Interviews June 2003

A Conversation with Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly, The Atlantic's editor at large and former editor, was killed in Iraq this April while on assignment for the magazine. This interview took place a month and a half before he died
Martyr's Day

Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Michael Kelly
384 pages

The following interview was conducted by Bradley Jay, a Boston-area radio broadcaster and a friend of Michael Kelly's from the University of New Hampshire. It was recorded on February 14 at the Kellys' house in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Mike left the country a few days later, on his way to joining the Third Infantry Division as a correspondent. In the interview, Mike talks about his experiences as a young freelance reporter in Iraq before, during, and after the Gulf War—experiences that served as the basis of his acclaimed book of reportage, Martyrs' Day. Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq on April 4.

One evening, during the first Iraqi war, I was watching television with my friend, and a small figure grew ever larger, and it became evident it was you. And you were stumbling, bumbling, and you were disheveled and dirty, and it was obvious you had had quite a night. And I said to myself, How did Michael Kelly get this gig?

Michael Kelly
Michael Kelly   

I was a freelance magazine writer then. I had only been a freelance magazine writer for a year or so. I didn't have any money; I made 9,000 dollars that year. And my girlfriend, who is now my wife, Max, she worked for CBS News, and they sent her off to be the acting bureau chief in Tel Aviv, because the regular bureau chief had gotten arrested by the Iraqis or something. This is all in the period of the build-up to the war. And I wanted to follow her over there. We lived in Chicago, and I was lonely without her. I was talking to everybody about this, and I couldn't get anybody to send me. I went to one magazine after another. Then my mother, who lives in Washington, D.C., was at a party one evening, and she was introduced to Rick Hertzberg, who was then the editor of The New Republic Magazine. He is a very nice man. He was so nice that when she cornered him—she drove him literally into a corner—and started telling him about her son the reporter and what a good reporter he was and how he needed to hire her son for some kind of assignment and so on.... And Rick, who is a gentleman and who wanted to get out of the corner, said, "Well, Mrs. Kelly, if he is ever in Washington, have him come look me up." She called me, of course, and told me she had done this. Normally, nine times out of ten, I would have done the thing all sons do in a situation like that with their mothers and said, "Thank you, Mom, but anyway..." But this time, I really was desperate to get over there so I decided to have an excuse to go to Washington. I took advantage of Rick Hertzberg's nice nature to take him up on the offer that he never intended.

Honestly, in addition to wanting to be with your now-wife, isn't it the same thing in journalism as it is in the military—that war makes career advancement? Isn't that a good way to jump ahead?

Sure. I was ambitious in that way, and I really wanted to jump ahead. I wanted to be in the story. I had never done a big story like that before. And I really wanted to do it. So you're right—to be honest, it wasn't just following my girlfriend.

It must have been pretty nice, though, while you were over there, to have the company of someone you knew.

No, it turned out we never had the company, because she was always on the Israeli side and I was always on the Arab side. During the course of a year and a half over there, we saw each other for a total of about two days. I went to Tel Aviv for her birthday.

But at any rate, Rick Hertzberg gave me the assignment for The New Republic. The deal was twenty cents a word if I could get to Baghdad and be in Baghdad at an interesting time, such as when the war started. No expenses. It was a pretty good deal, and I took it.

You can write a lot of words...

You have to write a book. At any rate, my girlfriend loaned me 8,000 dollars, which was my stake for the war.

I didn't know this—you really went out there on spec, on your own.

Yes, and on somebody else's money. It was a good thing she had 8,000 dollars—I had 800.

You were at the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad, right, on night one. How did you worm your way in there?

It wasn't so hard. I made a decision at the beginning of the war to just go by myself—to go unilateral, as they call it. To not get involved with the Pentagon or anyone else and just wander by myself.

Why did you make that decision?

Well, because it was clear in that war that the Pentagon was going to restrict coverage as much as it could and keep most of the reporters who were so-called credentialed to cover the war in a boring hotel room somewhere getting press handouts—it was not worth doing. But you could travel by yourself, just like a tourist. So I went to Amman, Jordan, and joined the petitioners outside the Iraqi embassy, and after a week or two they gave me a visa. So I got on a plane—the planes were still flying into Iraq then—went to Iraq and checked into the hotel and just started living there.

How far before the event was this?

Probably two weeks or something.

They were giving visas that close?

Oh, yeah, because there were still all sorts of peace delegations that they wanted to come there. And they wanted the press to be there. They liked to play the press and so on, so they were still giving visas.

Do you think the Iraqi government still doubted that we had the resolve to do this thing?

Yes. I'm sure of that. Somebody wrote the other day about Saddam Hussein that one of the great constants in his rule, besides excessive cruelty, is excessive misjudgment. He makes the same bet over and over again that we're not serious. In that case, I'm sure, because I followed it closely and was there, they really believed that there was going to be some eleventh-hour rescue, that at some point everybody would turn around and say, Okay, you can keep Kuwait, we agree with you, it is the nineteenth province of Iraq. We were kidding!

Now, do you get the sense that he believes us this time?

Yeah, I do. It's a very interesting question. In the last time, right up to the end, there was absolutely no give in Iraq's position. Right up to the end it was, "We defy you, you imperialist dogs of Satan. We will defeat you in the mother of all battles," and so on and so on. This time it's the opposite. This time you have a pattern repeating itself of "We're not going to cooperate, we're not going to cooperate," and then the day before, "Okay, we're going to cooperate a little bit more."

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Bradley Jay is a broadcaster living in the Boston area.

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