Remembering Michael Kelly

Now that government of Iraq has been handed back to its citizens, now that a serious attempt to ratchet down the level of violence finally has begun, it is ironic to recall that the single most forceful journalistic voice for the US intervention should have been stilled by death in the first weeks of the invasion.

What would Michael Kelly say if he were here now?

I would like to think that he would be as contemptuous of the planning of the American occupation as he might have been admiring of the swift military conquest. He would have been energetic about following the story where it led, which is to say to the long-running contest between Iyad Assawi and Ahmad Chalabi; to Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet; to Jay Garner and Paul Bremer; and to Falluja and Abu Ghraib Prison.

But I have to say that I believe, even after the many debacles, the death and disorder and damage to reputations, that he would maintain today that he had been right about the war after all.

It was mainly Kelly who convinced me about the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein and creating some different sort of political order in Iraq. In truth, I was never much of an enthusiast of the war. And I was especially alarmed about what seem to have been the administration’s plans, which fell somewhere between hope and desire, to extend its campaign to Iran.

The reason I think that Kelly would maintain his position, however, is because I remain convinced that he was right in the first place. If anything, I am more convinced than I was at the beginning that it was the right thing to do.

Let me remind you who Kelly was. When he died in April 2003, he was the leading American journalist of the post-Vietnam War generation, to be compared fairly with George Orwell. An uncompromising moral clarity was his trademark.

He had been editor of the Atlantic Monthly and had made that magazine the most talked about in America. He had edited the New Republic and the National Journal as well.  He had written the “Letter from Washington” for the New Yorker for a time.  He had been the lead writer for The New York Times Magazine.

It was while serving as an embedded correspondent for The Atlantic and columnist for The Washington Post that Kelly was killed, when the Humvee in which he was riding came under fire near the Baghdad Airport and flipped into a canal.

He was 46 years old. He left a wife, two sons, a large circle of family and friends, a host of admirers, but almost no imitators or near-substitutes. He was a liberal, but a clear-eyed, tough-minded, foreward-thinking liberal with no patience at all for hypocrisy and cant.

It was the experience of reporting on the Persian Gulf War that convinced Kelly of the justice of America’s second war against Saddam Hussein. To that point, he’d been a second-tier newspaperman, working Ôtweendecks at The Cincinnati Post and The Baltimore Sun.

But in 1991, he borrowed $8,000 and set off on the first of four extended journeys across the region, beginning in Baghdad on the eve of the bombing, and covering the war while traveling by bus from city to city at a time when most the rest of the American press corps bickered with military briefers in air-conditioned warehouses in Kuwait.

The result was Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War, an extraordinary book, as riveting today as when it was written. It contains plenty of old-fashioned bang-bang narrative: descriptions of the bombing of Baghdad the first night of the war, Tel Aviv under attack by Scuds, the carnage along on the highway along which the Iraqi army fled Kuwait City (though Kelly estimated that no more than a thousand men died in the fierce aerial assault that turned a retreat into a rout).

But the passages that linger longest are those describing the pervasive wickedness of the Iraqi state: the demoralization of ordinary citizens in Saddam’s capital; the corpses of torture victims that the Iraqi Army left behind in a Kuwait City morgue; a dismal refugee camp in Kurdistan just beyond the regime’s mauraders’ range. At one point, Kelly accepts the surrender of ten Iraqi soldiers who have lingered in the trenches, fearing that Saddam would hang their families if they were captured.

At every point for Kelly, tyranny was the issue; degradation was the result. “I covered the Gulf War as a reporter, and it was this experience, later compounded by what I saw reporting in Bosnia, that convinced me of the moral imperative, sometimes, for war.”  The very title of a new volume of his collected writings suggests the robustness of his view: Things Worth Fighting For.

The collection is no more than a potpourri of Kelly’s best magazine pieces and newspaper columns, but it was lovingly assembled by Kelly’s editor at The Atlantic, Robert Vare. As television’s Ted Koppel, who traveled with him in Iraq, says in an introduction, “If you are unfamiliar with the workÉ, it will introduce you to what you have missed. If you’re an old fan, it will remind you of what we’ve lost.”  There are funny pieces, wise pieces, canny pieces, even a couple of wrong pieces (about Bill Clinton, who Kelly abhorred, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whom he stomped in a famous article but short-changed in the end).

There is, alas, no systematic framing of the reasoning behind the intervention in Iraq. But Kelly was always clear. At the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, for instance, he wrote:

“No one can know how what began on Sunday will proceed. It is certainly possible that it will proceed badly, at least at times. It may appear, at times, that it will end badly. But we start out with a serious and large intent, facing an enemy that is likewise serious and likewise ambitious. If we remember this, if we stay serious, and remember that the enemy, too, is serious, we will win.”

Little more than a year after that, Kelly was dead. Koppel describes a final series of conversations the two had shared with military leaders about the nature and scope of post-combat planning. “Both of us were left with the impression that the military was greatly frustrated with how little planning there had been.”

But somebody else will write that book. There is plenty of first-rate journalism emanating from Iraq; the newspapers are full of it.  There is, however, no one quite like Kelly for marshalling the arguments and squaring them with developments on the ground.  And John Burns of The New York Times, previously the dominant voice among reporters writing from Baghdad for the American press, has been relegated to covering the trial of Saddam — an important, but relatively ceremonial assignment given the ongoing nature of the story.

So what would Michael Kelly say if he were here now?  For one thing, I suspect he would be disentangling the government’s war aims for a Bush administration unable to do it for itself, distinguishing among short-term security-based concerns (WMD), humanitarian goals, and long-term strategies (provoke oil-rich governments, most of them Islamic, to pursue policies of openness and development).  For another, he would be laughing at politicians who are trying to blame the intelligence services for having created the “groupthink” which led legislators to face up to their responsibilities.

Certainly he would be excoriating the administration’s neo-conservatives for their credulity in insisting that the entire Iraqi Army be fired. (It is a measure of Kelly’s independence that neither Chalabi nor Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appear in the index of Things Worth Fighting For. Would that the rest of the press understood so well that the true axis of the story lay elsewhere.)

And in all likelihood, he would be flailing Bush for having so energized the opposition base as to be running neck and neck with his opponent, even though he considered that the president had shown that he possessed a high degree of natural political intelligence.  He wrote: “George W. Bush:  smart guy. Who knew?”

Almost certainly, Kelly would have stuck to his guns about the war itself. Nothing exercised him more than the kind of tyranny that Saddam Hussein exemplified — brutal, rapacious and cynical.  Perhaps he would remind readers that his lines on the war in Afghanistan apply equally well to Iraq. “… (I)f we stay serious, and remember that the enemy, too, is serious, we will win.”

But whatever he thought now, he would say it crisply, with moral force and, not the least important, he would say it weekly. My goodness, how I miss his voice!