By John Wilson
Why We Are in Iraq
Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War
By Michael Kelly
2nd edition, Vintage Books, 2001
365 pp.; $14, paper
The best guide to understanding the war in Iraq is not a treatise of geopolitical strategy, not one of those books about American empire said to be on the desks of President Bush's inner circle. It's a book of classic reporting by Michael Kelly first published in 1993, based on his dispatches during the Gulf War and its immediate aftermath, and reissued after 9/11 with a new foreword and afterword. There was a tragic fitness, then, to the news last Friday that Kelly had been killed in a Humvee accident the night before, the first American journalist to die in the conflict.
Since Kelly's death, tributes have appeared on every hand, many of them by writers who knew him as a colleague and friend. At the age of 46, he had accomplished just about everything a reporter, columnist, and editor could hope to achieve in a lifetime. Most recently, with Cullen Murphy, he had taken The Atlantic Monthly, a very good magazine, and made it into a great one. Kelly, however, was not about to rest on his laurels. When the war in Iraq started, he was embedded with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, whose experience he intended to chronicle in a book.
That book, alas, we'll never see, but Martyrs' Day remains essential reading. From its very first sentence—"Baghdad is a city rich in monuments to the dead of war"—it brings to horribly vivid life the alternative reality created by Saddam Hussein and his regime, sustained by brutality and demanding obeisance to the Big Lie. Unsparing in revealing the pathologies of an Arab world that today boasts of Saddam's triumph in holding the U.S. at bay, Kelly is equally unsparing in his account of the American failure to follow through on its victory in the Gulf War and depose the tyrant.
Martyrs' Day isn't a flawless book. It was written by a young man—albeit an extraordinarily sharp-eyed and resourceful young man—and it has a bit of the swagger of the Tough-Minded, Hard-Drinking Journalist, the Man Without Illusions we know from many a novel, many a film. But if you have been saturated in the unreality of so much of the media coverage of the war, take a chapter of Kelly as an antidote. Before you know it, you'll have read the entire book.
There's a striking shift in tone between the book itself and the bookends added for the new edition after 9/11, a new maturity of vision and a powerful resolve. In the foreword, Kelly observes that the view of the Gulf War as a "small war"—which echoed U.S. policymakers' intention—was badly mistaken:
The Gulf War was not a small war. It was an unfinished war. It was the opening phase in a large and varied running conflict[,] … an early chapter in the war that will decide the things that a century of war not only did not decide, but kept from decision. Subsequent battles and subsequent tests have taken place, and in some cases are still taking place, in Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Israel. The record of success in these tests has been mixed, and marked by a profound reluctance on the part of most American government policymakers to come to terms with the notion that what is involved here is not a series of disconnected, discrete crises, or events susceptible to resolution through operations, but rather chapters in a long struggle of the greatest importance. On September 11, 2001, that reluctance to face reality was forced to an end.
Early in Martyrs' Day, in a chapter titled "Delusions," Kelly writes with withering scorn of what he calls the "peace missionaries," who have their counterparts today even after 9/11. Except for a couple of passing references to indigenous Christians in Iraq, that is pretty much the extent of the Christian presence in the book.
Obviously there were stories Kelly missed while he was drinking with characters like "Samir, the Jordanian hustler." (See for example Harold Fickett's account of Iraqi martyrs in The Living Christ, reviewed in Books & Culture.) But it occurred to me as I was re-reading Martyrs' Day that I could rarely recall finding the harsh but tonic realism of Kelly's reporting from Iraq in a Christian publication.
Is "Christian" a synonym for either martyrdom or ineffectual posturing? Will there be Christian writing that takes the measure of the "unfinished war" Kelly describes? Will there be Christian writing about what is unfolding in Iraq right now that has the hard-earned authority and the commitment to unvarnished truth-telling that Kelly at his best exemplified? I hope so. It's about time.
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