Friday, April 04, 2003

Michael Kelly's Death

The entire journalism world got a pretty good jolt today, with the news that Michael Kelly became the first journalist to die in the Iraq war. It seemed eerily fitting, in a way, because he first came to national attention with a series of stunningly eloquent and vivid reports from the Gulf War of '91, writing mostly in the New Republic as a then freelancer, and winning a coveted National Magazine award in the process. It would be fair to say that he burst onto the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, having gotten his start at the lowly Cincy Post.
His career rocketed from there. He worked for the New York Times, New Yorker, and edited the New Republic and served as editor of the relaunched Atlantic Monthly. He was wildly controversial in journalism because he grew increasingly conservative, which helped get him bumped from the New Republic. He went after Clinton like a doberman, writing over and over again about his penchant for lying until even hardened Clinton-haters had had enough. Still, he somehow made the Atlantic into one of the two or three best magazines seemingly overnight, injecting passion and good writing into a century-and-a-half-old magazine that had become chronically musty. His idea to let William Langewiesche wander around the Ground Zero cleanup for months to write his landmark three-part series may come to be considered the master stroke of the decade in American journalism.
But like the best people in the business always do, he quickly grew restless. And at the height of his success with the Atlantic Monthly, he stepped back to serve as a consultant while, oddly, announcing that he was going to write a book about the history of the American steel industry.
No one who knew his work was surprised when that gave way to going to Iraq for the second Gulf war. He was the type that always needed to be around the action.
The New Republic today has the most fitting tribute of all, posting on their home page one of his dispatches from the Gulf in March '91. Here's what great war correspondence sounds, looks and feels like:

...after a couple of miles we came across a supply column of the Fourth Tank Brigade of the Saudi Army, heading to the front-line HQ. We flagged down a truck and told the driver the news. Within moments 35 excited Saudi soldiers crowded around the Iraqis, slamming clips of ammunition into their automatic rifles and carrying on in tremendous excitement as they searched the prisoners. They threw the Iraquis' few possessions, and the food we had just given them, into the sand. One zealous Saudi soldier even grabbed a Koran one Iraqi had been clutching and tossed it aside. They made the terrified prisoners sit in a line, and they shouted and waved their rifles about. Half a dozen prisoners began weeping in fear and begging for their lives. The prisoner whose Koran had been taken away crawled over to retrieve it, and clutched it to his chest for protection as he moaned and rocked back and forth. Another plucked frantically at his hair and his crotch in little agonies of terror, and shouted for his God. But the Saudi troops eventually calmed down, and gave the Iraqis new packages of food, drink and cigarettes. One young Saudi soldier soothed a distraught Iraqi by placing both hands on his shoulder and kissing him on the forehead. We left the prisoners in the care of a young Saudi lieutenant named Saud Otabi, whose beardless face shone with the pleasure of another glorious, bloodless. victory. It wasn't, after all, the Gulf War. It was the Gulf Rout...
RIP, sweet Michael.


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