- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

THINGS WORTH FIGHTING FOR: COLLECTED WRITINGS OF MICHAEL KELLY

Introduction by Ted Koppel

The Penguin Press, $26.95, 426 pages

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL HEDGES

It was easy to marvel at, and be envious of, Michael Kelly’s talent. I first admitted this to myself in 1991 after reading his book on Operation Desert Storm, “Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War.”

As it happened, Kelly and I had some remarkably similar experiences covering Baghdad, Kuwait City and the rout of Iraqi forces during late 1990 and early 1991. But it was Kelly who turned those experiences into the best journalistic chronicle of that period, and maybe the only one that still rewards readers 13 years later.

Kelly returned to Iraq last March, and was in the vanguard of American forces bearing down on Baghdad when he was killed. His Humvee came under Iraqi fire, the driver lost control, and Kelly died in one of the marshy canals that run like a series of interlocking scars outside the city.

When I heard the news that Kelly had died (once again, I was with troops following in his wake) my first reaction was shock, and a deep sorrow for his wife, his two young sons and his parents. Soon after that, it occurred to me that the book I’d have most wanted to read about those early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom would never be written.

Thankfully, some of the best of Kelly’s work as an essayist for magazines like the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic, and as a columnist for The Washington Post, has been compiled in this new collection, “Things Worth Fighting For.”

On topics ranging from wars in Bosnia and Iraq to the political circus of Washington, to the rotting of American culture, Kelly was perceptive, funny and brave. Throw in un-politically correct, and he was a true rarity among major journalistic writers.

In his happy ability to puncture the puffed-up vanity of assorted Washington types, Kelly could remind one of Tom Wolfe in the days of his classic “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”

Kelly had a fine feel for telling details. His description of the physical dissolution of Ted Kennedy was so vivid, so apt, that it stuck in my head for years, even after I forgot who wrote it.

Rediscovering it in this collection brought a fresh laugh: “Up close, the face is a shock. The skin has gone from red roses to gin blossoms. The tracery of burst capillaries shines faintly through the scaly scarlet patches that cover the bloated, mottled cheeks … The Chiclet teeth are the color of old piano keys …”

And no single bit of writing during the 1990s captured that weird ability of Al Gore to make himself ridiculous through exaggeration like Kelly’s piece “Farmer Al.” After noting Mr. Gore’s claim to have been raised on his daddy’s farm, Kelly contrasted that with Mr. Gore’s real upbringing in a plush Washington hotel.

“In the lobby, Al saw that the hotel manager had sneaked some of that Louis XV furniture back in. Al couldn’t abide the prissy, Frenchified stuff. He figured that it was getting about time to take the two-bladed ax and clear the lobby again …”

The writing Kelly did from war zones is some of his best work, rich with description and full of hard truths gained in Bosnian villages and along the highway of death in Kuwait. He had seen the price of war, but he had also seen something forgotten by many Americans in the last 60 years.

As he noted in a piece written near the end of the Bosnian Civil War, “We are a nation in which there are fewer and fewer people who accept what every 12-year-old in Bihac knows: That there are things worth dying for, and killing for.”

While Kelly has been generously embraced by his media brethren in death, in life he made lots of the predominantly left-leaning journalistic set in Washington and New York nervous. Others he outright infuriated.

His attacks on Bill Clinton as a hollow man bereft of the most basic rudiments of character and class were at once angry, funny, and virtually irrefutable — something many of Kelly’s journalistic colleagues didn’t want to acknowledge.

As memories of the Clinton years begin to dull, and the former president works on reinventing himself yet again, this time as elder statesman, a good strong whiff of Kelly’s period writing is therapeutic. “This man will never stop lying. To borrow a hyperbolic description of another of the century’s historic prevaricators, every word he utters is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ He will lie til the last dog dies,” Kelly wrote of Mr. Clinton.

But if Kelly could be brutally honest in describing the hypocrisy and deceit of Washington, this collection shows he was largely a funny, optimistic man whose great joy was his family.

One of the values of this book is that it preserves a part of what Kelly the man was like. That radiates in the way he talks about his parents, his wife and his sons in short pieces included in a section called “Family Wealth.”

In a tribute to his father Tom Kelly, titled “Growing Up with Mr. Fixit,” Kelly writes, “In every life there should be someone who believes that whatever goes wrong must be fixed, and if not fixed, must be made to go away. So, happily, it was for me. In the house where I was lucky enough to grow, the weather was always balmy, rain or shine. And life was always good, good or bad, and children were always successes, succeed or fail.”

Reading this book makes one feel that he knows what Kelly was about, and mourn afresh his early death. So much in this book will break your heart.

Such as the funny, loving e-mails Kelly sent to his young sons Tom and Jack from Kuwait and Iraq in the last days of his life. He wanted the boys to be aware of the momentous events he was witnessing, but he found ways to blunt any anxiety they might feel with fanciful tales of searching for elusive camels in Kuwait, and of packing “ladies’ dancing shoes, extra large” for the coming push into Iraq.

His voice is missed. We could use it today to cut through the welter of flabby, contradictory and partisan gabbling about Iraq on some of the pages Kelly’s work used to grace.

It would be presumptuous to predict what he would have made of Iraq’s troubles a year after the fall of Baghdad. But I suspect he would have been back there, and that he would have found real people, and listened closely to what they were saying.

And in their struggles to survive, protect their families, build a life amidst the ruins, he likely would have found confirmation of past themes: Life is messy, it can be brutal and unfair. But it has love and beauty in even its most barren precincts. And yes, there are things worth fighting for.

Michael Hedges covers defense and security issues for the Houston Chronicle’s Washington bureau. He has reported on several conflicts including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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