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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Celebrating Michael Kelly.

Last night I attended a great evening of readings from Michael Kelly's posthumous book, Things Worth Fighting For: Collected Writings. Kelly, who was editor of the Atlantic Monthly when he died last year in an accident while embedded as a reporter in Iraq, was an extraordinary writer and editor — and so the writers who read from his book were each extraordinary, too. I admired Kelly greatly, partly because his columns provoked me out of my liberalism's occasional drift into sentimentality, but especially because he brought out greatness in the writers he cultivated. I went to the reading to admire real masters of the craft I try to practice as well as to honor their colleague and mentor.

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, talked about Kelly's larger-than-life personality and his simultaneous interest in what a writer was most keen to say. P.J. O'Rourke described the day he and Kelly spent walking through Kuwait City, considering buying ugly furniture to ship home to their wives out of guilt for heading off to cover the war. (He said Kelly had lured him away from Rolling Stone by saying, "I can pay you less!" O'Rourke acknowledged that Rolling Stone didn't really need or want a resident Republican.) O'Rourke also described interviewing the soldiers with whom Kelly had been embedded after Kelly's death, and reported their unanimous sense that Kelly showed more genuine interest in them than anyone else had. His gregariousness was legendary.

Samantha Power, author of "A Problem from Hell": America in the Age of Genocide, described Kelly's advocacy of her work when other editors were telling her, "Yeah, Rwanda was seven years ago. The President has apologized. What more is there to say?" The Atlantic published her long indictment of American indifference, for which she won the National Magazine Award. Her subsequent book won the Pulitzer Prize. She read a harrowing passage from Kelly's reporting from Bosnia.

Tom Ashbrook (now of NPR's On Point) talked about Kelly's reporting from Iraq during the first Gulf War. Robert Vare, a senior editor at the Atlantic, read from one of Kelly's cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, which Vare edited at the time. The article, which began as a profile of David Gergen, grew into a profile of the unreality show that is modern Washington politics. I really want to look that article up.

William Langewieschewow — said very little about Kelly, but read a 1997 column in which Kelly excoriated baby-boomer journalists, politicians, and himself for being perpetually shocked at the cruelty of war. Here's the concluding passage from that op-ed, in which Kelly reflects on the horror he felt seeing the bodies along the road to Baghdad at the end of Desert Storm (via this lapsed link):

It seems obvious to me now [in Bosnia] that what seemed obvious to me then [in Desert Storm] was the usual result of a little knowledge intruding suddenly on total ignorance. I had never seen the results of war, and the results horrified me out of my wits. In this, I was of course typical of my generation of reporters. The result is, in matters military, a press corps that is forever suffering a collective case of the vapors. At the least exposure to the most unremarkable facts of military life—soldiers can be brutes and pigs, generals can be stupid, bullets can be fatal—we are forever shocked, forever reaching for the sal volatile. Fortunately, not many people pay much attention to us anymore. But the media’s generational horror at war’s truths reflects the larger society’s views, and this larger society includes the military itself. Not since Vietnam has America faced a serious war, involving a serious level of death (and Vietnam’s 58,000 American coffins were a fraction of the butchers’ bills paid in the great wars), and that conflict ended a quarter of a century ago. We are a nation in which there are fewer and fewer people, and they are older and older people, who accept what every 12-year-old in Bihac knows: there are things worth dying for, and killing for.

And then, most movingly, Kelly's son Tom — who turns eight today — read one of his father's last e-mail messages from Iraq. It was a list of things in his pack, including a bunch of improbable objects (a bathtub, a telephone pole, lady's dancing shoes, size extra-large) for him and his younger brother to identify. The two little boys stood completely obscured behind the podium and giggled over the silly things their dad had in his pack. Robert Vare noted that Tom is a reporter for his second-grade class newspaper, and will be interviewing President Bush when the surviving Kellys present a copy of the book to the president later this month.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 April 2004 at 5:44 PM

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