Iraq and Morality
Michael Kelly and the War
A terrific piece at Gawker--not sentimental, not too harsh, but harsh enough--on Michael Kelly.
It was 10 years ago yesterday that the journalist Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq. His death was a tragedy. I met him just once, and spoke to him one time other than that, so I didn't really know him, but I know many people who did and they mostly speak extremely highly of him, and I take their word for his qualities as a mentor and editor. And obviously that's no way for anyone to die.
But "anyone" includes, of course, the Iraqis whom Kelly was so certain, so morally certain, we were liberating. Tom Scocca has a fantastic piece up at Gawker putting Kelly's death into what seems to me the proper perspective:
That Kelly was brave in going to cover the combat does not change the fact that he chose to be bold with other people's lives. It was time to do something about Iraq—"to turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping," as Rupert Brooke wrote in 1914, in a sonnet celebrating the chance to go fight the Great War. A year later, Brooke died of an infected mosquito bite on a troop ship, taking his place among the 16 million corpses.
The premise of Kelly's argument for invasion was that escalating the war, carrying it to Baghdad on the ground, would settle the problems "easily and quickly." Like his fellow poets, Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, he presented his romantic vision as clear-eyed advice. Evil must be opposed. Good would triumph. Anyone who disagreed was benighted, mistaken, immoral.
In the jackboot column, Kelly remembered Kuwait City "shot up, blown up, torched and, of course, thoroughly looted," and its civilians "ritualistically humiliated (forced to urinate on the Kuwaiti flag or on a photograph of the Kuwaiti emir, for instance), robbed, beaten, raped, tortured"—the work not just of "Iraq's terrible special security units" but "enthusaistic amateurs," "poor-boy soldiers." With a few proper nouns adjusted, it could stand in for reports from post-invasion Iraq: Charles Graner, the Special Police Commandos, the Mahdi Army, Haditha, Mahmudiyah. Less than perfect.
On less important matters, Kelly wrote a number of columns about the Lewinsky matter in 1998 that were frankly unhinged. But it was on Iraq that he was deeply and importantly wrong, and his death, under circmstances however tragic, hasn't changed that. Hitchens, too; I have many thoughts on him that I may share someday, although I knew him much better and he was a very thoughtful and considerate person, which counts for a lot in my book and makes it a little harder. Andrew Sullivan, for my money, has atoned in ways Hitchens never did (and Kelly never had the chance to).
You should read the Scocca piece. It's very well calibrated, a fine model of how to avoid both treacly sentimentality and overly harsh judgment while getting at something very important indeed.