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."

Just enough so that if we went ahead the public opinion would be sort of against us?

That's exactly it.

Why did you go then, when they did that?

Well, that was the only way I could get the 20 cents a word out of The New Republic. If I stayed in Amman they wouldn't have paid me. And that's big money.

So how did you get into the Al-Rashid?

I checked in!

That was it?

It wasn't some secret press place. Yeah, I checked in. It's a hotel! It's like going to a Howard Johnsons. The only wrinkle was that they didn't take my credit card. They had a feeling the whole credit-card system might not be working that well.

Here I am wondering how you could get such a front-row seat ahead of time, but, of course, no one knew it at the time.

Also, everyone checked into the Al-Rashid for a specific reason. Saddam's regime had built the hotel to host some kind of conference of Arab heads of state years before. For security reasons, they had built it with massive construction and concrete overhangs over the windows—it made for a very gloomy room—for sniper protection and bomb protection. And there was a huge bomb shelter in the basement. It was the only hotel that had that in the whole city. So everyone checked in there. Plus, they had reasonable room service.

So you pretty much could go where you wanted at that time.

As long as you had an Iraqi government minder with you.

Were you received on the streets as if you were walking around as the enemy?

Oh, no. I wandered around for a couple weeks there before the war started and fairly often managed to get away from my minder. And I went to the races one day—sat down with a couple of nice gentlemen and drank beer with them—and we bet on ponies for a couple hours. I spent a lot of time in restaurants and cafes and bars. I wandered all over the town. The only time anybody said a harsh word to me—and I think this would probably still be the same today—was when I was with a minder and the Iraqi person knew they had to say the right thing. Whenever I was on my own, nobody would make an overt political statement in favor of America—because they were not crazy. But they made it clear that they did not consider themselves enemies.

Now, was this everyone pretty much? Eighty percent? Fifty percent?

I would say pretty much everyone. I had an overwhelming feeling from the beginning there, and this is one I've had to this day... The reason why I'm such a supporter of war today is that this is a nation of 22 million—there's nothing complicated about it—it's a nation that's living in a slave state, and they would very much like to be liberated from it.

You would say this is not a war of aggression, this is a war of liberation.

I would say it's intended as a war of liberation, and I would bet an awful lot that it's going to work out that way and very quickly. It's not a war of occupation or a war of aggression or a war of imperialism. It's intended as a war of liberation. It is in a sense unfinished business, or what the first war should have been but wasn't. That is the truth about it. I think what people will see—and I guess everybody will see what happens—but in the end, I do think that you will see an honest-to-God picture of people in Iraq and Baghdad cheering America.

audioear pictureListen to this section (in RealAudio)

Before we move on, you spent the first couple of weeks there as a tourist. Give me a sense of Baghdad as a tourist. Is it different from Amman or is it similar?

Well, it's grimmer. A lot of the Arab world is pretty grim. That whole sort of city of jollity and light and magic tends to be lacking in despotic regimes. When you have the feeling that if you get an eensy bit too drunk the Mukhabarat are going to come and remove your fingernails for making a little Saddam joke at the bar, it puts a stifling effect on an evening out with the boys. Iraqis are big bar-goers. There's a lot of drinking in Iraq. But it's the grimmest drinking environment you could ever imagine. They could give lessons to the Scots on grimness in drinking.

Grim how?

When you go into bar, and let's say it's even a packed bar.... This is a true story. About three days before the war started, I went to a belly-dancing place. There was this woman there belly dancing, or her belly was dancing, whatever. There were forty or so guys there. Everybody's got their bottles of this horrible, horrible Iraqi-produced knock-off Scotch that's fake Johnnie Walker red. They've got fake labels that say "Johnnie Walker rouge." Just awful grim stuff to be drinking in the first place. There were like four guys to a table and they were all smoking—swfft, swfft, swfft—and drinking.

Do they smoke cigarettes that they roll themselves?

No, they smoke knock-off cigarettes like Marbrills or Camroll. Terrible existence. It's like some kind of Orwellian hell. It's just grim drinking to relieve the misery of life there. They drink until they've had enough, which is when they slip silently under the table and have to be carted out by the Mukhabarat.

What do you say when you're drinking in Iraq?

Nothing. That's the thing. Everything's too dangerous. You never know what might be taken the wrong way.

But you didn't care, so you were probably a little cavalier in what you said.

No, I did care, because I didn't want to get the people I was with—I was always with someone, if not with a minder, then with a translator—in trouble. It's a bad place, and when you get in trouble, it's real trouble. Here it's like, oh, you're in trouble, you're on John Ashcroft's not nice list for a week. There, they remove your tongue. It's hard to get your tongue back. You might get the wrong tongue or none at all.

Now, this is all men? That must create a real different environment.

Yeah, it's not a co-ed drinking environment or a general party environment, that's true. It's a lot of one-legged men. By the time I was there, Saddam had already put his wretched people through the Iran-Iraq wars—eight years, probably a million dead in that—but hadn't lost the Gulf War yet. You never saw more one-legged men in a country. The hardest thing to get in Iraq was a prosthetic limb. That also cuts down on the general feeling of gaiety and joy.

With conditions that bad and life that awful—and I know this may seem on the surface to be a naïve question—but I really want you to explain how Saddam manages to stay in power, and why, if it's so awful, they don't decide to say, "Let's stop this." Does he treat just enough people right?

The short answer is, he treats enough people right and he kills everybody that gets in the way and he kills them horribly and he makes it public. The slightly longer answer is, he married two systems of despotism to great effect. One was the system he was born in which is that in Iraq, like many other Arab countries, the real as opposed to paper system of government is tribal. And the way it works is, when a person of your tribe gets into a position of power, that person then, like in the mafia, draws all his strength from and keeps all his power from within the tribe. In Saddam's case, it's the town of Tikrit where he grew up. The first five layers, ten layers surrounding Saddam are Tikritis. So there's huge protection there. And he married that to the East German police-state system, which East Germany actually built for him. That was the most efficient and most coldly lethal police state of the entire Soviet system.

He contacted them and said, "Will you set this up?"

He paid them.

audioear pictureListen to this section (in RealAudio)

What can you understand from having been there that we just can't understand, no matter how much we read or how much we hear on the radio?

There were things I learned in that experience; some of them were horrible, some were funny. The horrible one was in Kuwait City in the ground war. I went with the Egyptian army into Kuwait City the day it was liberated. I spent a few weeks there. Talking to people there and looking into what the Iraqis had done there, what I learned—which was not a new thing to learn about human nature but it was new to me—was the horrible truth about what men are capable of doing who are not necessarily evil-to-the-bone men, and in fact, not necessarily particularly bad at all.

What you're saying is that anyone is capable of it.

Not anyone. That's not true. Not anyone. Lots of people are not capable of doing anything bad. But let's say you have an occupying army of ten thousand men. Nobody was going to look cross-eyed at you if you raped some girl or tortured somebody to death. The percentage of that ten thousand men who are going to do something evil is actually nothing close to everybody. It's probably in fact a pretty small minority. But it might still be a thousand. And that's much more than I thought. In other words, it's not just the professional sadists who end up in the Mukhabarat. There are plenty of perfectly nice farm boys who, thrown into an environment where it's suddenly clear you can beat people to death if you want to, think, Well, I might try that.

These people did that simply because there was no punishment? That's it?

Yes. One of the things war does is it more or less purposely destroys the existing order. That has a huge liberating effect in all sorts of ways. Much of it is benign. A lot of people who've been through wars will tell you on some level it was glorious fun. What they're talking about is immense liberation from the norms of life. You get up in the morning, it's like, hey, my checkbook isn't balanced. So what? I'm liberating Anzio! That's pretty benign and even good. It's part of the impulse that lifts people to great acts of heroism. There's a flip side to that, too.

audioear pictureListen to this section (in RealAudio)

One of the things I found out which is quite interesting personally is that people, at least men, I don't know about women, but men go to great lengths in life to not find out the answer to the question, How brave am I? War presents you with specific opportunities to find out the answer to that question—you can't avoid it at all. The question is asked for you and answered for you, in front of you and in front of other people. It's interesting, because you see it of all the people around you and you see it of yourself. And that's knowledge you have for the rest of your life.

Can you tell me what it was like, what your thoughts were as the hostilities began and what you found out about yourself in those first hours?

Well, I reacted—and the answer to this is tied into the second part of your question and what I found out about myself, which is sort of the point I raised, the question we all avoid, how brave am I—I did find that out in the first hour of the war. I was feeling pretty brave up to then because I had made the decision to stay, and I could have made the decision to leave.

What was the point of no return?

It was not clear. A lot of people had left days before. But as late as an hour before the war started, an hour before the bombing started, there were people leaving. One of the last things I did that night, before I went back to the Al-Rashid hotel, was to go to a surreal going-away party at the French legation, where the French, in French style, were drinking up the last of the champagne and eating the paté, as they packed up the cars with gas for the drive across the desert. That was only two hours before the bombing started. One hour before the bombing started, I remember one of the reporters there had a professional friendship with the White House press secretary and he talked to him on the phone. The press secretary said, "You should tell everybody to get out now."

So there was some romance right up to the end. But then this person was destroying this romance by saying get out. And that's when you had to make your decision.

There hadn't been romance for days.

Well, there was this party, this Casablanca setting.

There was a bit of that. But people were scared for days. At any rate, I felt kind of brave because I had made the decision to stay. But then when the bombing started, I realized I was scared right away, quite scared. I stayed scared from then on.

What we saw, video wise, pretty much came from your hotel. But we had no sense of the context or volume. What could we not understand from watching it on TV?

I don't know, because I don't really know what you saw.

You know what one sees on TV.

There are a lot of individual stories from that night that you can't see because they're not what TV shows—how people react to things. Some of that I wrote about, some of that I didn't. Some people had reactions to that night that I didn't want to write about. There were a lot of people there who were mad at CNN—you didn't see that on TV.


Well, because CNN had this special relationship with the Iraqi government that they had earned, in part, through what I thought was corrupt reporting.

Sort of the mouthpiece for Saddam

More than that. Specifically, they were allowed to fly on Iraqi planes to go into Kuwait City when it was occupied, and they were taken there by the Iraqi government for the specific purpose of shooting down the story that the Iraqi occupiers had killed babies in incubators. And they did shoot that story down for the government. As [Robert] Wiener, the producer for CNN, has written for his book, which has recently been made into a movie, they acquiesced to the Iraqi government's demand that they not tell the world the rest of the stuff they saw in Kuwait City. They did that to protect their special standing. Their special standing was not only access to interviews that nobody else could get, but they also had this land line that allowed them twenty-four-hour open telephone.

So in effect, they were enabling.

Well, I didn't blame them politically for that. But I thought the decision to suppress what they knew they had seen in Kuwait City was wholly corrupt and wrong and indefensible. That night, the people who were there—we all passed the same night. They passed it in glory on TV. But everybody was in the same hotel. In the morning—I was talking the other day to a guy I had spent a lot of time with that night, a reporter from a Sydney paper— and he reminded me that he and I had gone up to CNN's suite at dawn and knocked on the door. They had locked the door so nobody could get into their suite, because they had the only working phone line and they wanted to protect it, of course. I knocked on the door and slipped them a note asking them if they would, not file our stories for us, but if we could give them a list of phone numbers of wives and others that they would call and tell everybody we were okay. They pushed the note back under the door and said, "Haven't you ever heard of competition?" So a lot of people who were there have never forgiven them for that.

That was not competition.

No, what competition? It's just being a complete jerk.

What did they think, it was encoded messages?

No, I think they were just jerks. I think the producer, Wiener, was just a jerk.

Was there one thing that you did or did not do during this time that you said, "Damn, if I get a chance to come back again, I am not doing that again."

There was one for sure. There was this period when the war was over but not quite over. They had stopped shooting, but they had not signed the peace accord. A lot of us were in Kuwait City and it was kind of loosey-goosey. You could drive places, but it was all kind of disorganized. There was a kind of feeling that you could just get in a car, and I had gotten kind of careless, because I had been driving around by myself for so long, and I got in a car one day and thought I would go look at some oil fields or something, I can't remember. At any rate, I just started driving, and I've always been an absent-minded driver—as you know—and it was a particularly nice sunny day. A sweet afternoon. I was driving along, and I think I had some music on the tape-deck. I had a really nice four-wheel drive, some kind of big Toyota that I really liked. I was smoking a cigarette—I smoked then—and just day-dreaming. And I managed to accidentally drive deep, fairly deep into Iraq, just without noticing. There were probably other reporters who got arrested by the enemy completely by accident, but I am the only one I've known who's admitted it, at least in writing. I was arrested by accident. I was so surprised that I got out of my car—there were these five or six guys with Kalashnikovs, pointing their guns and surrounding the car and yelling and yelling—and I was such an idiot. I got out and I was so surprised and said, "Who are you?" And they said, "What? We're Iraqi." And I said, "No, c'mon, who are you really? What are you, Egyptian?"

Maybe it was your craziness that saved you.

I'm going to try not to do something that stupid this time.

Are there any images you can't seem to shake? I'm not asking for the most horrible thing, but the one thing that tends to flash back to you.

Well, I had a lot of horrible images on the level of corpses, dead bodies, that took me a while to shake. But I did shake those—it's been a long time. But there is a nice image—or nice to me, because it's funny, and I like funny, so it stays with me in a good way. I went back to Baghdad after the war—I made two trips after the war was over. The first was to go into Iran and from Iran on foot into the Kurdish occupied land to travel with the Kurdish rebels and see the area that Saddam had destroyed and gassed. The second trip was to go back into Baghdad and see Baghdad in the immediate post-war environment, two or three months after the cease-fire. In that second trip a memory that stays with me is, I met up with a hustler named Johnny somebody. He was from Amman and his dad owned a Ford dealership, some American dealership—he was a rich man. Johnny was a true hustler, the real breed. We were drinking a bottle of whiskey together. He was telling me his story. He explained to me that when a war ends and before order is reestablished, there is a magic moment—he had done this in other places—where you can go in there and if you move really fast and have a good bankroll, you can make a lot of money and not die and get out. He got his dad to give him a million bucks in cash and he came down from Amman and set up a smuggling operation. His goal was to make a hundred percent return on investment and get out with a million bucks profit. When I talked to him—we must have spent three or four hours together, and I can still remember him sitting there in his hotel room on the edge of the bed, holding a glass of whiskey in the air and saying, "You know, it's three weeks now, and I'm $700,000 up and I'm almost there and I'm still alive and God bless you, Mr. Bush."

What were the mechanics of how he did it? What did he smuggle?

He smuggled the same thing everybody smuggled—cigarettes, booze, toilet paper—stuff people really need. Not perishables. Mostly in the vice range, not in the good-for-humanity range of goods. He was full of the mechanics of it. The difficulties he faced were that the Iraqi dinar was so devalued that he was taking payments that were so large in bulk that they simply could not be counted even with money counters, so they could only be counted by weighing.

You must have had a lot of fear, and you're going over again. Are you concerned that perhaps you've forgotten some of the potential fear and you may get over there and think, God, what have I done?

I probably shouldn't say this, because it makes me sound like the undramatic middle-aged man I am, but I don't think it will be that dangerous for me. Last time it was different, because I was wandering around by myself in the desert. This time, if I go over, and it looks like I will, I'll go over attached to a U.S. military outfit, so I'll be surrounded by a large number of young men with automatic weapons. That's a luxury I didn't have last time.

To bring things full circle, what were the events leading up to the point where I saw you on the television walking out of the desert, that mad rush. I understand that you drove all night and you ran into some problems.

That was I think the third morning of the war. I had joined a group, with CBS and some other people that had to, after the first night of the air war, leave for one reason or another. I was filing for The New Republic, and I had to get to a place to file because the weekly deadline was approaching. So I left with them, and it was just about five of us in the car.

Were you driving?

No, there was a driver, a terrific guy, a wonderful man.

Good thing you weren't driving.

A very good thing I wasn't driving. We'd all still be rotting in a cell somewhere beneath the Tigris or the Euphrates. Let us out! The war is over.

We drove all night. We stopped once because they were bombing some airfield in the western desert on the way out. That was the most scared I was in the whole thing. That was the first time I ever realized that in bad novels, when they talk about shaking with fear—that was absolutely real. When I looked down at my knees, they were just bouncing up and down.

So you were more afraid then than in the initial night of bombing. But the bombing in Baghdad must have been crushing, loud, bone-shaking.

No, because it wasn't that kind of thing,

More of a surgical thing?

It might have looked impressive on TV, but it wasn't like that. There was bombing and you could see it.

I picture it rattling the glass of the Al-Rashid.

Oh, no. It wasn't saturation bombing. It was cruise missiles and a bomb here and a bomb there. What we were near on the drive out in the desert was full-scale bombing of a whole installation. Big, big, big, big, heavy tonnage. That was the earth shaking, and you really felt like, Oh, this is much worse than I thought it would be.

What did you think the odds were that you would actually get out of there?

Oh, I thought they were good.

You were just thinking, I can't wait to get a shower and a coffee. You weren't thinking, I'm dead.

No, I didn't think they were good like that. I did sometimes think, I'm dead, but on balance, I thought the odds were okay. The only time I was worried about odds, really worried, was when I was traveling in the Kurdish north on foot after the war to do that story. I got dysentery which is not a bad thing to get, except if you can't get antibiotics, and then it can kill you. I got fairly advanced and couldn't find antibiotics and was walking. I really started to get worried that I might not end up that well, but then I was rescued by some people.

Now what is the goal this time?

Much more modest. I'd like to write an article for The Atlantic Monthly and write some columns for The Washington Post. That's all.