days prior, Woodruff had taken over as co-anchor of ABC Nightly News, successor to the late Peter Jennings. It was not to last: a roadside bomb exploded, and Woodruff suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and a massive traumatic brain injury.Two declarations, the second more of an admission: first, I had by January of ’06 come to recognize Bob Woodruff, watching ABC Nightly News on a semi-regular basis, and I liked his reporting. Like many, I was saddened by the news of his injury and cheered by the news of his recovery. Second, when I took my first cursory looks at the book about the ordeal that he wrote with his wife, Lee Woodruff, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, I was nonplussed. For whatever reason, I didn’t trust it.A third declaration: the fact that Bob Woodruff is alive, let alone writing books, is miraculous. His personal courage and strength, along with that of Lee Woodruff and their family, and the dedication of the medical professionals who saved his life and then rebuilt him, shall not herein be diminished. But we are here to talk books, and so return to the difficulties of how to approach In an Instant.The book’s release early this year attended Woodruff’s tentative return to the ABC newsroom. Woodruff appeared on TV talk shows and other media outlets as well. Here was a man who had been forced to regain, through therapy, the ability to speak – no small thing for anyone, let alone a network news anchor. In an Instant is his story.But there was twinge of something darker hiding in the inspirational folds of the Woodruff family saga. The book seemed to validate the notion that, in this day and age, if you live to tell the tale (and sell the tale – In an Instant has been near the top of national non-fiction bestseller lists since its release), no matter how personal it is, you will do so – and right quick. It also made me think of the American men and women who have not returned from Iraq alive. Of those that have lived through injuries, many do not have what the Woodruffs are lucky enough to have, a loving, wide-ranging community of family and friends. Others have not received what Bob Woodruff received, the finest medical care money can buy.Despite these implications, the book, and its two writers, did ultimately win my trust, if not my unbounded critical admiration. As inspiration, In an Instant has infinitely greater value than your standard issue Dr. Doctor self-help schlock. It is told in the alternating voices of Lee and Bob, mostly Lee, as Bob was in a sedated state for five weeks before fully regaining consciousness. The writing is straightforward, and there is quite a lot of information packed into the pages. The Woodruffs recount concurrently both the story of recovery that followed that fateful Instant, and the story of their lives together from the instant they first met, their marriage, the birth of their four children, and Bob’s rise through the ranks of TV journalism. Woodruff bounced around a lot as a young newsman, from China in June of 1989, where he got his first taste of reporting, to San Francisco, Richmond, Phoenix, Chicago, D.C., and then London, where he was a lead foreign correspondent for ABC on 9/11/01 (Bob and Lee’s 13th wedding anniversary.)These movements mirror the rapid movements and decisive actions that immediately followed his injury. From the road outside the town of Taji, Woodruff was taken to a military hospital in the Baghdad green zone, then airlifted to a U.S. army combat field hospital in Balad that took the most severe casualties. These unnamed military doctors saved Bob Woodruff. Without hesitating, they sawed through his cranium to relieve the pressure on his brain. Woodruff was then flown by Critical Combat Air Transport to Landstuhl Germany, where an army surgeon, Dr. Guillermo Tellez, removed the shattered left half of his skull. From Landstuhl, Woodruff was flown again by CCATT plane to Andrews Air Force Base and rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside D.C., where he would lie in an induced coma for over a month. The military’s impressive advances in combat triage are on full display here.Forced to perform her own family triage, Lee Woodruff describes in detail the shock of the news, and her own rapid, unflagging response. Lee’s ability to handle the immense weight of her family’s crisis, to inform but reassure her four children, and keep herself going as she attended her quiescent and disfigured husband, these efforts are just as heroic as Bob’s inner fight to survive. And there’s a fine payoff. Walking into his room at Bethesda Naval on the morning of March 6, expecting to find her husband unchanged, she instead found him awake: “‘Hey Sweetie,’ Bob said lovingly, with a little note of surprise. ‘Where’ve you been?'”For me, the most interesting aspects of the book are the details of Woodruff’s recovery, highlighted by some telling photographs. The image of this man, recognizable to so many people as a vigorous and handsome face on their TV, here smiling bravely into the camera with his two eldest kids, Cathryn and Mack, on either side, his face scarred, his head dented, says it all. Late in May, now in the care of neurosurgeons from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, Woodruff underwent another risky procedure, a cranioplasty surgery, in which the doctors bonded an artificial skull-piece to his existing bone. His head outwardly rebuilt, Bob Woodruff then focused on the task of rebuilding what was inside. Like so many others with traumatic brain injury, he had to relearn his life, especially his speech. This process is fascinating, and the rapid progress that Woodruff made, astounding.Political opinions and philosophical conclusions are not for the TV reporter, whose job it is to present the story, an impartial witness to events. It is understandable, then, that In an Instant is a book about a family and not a war. The Woodruffs do address some of the thornier issues that lie buried in their story, if only very briefly. Bob discusses what it means to be a war correspondent putting himself in harm’s way, though his conclusions are that covering war is, for him, “a strange addiction,” and that war itself is “an affliction of the human race.” These are sterilized, apolitical, and not-so-penetrating insights.And what about the wife of the addicted war journalist? While Lee Woodruff does discuss the strain that her husband’s profession placed on their marriage before Bob was injured, she rarely reveals any crack in her facade of nurturing support and union during Bob’s recovery, other than understandable and unsurprising anxiety, depression, and fear. She frets about what might befall the family if Bob were to die or be unable to work again, and about the long-term effects that the traumatic event might have on her children, but acrimony has no place in this tale. Even in remembering the death of David Bloom, Bob’s friend and colleague who died outside Baghdad of a pulmonary embolism in April ’03 while covering the war for NBC, there is surprisingly little soul searching by the authors about the potential effect this strange addiction, embedded war reporting, can have on a family. Does Bob Woodruff have regrets? The answer will not be found in In an Instant.In an Instant carries a relentlessly positive message of triumph over adversity, and hope in the face of tragedy. Appropriately, the Woodruffs do acknowledge how lucky they are to have had the resources, both human and monetary, of a large corporation to see them through. There are many people to thank, and they thank each and every one. They have done something else, too, which is to establish a charitable trust to benefit the 1.4 million Americans a year affected by TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. And they note that many such men and women, in the care of the U.S. military medical system, “are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation, for whatever reason.”So there you have it, and time marches on. I myself hope to see Bob Woodruff back on the air with regularity, and would consider it yet another amazing addendum to the story if he were to return to the anchor chair at ABC News. I would also understand it if he walked away from the news altogether, though it would surprise me. No matter what the future holds for Bob Woodruff, his life was nearly taken in an instant, in a war he was risking his life to cover. His is, as Tom Brokaw writes, “a book for our time.”
1.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.2.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.3.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.4.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.
Rick Atkinson, sometime reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books, most recently An Army at Dawn and In the Company of Soldiers, stopped by school today and gave a brief talk to a gathering of students and faculty. Atkinson describes himself as a narrative non-fiction writer and “recovering journalist,” and he divided his writing into three categories: journalism, instant history and true history – or history’s first, second and third drafts. He also said that great events like World War II are “bottomless” and thus can have no final draft. Atkinson called journalists “paid eyewitnesses.”During the talk, he listed a series of books that are examples of first-hand accounts of war, several of which he encountered researching An Army at Dawn, which is about the Allied liberation of North Africa. Atkinson’s list fits into that second category, instant history in the form of the battle memoir:The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll – WWII, North AfricaRoad to Tunis by David Rame – WWII, North AfricaBrave Men by Ernie Pyle – WWII, EuropeSlightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa (the famous war photographer) – WWII, North Africa and EuropeThe Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling (writing for the New Yorker) WWII, EuropeThe End in Africa by Alan Moorhead – WWII, North AfricaMartyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly (who died in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2003) – Persian Gulf War