"At the time of his tragic death, at forty-six, Michael Kelly had already packed several lifetimes' worth of accomplishments and triumphs into a relatively short career." So begins an essay in this issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Robert Vare, who was Michael Kelly's editor at The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker before Kelly came to The Atlantic, in 1999. Mike was killed a year ago this April on the outskirts of Baghdad while covering the Iraq War for this magazine—an assignment that he expected would yield a sequel to Martyrs' Day, his extraordinary and award-winning account of the 1991 Gulf War. We will never have that book; all that remains of the ambition are several dozen notebooks filled with penciled observations whose meaning is obscured by lack of context and atrocious handwriting. But thanks to the efforts of Vare, who is a senior editor at The Atlantic, and of Kelly's wife, Max, we will have another book instead—a collection of articles and columns to be published this month by the Penguin Press, under the title Things Worth Fighting For. The book includes an editor's foreword by Vare and an introduction by the Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. The latter traveled with Mike while both were embedded with the Third Infantry Division, during the last five weeks of Mike's life—enjoying "the chaste equivalent of a shipboard romance," as Koppel describes the time he spent in Mike's company. It was Koppel who brought Mike's personal effects, including those notebooks, back to his family. He writes:
The sacrifices that both Michael and I had imposed on our wives and children had been the subject of one long, late-night conversation in the desert. Many marriages in our profession don't survive the separations and the accumulated pressures of lengthy and dangerous assignments. We marveled at the enormous generosity and toughness of our wives and how fortunate we were in the freedom they had given us. There's never a truly equitable payback, but as we talked that night, I don't think it occurred to either of us that Michael might be denied even the opportunity to try.
Readers who know Mike Kelly's work mainly through his monthly column in these pages, or through his weekly newspaper column syndicated by The Washington Post, will be familiar with several of his sides—the principled pugilist, the brash comic, the family man. Things Worth Fighting For reflects all that and a great deal more. Mike was a superb portraitist; his full-length profiles of such figures as Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson deserve a permanent place in the annals of political writing. His war dispatches from Iraq and Kuwait in 1991 were immediately recognized as some of the finest war reporting of our time. And no history of the Clinton Administration will accurately capture the flavor of the era without extensive reference to the large volume of hot and pungent words directed by Mike Kelly at the forty-second President. Any collection of writings by someone whose life has been cut short elicits thoughts of wonderful things that will never be written, and such thoughts are especially piercing in the case of Mike. But having his best work between hard covers establishes him as an enduring presence.
Mike Kelly was one of more than two dozen reporters, photographers, and media personnel killed since the start of the Iraq War. In per capita terms it was a far more lethal war for journalists than it was for combatants—"the worst death toll in the industry for more than 30 years," Chris Cramer and John Owen write in the editors' note to Dying to Tell the Story, a tribute to members of the press claimed by the war. That book, published under the auspices of the International News Safety Institute, contains essay-memoirs written by colleagues of journalists who died in March, April, and May of 2003. Dying to Tell the Story can be ordered from www.newssafety.com; proceeds from sales of the book will go to programs to assist journalists.
Tribute of yet another kind will be paid this spring when the Atlantic Media Company bestows the first Michael Kelly Award. (Information about the award is available at www.kellyaward.com.) The competition is open to reporters and editors at U.S.-based newspapers and magazines; the winner will be selected by a panel of journalists. The award, which comes with a prize of $25,000, will be given annually to the journalist whose work best exemplifies the essential quality that animated Mike Kelly's own career: "the fearless expression and pursuit of truth."
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