Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War
By Michael Kelly
2nd edition, Vintage Books, 2001
365 pp.; $14, paper

The best guide to understanding the war in Iraq is not a treatise of geopolitical strategy, not one of those books about American empire said to be on the desks of President Bush's inner circle. It's a book of classic reporting by Michael Kelly first published in 1993, based on his dispatches during the Gulf War and its immediate aftermath, and reissued after 9/11 with a new foreword and afterword. There was a tragic fitness, then, to the news last Friday that Kelly had been killed in a Humvee accident the night before, the first American journalist to die in the conflict.

Since Kelly's death, tributes have appeared on every hand, many of them by writers who knew him as a colleague and friend. At the age of 46, he had accomplished just about everything a reporter, columnist, and editor could hope to achieve in a lifetime. Most recently, with Cullen Murphy, he had taken The Atlantic Monthly, a very good magazine, and made it into a great one. Kelly, however, was not about to rest on his laurels. When the war in Iraq started, he was embedded with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, whose experience he intended to chronicle in a book.

That book, alas, we'll never see, but Martyrs' Day remains essential reading. From its very first sentence—"Baghdad is a city rich in monuments to the dead of war"—it brings to horribly vivid life the alternative reality created by Saddam Hussein and his regime, sustained by brutality and demanding obeisance to the Big Lie. Unsparing in revealing the pathologies of an Arab world that today boasts of Saddam's triumph in holding the U.S. at bay, Kelly is equally unsparing in his account of the American ...

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