Essay April 2007

On the Fairness of Life

Former National Journal and Atlantic editor Michael Kelly died in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq. His mother, Marguerite Kelly, wrote this essay on the fourth anniversary of his death.

And Mike was in Iraq in 2003 because he had been in Kuwait City on Liberation Day in 1991. He saw what Saddam’s troops had done. He saw the rape rooms. He saw bodies in the morgue with their eyes gouged out; their skin scalded; their lives taken in terrible ways. He was there because he believed there are times—not many, but some—when it is more moral to go to war than to wait for more people to be gassed, more mass graves to be dug.

Mike could make tough decisions because he started reading history almost as soon as he started to read. But now I wonder what he would say about this particular war—the one he thought we would win so quickly. 

Would he tell us to throw in even more troops or to get out of Iraq right now? Would he say that all wars are riddled with mistakes or that this war has had more than most? And would he say that people only want to end the bombings and the mayhem because they see the carnage on TV every night? Or because the bombings and the mayhem in this war are so much worse than they’ve been in other wars?

And what about the deaths of our military in Iraq? If Mike thought that this war wasn’t worth the loss of 3,300 American lives, what would he say about the 620,000 men and boys who died in the Civil War or the 407,300 American soldiers who died in World War II? Would he say that we should have cut our country in two and let the South have slaves? That we should have let Hitler rule all of Europe and let him kill any Jews that were left?

Whatever Mike’s take on the Mideast would be today, this much is clear: he knew that holocausts start small; that evil is real; that somebody has to stand up and stop it, and that others must watch and tell the world that evil had really been stopped. And sometimes, he said, good people would die in the doing.

That our son was one of them still breaks our hearts, but we can’t say that his death was unfair. If we did, we would have to say that it was unfair that he had enjoyed life so thoroughly; that he had such a fine career, such an excellent wife and such jolly, healthy sons and that he had parents and three sisters who loved him so much. Mike knew you can’t always have it both ways. And so did we.

Life is neither fair nor unfair; it just is. We have no more right to expect it to be perfect than we have to expect perfection in each other.

Instead, my husband says, life is a fabric, woven out of all our sorrows and delights. If we pulled out the threads we didn’t like, there would be nothing left but fuzz. The thought consoles us, but it never consoles us enough.

We are lucky, though: we have Mike’s wife, Max, and their two boys to love; memories to share; photographs to study and Mike’s two fine books to read and relish, over and over again. Although we can still hear his voice in Martyrs’ Day—his detailed, if unorthodox account of Desert Storm—and in Things Worth Fighting For—the posthumous collection of articles, columns and e-mails that Max pulled together a year after his death—it takes more than his books or his voice to give us the comfort we need.

Mike used to say, “Life goes on and life is good,” but his death has turned our lives, and many lives, upside down. Even though our own halcyon days are done, we are immensely grateful that our son gave so much joy to us and to others. And we hope that he will give it to us again someday, somehow, somewhere. For now, though, he lives in the land that was, and we are left alone.

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Marguerite Kelly is a columnist and author.

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