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Martyrs' Day Hardcover – November 17, 1998
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From Library Journal
This eyewitness account differs from the many other books on the Persian Gulf War in that it deals primarily with human-interest elements rather than military matters. Kelly, a journalist who traveled extensively in the countries that were affected by the Gulf conflict, chronicles the vagaries of the war and its impact on the lives of the people in a revealing and disturbing text. The narrative line is lively and easy to follow. Readers may want to compare this book with Ramsey Clark's The Fire This Time ( LJ 12/92) for a contrasting perspective; Kelly's book is less critical of U.S. policy. Recommended for general readers and public libraries.
- Nader Entessar, Spring Hill Coll., Mobile, Ala.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Publisher
"Michael Kelly has written the one book of literary value to come out the Gulf War. This is the best piece of war writing in a generation; not since Vietnam and Michael Herr's Dispatches has anyone conveyed the pity and terror of war, and the strangeness of the places where men fight, so well."--Robert Hughes
"Understated and beautifully crafted...a profound meditation on the depths of human cruelty."--Overseas Press Club Citation --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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By 2003, Iraq was already very familiar terra firma to Kelly, having covered the first Gulf War. The book begins on "Martyr's Day," 1991, in Baghdad, Iraq, which was two days before the air war portion of the first Gulf War began. Kelly was required to be accompanied at all times by a government official that everyone called a "minder." Kelly's minder was former army officer who had served during the interminable and costly war with Iran. He could not afford to pay for his son's wedding, and felt he had wasted his life in the army. "All my friends have businesses money," he complained bitterly. "Look at me--I'm a minder!"
Kelly was in Iraq as the bombs and cruise missiles began to rain down. Two days later, Kelly traveled by car to Syria, a car trip that cost $7,000.00. After staying in Syria for several days, Kelly traveled to Israel via Cypress, to rendezvous with his fiance, who was a news producer. Travel to Israel from most arab countries is a tricky business, requiring two passports, because these countries do not officially acknowledge Israel's existence. He was in Israel at the height of Saddam's scud missile attacks on that country. Everyone was required to carry a gas mask with them at all times. Women being what they are, however, a market for designer covers for gas masks soon sprang up, allowing the women to coordinate their gas mask with their outfit.
After several days in Israel, Kelly traveled to Egypt by car across the Sinai, and from thence to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and from there by car to Dahran, Saudi Arabia, then to the jumping off point for the liberation of Kuwait. The pool system employed by the army during the first Gulf War was far too restrictive, so Kelly opted out of it, rented his own car with another journalist, skirted some roadblocks and went off to find the fighting. He hooked up with some Egyptian troops, then a couple of days later on the road to Kuwait City, some 25 Iraqis surrendered to him.
Arriving in Kuwait City in time for the liberation party, Kelly faithfully recorded the stories of the random torture, murder, rape and looting that had been inflicted on Kuwait during its 7 month occupation by Iraq. Then he went out to inspect the famous "highway of death" where U.S. warplanes had destroyed fleeing columns of Iraqi troups and equipment. The grisly scenes of death later caused him depression and lassitude.
After reporting from liberated Kuwait for awhile, Kelly returned to the U.S. but later headed out to the Kurdish provinces of Iran to view up close the humanitarian disaster caused by Saddam's attempted extermination of the Kurdish population of northeastern Iraq. After inspecting the wretched and pathetic refugee camps along the Iran/Iraq border, Kelly crossed over the border into Iraq, and traveled through the Kurdish provinces, now under the umbrella of a U.S. enforced no-fly zone. Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters controlled the territory, but the destruction Saddam had already inflicted was immense. Saddam's troops had tried to systematically destroy, with dynamite, all of the Kurdish cities, towns, and hamlets. Before the no-fly zone policy became effective, Saddam's air force had dropped gas on one large Kurdish city, killing several thousand people in one day. The victims had to be pushed into mass graves with heavy equipment. While touring the Kurdish territories, Kelly became very sick and dehydrated with amebic dysentary, and had to seek medical help. He eventually made his way to Turkey and crossed the border there.
Later Kelly made another trip to Baghdad to observe the city after the war had been lost and sanctions imposed. Perversely, the sanctions merely allowed Saddam and his son Udai to tighten their control over the country, and allowed their inner cicle of thugs to grow very rich.
All told, this is an incredible Odyssey through the middle east in time of war. It is a necessary preface to the current Iraq war and, without ever making the argument explicitly, shows that Saddam should been removed at the time of the first Gulf War, and not after 12 more years of needless suffering by everyone in Iraq except for Saddam and his inner circle.
Outside of his skills as a reporter, he is a wonderful writer, evoking vivid scenes with pitch-perfect dialogue and powerful descriptions of landscape.
An experienced Middle Eastern hand, one of his best vignettes is a description of moving from the Isreali border checkpoint to the Egyptian. The contrast of styles is hilarious, but not, as one might expect from a Western reporter, at the expense of the Arab way of doing business. His familiarity and fondness for Arab culture is evident throughout the book.
To skirt the propaganda feed of the notorious journalist "pools" the US military organized, Kelly and fellow journalist Dan Fesperman set out on their own by rented car and wind up embedding (more or less) with an Egyptian unit, less rule-bound than their US counterparts.
Kelly's peregrinations soon take him from Kuwait to Kurdistan, always astutely observing the feelings and mores of those around him. There are no easy lessons here. For all the cruelty of the occupying Iraqis, the Kuwaitis hardly come off as deserving the fortune that the war returned to them. For Kelly, it's the Iraqis themselves who paid the highest price for Saddam's machinations. I did wonder, however, if Kelly wasn't a little credulous about some of the Kuwaiti descriptions of Iraq atrocities; we learned after the war that they greatly exaggerated some of these claims.
In the afterword in my edition, written shortly after 9/11, Kelly makes a strong pitch for finishing the war that George Bush senior began, even going so far as to connect the failure to depose Saddam (and the cynicism that bred throughout the Arab world) to the rise of bin Laden. It's fascinating to remember that there were some intelligent and articulate voices arguing for the Iraq War. One can't help but speculate over what Kelly would have written about the misbegotten history of the recent conflict.
My own guess is that he would have severely taken George W Bush to task for trying to do the invasion on the cheap, not to mention neglecting Afghanistan. I think he would have been right in the middle of the grotesque Iraqi civil war that followed our invasion, too effected by the human suffering to hue to easy ideologies.
This is a rare book that transcends the specifics of a small war and is all the while mightily entertaining.