Michael Kelly's coverage of the Gulf War for The New Republic and other publications established him as one of the bright lights of American journalism. He seemed to be everywhere at the right moment (Iraq when the war started, Tel Aviv as the Scuds fell, Kuwait at liberation) and he wrote with a golden pen. Two years later, the book version of his vivid dispatches not only brings back the tumultuous days of 1991 but his keen insights, his intrepid search for the story, and his ability to turn a phrase make Martyr's Day the best first-hand account of the entire Kuwait crisis.
Kelly's observations help make sense of the war's mysteries. Why, for example, are Iraqis now hovering near starvation even though their country is flush with food? Because, he explains, Saddam Husayn uses hunger to control them. He has fewer political problems when Kurds and Shiites starve, when the poor think only about the next meal, and when the middle classes blame the United States for their impoverishment.
Kelly also asks why Iraqi troops engaged in so much gratuitous barbarism during their occupation of Kuwait, and why they fouled everything they contacted, including their own living quarters. He offers several explanations -- the Iraqi history of public violence, the Saddam regime's applying its proven tactics, the soldiers' wrecking vengeance for the humiliation they themselves experienced -- before coming up with the following observation, brilliantly expressed:
An astonishing and terrible thing: to be nineteen years old, a country boy, to find yourself in the richest place you had ever seen, a city filled with weak and trembling people, and to realize that you had within you terrible desires -- to hurt these people, to rape a pretty girl and then throw her in the trash, to stomp a man's face under your boots -- and that you had, as it were, permission to do so. It must have been blackly exciting at first, and then sickening, and by the end a descent into Conradian self-horror. All the physical signs of the occupation -- the filth, the destruction, the garbage and shit even in the Iraqis' own quarters -- spoke of men sinking deeper and deeper into rottenness.
Kelly had memorable experiences in the course of traveling through Kuwait and Iraq. Perhaps the high point of his adventures came during the ground war in late February 1991, when he and another reporter driving toward Kuwait City encountered ten Iraqi soldiers walking along the road. As the troops approached the car, he got nervous, but then the soldiers unexpectedly shot their arms into the air and waved a white T-shirt attached to a bamboo shoot. These Iraqis, it turned out, had decided on surrender, fearing that less than a return to Iraq. Further, they had decided to be captured by Americans, not Arabs. "United States is good. United States of America is good," they kept repeating. The lieutenant who led the little band informed Kelly that the soldiers were hungry and cold, so please take them prisoner. Kelly recounts what happened next:
We said no, we had to push on to Kuwait City, and we could not take them there. They begged us, but we said no again, and to assuage our feelings of wretchedness at leaving them, opened our bags and gave them food. . . . When I looked in the rearview mirror, they were all standing in the road, the wind whipping them, sucking on the little straws of the orange juice boxes."
But that's not all. The road ahead was closed, so Kelly and his partner had to return the same way they came. Passing the would-be POWs a second time, "trudging miserably ahead," Kelly took pity on them and gave them a ride to the nearest allied post, where they surrendered again. Could this be history's first instance of journalists taking prisoners of war?
Kelly looked for the gory underside of the war, and does not spare the reader his horrifying experiences. He inspected the corpses of tortured and mutilated Kuwaitis in the morgue drawers of Al-Sabah Hospital, and meticulously reports on his findings. He also devotes close attention to describing the grisly remains of the Iraqi soldiers bombed and burned while attempting to flee Kuwait. One tableau mort from that flight stands out in particular: the ten corpses he found on a flatbed truck, all of them "cooked to the point of carbonization, leaving shriveled, naked mummies; black, charcoaled husks with bared rictus grins and hands that had become claws." Not all his encounters with death were voluntary; on one occasion, Kelly drove his car into an oversized puddle, where it stalled. He had to wade in the fetid, waist-high water for some time to get the vehicle out. Only afterwards did he learn that American troops had just dumped several hundred Iraqi corpses into that water. After these experiences, reading the details of how Kelly forced himself to gulp down the meat of a sheep's head seems like child's play.
Michael Kelly's dispatches showcase the fact that reporters have become today's literary adventurers, going places and doing things the rest of us would rather avoid, letting us experience unpleasantries from a distance. And Martyr's Day represents the best of this genre.
The man also has a way with words. He dwells on physical appearance and personal relations, giving the characters he meets an intensely personal quality. Here's his wonderful description of two well-fed gents at the racecourse in Baghdad:
They were men of rolls, tender little ones growing from under the chin, cascading in a series of grander swells to the big tires of their bellies. They were advertisements for lives spend in a pleasant journey from one table to another. The fronts of their vests were spotted with toothsome stains -- here a bit of yesterday's foul madama, there a smidgen of last night's kebab, up in the corner a little patch of aging hummus. Boiled and strained, their vestments would have yielded a thin but tasty soup.
Kelly's no kinder when it comes to females. Witnessing Kuwaitis erupt with joy immediately after liberation, he tells first about the little girls done up in their holiday best. As for the older girls, they "were dolled up too, but in a manner mildly naughty, not nice, in universal rich-girl style, a concoction of oversized T-shirts and undersized skirts, and black sunglasses, and skin and bracelets of polished pampered gold." Anyone who's been to the Middle East will recognize the type immediately.
Kelly's imagination runs at full steam even at moments of greatest stress. Scurrying along with other hotel guests to the bomb shelter in the basement of Baghdad's Al Rashid hotel, he sees a middle-aged man wearing pajamas and bedslippers and carrying a leather briefcase. "He looked like something out of an anxiety dream, the man on his way to work who has forgotten to put on his clothes." Politics get the same colorful treatment. On reading a fulmination in The Jordan Times against Israel and the United States, he calls it "a senile, old, toothless wreck of a dream, doddering and wheezing and buckling at the knees, a balding retread of the dreams of '48 and '67 and '73. But Saddam had given it voice again, and Amman loved him for at least pretending to requite its passion."
Sometimes, however, Kelly lets his writing ability get carried away, resulting in descriptive overkill. He turns the two tall, decorated water towers in Kuwait City into "the architectural equivalent of escort-service girls, tarty and glitzy and overendowed, tall and skinny-legged up to a couple of giant globes, a design that made them seem tipsily top-heavy, as if they had been drinking pink champagne and were a little unsteady in their high heels." Wait a minute, Mike, they're just water towers.
Curiously, while Martyr's Day deals with highly political topics at a moment of extreme crisis, the book is essentially apolitical. Kelly coolly records the passions of his interlocutors without responding to them. However much the Kuwaitis despise their Iraqi neighbors ("I think there are no Muslims in Iraq. Not at all. Really, they are all crazy") Kelly presents the latter as everyday people trying to cope in conditions of great adversity. Indeed, his reports from all the countries he visited (which include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) have a positive, humane quality, sometimes quite at odds with the bellicose rhetoric and nasty actions he witnesses. The author manages to connect the reader to the individuals he meets, and thereby give both politics and war a human face.
Revealingly, Martyr's Day has come under considerable criticism for its apolitical quality. The left has engaged in a relentless campaign to reinterpret Operation Desert Storm as immoral, ineffectual, and unnecessary. Early books on the war carried boastful titles (Desert Victory, Triumph in the Desert), but more recent ones wear their revisionism on the sleeve. Typical titles include Hollow Victory, Mr. Bush Got His War, and A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq. While Kelly does not crow about the American victory like the first batch of books -- indeed, his searing descriptions of the destruction reveal its human costs -- neither does he denigrate the use of force and relentlessly find fault with American actions like the later books. And that's anathema to the America's-always-wrong crowd.
Of course, in classic Peter Principle fashion, a great war correspondent has to move up, and so Kelly now covers Washington for The New York Times. Still, pay close attention to bylines and you'll see the old verve come through, even if it's no longer about the terrors and exaltations of warfare in the Persian Gulf but about prominent personalities and bureaucratic politics.