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.

Our son, Michael Kelly, an embedded journalist in Iraq, was having the time of his life until he died under fire on April 3, 2003, on the road to the Baghdad airport. He was buried in Boston, memorialized in Washington and his name has been enshrined in scholarships and prizes, big and small.

The extent of his acclaim surprised us but no surprise was as great as his death. We thought, you see, that our boy—our funny, generous, rambunctious boy—was invincible and maybe he did too. And yet Mike may have tried to do so much, so fast, because somehow he knew that he had no time to waste. Mike once told his wife that he would die in his 40s and he told one of his sisters that he would die, in fact, at 46. And so he did.

By then, Mike had made his mark, definitely and sometimes defiantly, working up from unpaid intern to producer of news for Good Morning America, before starting all over again in print journalism. He reported for The Cincinnati Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The New York Times. He wrote profiles for GQ, Playboy, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. He covered three wars and three presidential campaigns. And, in time, he became editor of The New Republic (until he was fired) and then of National Journal and the Atlantic Monthly and on the side, he wrote a syndicated column for The Washington Post—a column which readers either loved or loathed, depending on their politics.

Although Mike was a player in the big media world, he never stabbed a back or maneuvered an inch to get to the places he got. Instead, he thought it was enough to work hard, to play hard, to be in love with life, passionately and completely, and to be kind to the people who worked with him and for him (if not always so kind to his bosses).

Along the way, Mike—like his daddy—questioned every idea he, or anyone else, ever had, and eventually his politics began to change. The switch from liberal to conservative made a few of his close friends drop him flat, but even they were quick to praise him when he died. Perhaps they realized that Mike wrote what he did because he was a moralist more than anything else. He had to tell the truth as he saw it, no matter what anyone said. Mike wasn’t just my conscience; he was everyone’s conscience.

Most people appreciated him, though, and many loved him, whether they agreed with him or not. My husband and I received a thousand letters from both friends and fans, telling us how Mike had helped them get a job or shape a story or made them laugh the night away, while others praised him for giving them his attention and encouragement. Still others said that he was “a lovely man’; “a decent man’; “a funny man’; “a courtly man’; “a kind man’; “a family man’.

And then there were those who gave him the compliment that would have pleased him most. They said he was “an honest man.” It was as if they had never known anyone who had stood up for what he believed in and for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Kitty Genovese would never have cried and died alone, if Mike had been around.

Another 2,000 letters and emails came in response to a newspaper column I wrote about grief. And I learned to appreciate the kindness of strangers as I never had before. These good people simply wanted us to know that they had lived through the worst—and so could we.

There was the mother whose baby was born still, all those years ago; the 22-year-old who was waiting for the transplant she would probably never get; the woman who had lost her son to schizophrenia and alcohol, rather than to death, and of course, there were those who wrote about the accidents and illnesses and even murders that had taken away dozens of well-loved lives. There are so many ways to lose a child.

And then there were the many friends and strangers who said that our son’s death was unfair. But how could that be?

Michael was racing to Baghdad with the Third Infantry Division because he believed in this war. And he believed in this war because he was in Baghdad during the bombing in 1991 and before. He knew what Saddam Hussein had done to that country. He had seen all those gaudy, golden palaces he had built for himself while Iraqi children went hungry; he had met some of the families whose lives he had wrecked and he knew about the killings he had ordered—the hundreds of thousands of killings.

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.