In the fall of 1990, a young freelance reporter named Michael Kelly arrived in Baghdad to begin chronicling the human consequences of the impending Gulf War. For the next year he traversed the Middle East, hitchhiking through battles aboard an Egyptian tank, crossing the front lines in a rented jeep, and finally escaping Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by swimming across a river to safety in Turkey.
The result of his ordeal was a classic of modern journalism, a series of hilarious and harrowing dispatches that formed the basis for his book, “Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of A Small War.” His account put him on the fast track to the top of his profession, ending in an award-winning tenure as editor of the Atlantic monthly. At the pinnace of professional success, Kelly nonetheless insisted on returning to Iraq as an embedded reporter.
Last Friday he died there, killed along with an American soldier when their vehicle plunged into a canal while evading Iraqi fire. He was 46 years old.
In “Martyr’s Day,” Kelly brings to life the succession of unimaginable tragedies that comprised what american viewers thought of as a small and bloodless war. “The Gulf War,” he writes, “was an experience disconnected from itself, conducted with such speed and at such distances that it was, even for many of the people involved, an abstraction.” Kelly, as no reporter in recent decades, grounded that abstraction in palpable horror and pity.
Kelly chronicled the liberation of Kuwait and the terrible remnants of the Iraqi occupation. He captured the awesome power of America’s military as few have done before or since. Most of all, he studied the destruction wreaked by Saddam from Kuwait to Kurdistan, and finally the terrible ordeal of the iraqi citizens of Baghdad that persisted even after the war was nominally won.
Kelly did all this with an eye for detail, a mordant wit and a keen moral sensibility. He was a master of absurdist humor who never succumbed to cynicism, a steely-eyed observer of horrors who could evoke compassion for everyone involved without succumbing to cheap relativism. He could conjure up the hideous aftermath of battle without denying that some things are worth fighting for.
Kelly’s writing differed from that of many other reporters of comparable talent in its deep humility. He was a man who had stared into the vacant sockets of mangled corpses in bombed out convoys, but adamantly insisted that his knowledge of war could never equal that of a soldier, noting that “being in combat is to observing combat as being in an orgy is to being the guy who stands by the CD player and changes the discs.”
The confined space of an editorial column is ill-suited to conveying the vibrant variety that comprised Kelly’s reportage. In long descriptive passages he could alternate images of eerie beauty with bursts of irreverence to achieve a startling immediacy of effect. He had a unique way of recounting conversations interspersed with a witty and probing interior monologue. By the end of such a dialogue, his interlocutors’ parting words took on a resonance that precluded the need for comment.
For ironic wit, few war correspondents can match Kelly’s recounting of a Jordanian vendor trying to convince Kelly to buy his wife a watch engraved with the image of Saddam Hussein as a symbol of his love. Kelly outdid even this comedic tour de force in describing his Saddam’s “rebuilding” of the ancient Babylon. An Iraqi official explains that a recently constructed building contains not only the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but the New Casino and New Cafeteria of Babylon as well.
Yet he also provides a grim chronicle of the Iraqi occupiers, who raped anything that moved, stole anything that did not, and literally defecated all over the rest before leaving.
Nowhere were Kelly’s talents used to more devastating effect than in his description of Kuwait City in the aftermath of its liberation.
Standing amidst what he calls “a vast crime scene,” Kelly treats the Iraqi occupiers with a terrible empathy, speculating on their addictive and awful experience of absolute power over their Kuwaiti victims. “It must have been blackly exciting at first, and by the end a descent into Conradian self-horror,” he wrote.
“All the physical signs of the occupation — the filth, the destruction, the garbage and the shit even in the Iraqis’ own quarters — spoke of men sinking deeper and deeper into rottenness,” Kelly says in a passage that strives to understand but dares not forgive.
“No wonder they had fled in the night. They must have been ashamed to think that they would be caught in the place of their sins; they must have yearned to run with their backs to the awfulness, to get home to Iraq and never to admit to a soul what they had done.”
Kelly’s book conveys the horrors of war, but ultimately revolves around a horror of tyranny. “Corrupt regimes corrupt those who live under them, and in their own particular way of corruption,” he wrote. Kuwait’s suffering thus becomes the ultimate manifestation of the culture of violence Saddam created and inflicted upon his own people. Kelly cannot help but feel some pity for these monstrous victims. For Saddam, he felt a deep hatred that animated him for the rest of his life.
The fugitive army never made it home, but was rather annihilated by U.S. bombing as the Iraqis attempted to flee the scene of their crimes. His description of the expanse of mutilated bodies is an unforgettable antidote to the sterile celebrations of aerial bombardment featured on CNN.
“Martyr’s Day” was not a political book, but the process of writing it served to radicalize its author. Kelly’s loathing of Saddam Hussein’s regime expressed itself with the ferocious zealotry of a biblical prophet in his later columns. Just a few months before his death Kelly wrote that “this experience, later compounded by what I saw reporting in Bosnia, that convinced me of the moral imperative, sometimes, for war.”
There is some comfort in knowing that Michael Kelly lived long enough to see the impending destruction of the regime whose horrors had so haunted his words and thought.
I never knew Michael Kelly except through his work; now it is all that is left of him. Kelly’s memory remains available to us in the form of the 300 pages of conscience-searing prose between the covers of Martyr’s Day. Kelly’s book still offers us a guide to viewing the darkest of crimes with compassion and responsibility; it’s also a fitting memorial to the passionately decent man who wrote it.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College.