Exposing the horrors of the Persian Gulf war

March 28, 1993|By George Grella

MARTYR'S DAY: CHRONICLE OF A SMALL WAR.

Michael Kelly.

Random House.

354 pages. $23. History happens so fast these days that it's become difficult to remember even those events we like to think of as historic. As George Bush found out not so long ago, despite all the satellite television coverage, the cheerleading news conferences and the endless self-congratulatory parades, most people soon forgot Operation Desert Storm, when Americans fought a battle to defend one Arab despot from another in the Persian Gulf. Michael Kelly, a former Sun reporter who covered the war for a number of newspapers and magazines and now serves as a correspondent for the New York Times, recovers a portion of that history in "Martyrs' Day," which he aptly subtitles "Chronicle of a Small War."

Because he operated in the Persian Gulf as a free-lancer and stringer before, during and after Operation Desert Storm, Mr. Kelly avoided most of the obstacles that the Pentagon placed in the path of the mainstream media -- limited access, tight control and censorship. As a result, he tells a very different story from the one reported by an embarrassingly sycophantic press corps. He doesn't record any adoring interviews with small-town heroes or human-interest stories about the delights of Army chow. Norman Schwarzkopf never even appears.

Instead, "Martyrs' Day," as Mr. Kelly notes, is an impressionistic account, intended to "give a feeling for the oddities and terrors of even a modest war." Part historian, part travel writer, part war correspondent, the author reports on his personal experiences in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He is a perceptive observer and an often eloquent writer -- he catches the telling details of everyday life, records the authentic voices of the people and unabashedly communicates some of his own emotional reactions to his subjects.

Perhaps because it was over so quickly, the war itself occupies very little of Mr. Kelly's book. He concentrates far more on non-combatants than soldiers, on the effects rather than the methods of war, on victims rather than on conquerors. With admirable honesty, he shows readers the real horrors of the conflict, which somehow escaped the notice of the establishment press. He reports destruction, death and suffering an unimaginable scale, especially for what was advertised as a swift and tidy little war.

In the most telling passage of the book, Mr. Kelly points out that "the Gulf War was an experience disconnected with itself, conducted with such speed and at such distances and with so few witnesses that it was, even for many of the people involved, an abstraction." But he moves that event out of abstraction by describing the horrible residue of the Iraqi retreat when U.S. forces cut the army to pieces. His precise and careful record of the vehicles, the loot, the debris and just what all those dead men looked like after some time in the desert heat ranks with Hemingway's descriptions of the aftermath of battle. I can think of no higher praise.

Except for the innumerable direct and indirect victims of the war, very few participants cover themselves with honor in "Martyrs' Day." Saddam Hussein emerges as even more evil than he was painted in the media, perhaps because Mr. Kelly shows how he depraved and corrupted his own nation, driving people to a sickening barbarity.

The Iraqis in general seem the least attractive group in the conflict -- full of boastful threats before the war, incompetent and cowardly as soldiers, and despicable as occupiers. In their seven months in Kuwait, the Iraqis looted the country, defiled many of its structures, and raped, tortured and maimed its inhabitants (the Kuwaiti royal family and other privileged folk, of course, escaped all that).

As Wilfred Owen wrote about another war, however, the poetry PTC is in the pity, and Mr. Kelly awakens pity even for the Iraqi conquerors. Many more victims of that war evoke his pity as well -- dispossessed Palestinians, maimed veterans, all the new widows and orphans, thousands of refugees, Kurds betrayed by both sides and, worst of all, innumerable suffering children. More than any other reporter I know, the author shows the economic and political chaos and the human pain the war created.

"Martyr's Day" inspires a renewed faith in the possibilities of American journalism. The quirkiness and unorthodoxy of its approach, the strength and clarity of its style, and the humanity of its author endow it with unusual power. I cannot imagine a better book emerging from that dreadful little war.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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