Michael Kelly, the editor at large of The Atlantic Monthly and for three years its editor in chief, was killed on the outskirts of Baghdad while covering the Iraq war as a correspondent for this magazine. Attached to the Third Infantry Division, Mike was riding in a communications Humvee in the early-morning hours of April 4 when the vehicle came under enemy fire. It swerved off an embankment and into a canal, killing him and an American serviceman, Staff Sergeant Wilbert Davis. Mike was forty-six.
It is sometimes said that as people age they become more like themselves. It is hard to conceive how Michael Kelly could have become any more like himself than he already was, or how he could ever have been any less. One imagines him bursting into life with his main character traits fully formed: the love of family, the wicked but also jolly and self-deprecating sense of humor, the intellectual energy, the devotion to friendship, the instinctive generosity, the eagerness to embrace life's basic pleasures, the loyalty to core beliefs, the forgetfulness verging on oblivion about the small, practical details of life. His wallets and cell phones litter three continents. Soon after Mike's death P. J. O'Rourke retrieved some duffel bags that Mike had stored with a Kuwait taxi driver. "I now understand why he was having such trouble with his satellite phone," P. J. said. "He left the antenna in Kuwait."
Many readers of his columns and articles disagreed strongly with his views, but no one could doubt that Mike's convictions were rooted in principle and firmly held. He enjoyed the game of reporting, the camaraderie and the chase, but he was always conscious of a higher public purpose. When, earlier this year, he made the decision to go to Iraq to cover the second war against Saddam Hussein, he explained his stance toward the conflict this way:
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. In liberated Kuwait City, one vast crime scene, I toured the morgue one day and inspected torture and murder victims left behind by the departing Iraqis ... After that, I never again could stand the arguments of those who sat in the luxury of safety—"advocating nonresistance behind the guns of the American fleet," as George Orwell wrote of World War II pacifists—and held that the moral course was, in crimes against humanity as in crimes on the street corner: Better not to get involved, dear.
Writing and editing was in Mike's blood; he was the child of two journalists. He grew up on Washington's Capitol Hill, attended Jesuit schools, and graduated from the University of New Hampshire. His first job was as a booker for Good Morning America. Later, as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, he covered Michael Dukakis's campaign for the presidency. The campaign turned out badly for Dukakis but very well for Mike, who in the course of it fell in love with a television producer, Madelyn Greenberg. They were married in 1991. Mike covered the first Gulf War as a freelance correspondent for The New Republic, The Boston Globe, and GQ; his prizewinning account of that conflict, Martyrs' Day (1993), is an acknowledged classic of war reporting. During the nineties Mike reported on the Bush-Clinton presidential race for The New York Times, wrote The New Yorker's Letter From Washington, served as editor of The New Republic and National Journal, and began writing a syndicated column for The Washington Post. He became editor in chief of The Atlantic in September of 1999. His colleagues here knew him as a passionate and courageous advocate, an extraordinary editor, and above all a good and generous man.
Mike's writing voice was distinctive—it bore notes of Maugham and Waugh, Mencken and Wodehouse (and the prophet Jeremiah), but was derivative of none of them. With a single deft phrase—for instance, likening Edward Kennedy's teeth to "the color of old piano keys"—he could conjure a history and create a mood. His commentaries could be unsparing, but they were something else entirely when he described the exploits of his young sons, Tom and Jack.
In these pages and in his syndicated column Mike published a number of dispatches from the war zone as he moved into Iraq this spring. He called every other day, the sound of artillery or of a raging sandstorm in the background. The last call came a few hours before he died. The Americans were getting awfully close to Baghdad, he said. Sorry, he couldn't be more specific. But he was looking forward to a shower in the Al Rashid Hotel.