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Michael Kelly’s war
Only in Iraq, it seemed, could the late journalist find horrors commensurate with his sense of moral outrage

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. No wonder they had fled in the night. They must have been ashamed to think 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 admit to a soul what they had done.

— Michael Kelly, on the Iraqi army’s 1991 retreat from Kuwait

MICHAEL KELLY’S stock-in-trade, his truest voice, was that of moral outrage. Never before or after did his sense of outrage find as worthy an outlet as it did in the 1991 Gulf War. The passage above is taken from his 1993 book, Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War (Random House), which he distilled from pieces he had written while covering the war and its aftermath, primarily for the New Republic (for which he won a National Magazine Award) and the Boston Globe.

Bearing witness to the savage cruelties that Saddam Hussein had inflicted on Kuwait, and on his own people, ennobled Kelly, and imbued the suffering that he chronicled with meaning. So it was no surprise — none whatever — that Kelly would step aside as editor of the Atlantic Monthly in order to embed himself with the Army’s Third Infantry Division, to return to the place where he had witnessed evil and to see that evil routed at long last.

Kelly supported this war, believed in it as an article of faith. Yet in the current Atlantic, for which he had continued to serve as editor-at-large, he expressed the dilemma better than most, writing that " the argument concerns whether the employment of this almost unfathomable power will be largely for good, leading to the liberation of a tyrannized people and the spread of freedom, or largely for bad, leading to imperialism and colonialism, with a consequent corruption of America’s own values and freedoms. "

Sadly, Kelly will never know how it turns out. He was killed last Thursday when the Humvee in which he was riding came under Iraqi fire; the driver veered into a ditch to avoid getting hit, and both he and Kelly drowned. Kelly, 46, was the first American journalist to die in the war; the second, David Bloom, 39, of NBC News, followed just three days later.

Kelly’s most celebrated moment in the first Gulf War took place after he and another reporter commandeered a Nissan Safari and drove out into the desert on their own, a bold and reckless thing to do. Ten Iraqi soldiers tried to surrender to them. Kelly and his buddy gave them a lift and turned them over to the Saudis.

Thus it might be said that Kelly managed to reverse the old Marxian maxim. For Kelly, history did indeed repeat itself — the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

THE DEATH of Michael Kelly is no more tragic than that of an American soldier or, for that matter, an Iraqi civilian killed by an errant bomb or an Iraqi fighter forced into battle lest his family be killed. But I knew Kelly, not well, but well enough. He was someone whom I interviewed from time to time as he traversed the course of his turbulent and colorful career. And I’ll miss him. (Much of what follows first appeared last Friday, April 4, in Media Log, at

Kelly was smart and engaging, as eager to shoot the breeze with people he barely knew as he was with the grandees of the Atlantic. Since his death, many of his colleagues have written about how different he was from the nasty persona he affected in his tinny, one-dimensional columns for the Washington Post. The difference was real, and it made the mean-spirited tone of those columns all the more lamentable — never mind that he nearly won a Pulitzer for them a few years ago.

I once spent the better part of an hour with Kelly drinking coffee in the North End, near the Atlantic’s offices, as he regaled me with tales about being — these are as close to his exact words as I can remember — " the worst intern in the history of the Beverly Times. " It seems that he had done a stint at the paper (since folded into the Salem News) while a student at the University of New Hampshire, but had struggled with the concept that one is supposed to show up to work every day. At parties at the Atlantic’s office and at the big old house he had bought near the ocean in Swampscott, Kelly was a genial presence, beer in hand, shirt collar open, sometimes in need of a shave, the very opposite of Atlantic tweed.

The first time Kelly really made me sit up and take notice was in the summer of 1994. He was with the New York Times Magazine then, and he’d written a long, persuasive piece arguing that Bill Clinton’s presidency was floundering in large measure because he was, quite simply, a liar. Of course, it is customary to think of all politicians as liars, but Kelly showed that, within the political culture of Washington, Clinton had earned the unfortunate reputation of being a man who could not be trusted to keep his word. Kelly’s profile did much to define Clinton as he headed into the fall congressional elections, which were a disaster for the Democrats.

From the Times Kelly moved to the New Yorker, where he memorably ordered fellow staff member Sidney Blumenthal not to show his face in the magazine’s Washington office. Then, in late 1996, Kelly was named editor of the New Republic for a less-than-yearlong stint that did not end well, but that actually served to enhance his reputation.

Kelly took over the magazine’s " TRB " column and used it to launch a series of attacks on the Clinton fundraising scandals — scandals that appeared increasingly likely to enmesh Al Gore as well. Gore was and is a personal friend of TNR’s editor-in-chief and principal owner, Martin Peretz; in November 1997, Peretz fired Kelly, citing not his anti-Gore-ism but, rather, his anti-liberalism. " I’m not your quintessential liberal, " Peretz told me at the time. " But I’ve always had what I would call a lover’s quarrel with liberalism. I made the terrible mistake of hiring an editor who brings rancor and enmity to the liberal idea " (see " Don't Quote Me, " News and Features, September 12, 1997). But the story line — that is, that Kelly had lost his job over Peretz’s friendship with Gore — stuck, and Kelly became, even more than he already was, a celebrity, at least within political and media circles.

He landed on his feet quickly, being hired to edit National Journal and to write a weekly column for the Post. And when Journal owner David Bradley purchased the venerable Atlantic Monthly, in 1999, he named Kelly to be the editor. " I have, I hope, a great appreciation and respect for what the magazine is, " Kelly told me shortly after his appointment. " I believe that when an editor comes in to a magazine that existed before his arrival, the first sacred job is to respect that which is there. So what I am not contemplating is anything that would do violence to the deep-rooted identity of this magazine " (see " Media, " This Just In, October 1, 1999).

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Issue Date: April 10 - 17, 2003
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