Friday, April 5, 2013

Michael Kelly's War

I just read a great piece by Tom Scocca in Gawker looking back on the death of Michael Kelly, and specifically how a lot of journalists are remembering him 10 years after his death.  Michael Kelly was the editor of The Atlantic and he was a huge proponent of the invasion of Iraq.  He was also the first American journalist killed there when the Humvee he was in came under fire and rolled over into a canal where both Kelly and the driver of the Humvee drowned.
The heart of Scocca's argument is that Kelly used his position as editor of one of America's more influential magazines to flog a war that became a disaster.  As Scocca put's it:
But: The driver was also killed. And so were more than 4,400 other American troops. And so were more than 200 other journalists and their assistants. And so were an uncountable number of Iraqis—so many that we do not even know how many tens of thousands of them there were, each one as alive and individual and human as Michael Kelly was.
This is as true as the fact that Kelly was by all accounts a loving family man and a great guy to work for.  While it is very sad that Kelly did in fact die, it is wrong to portray him as some tragic figure who stumbled into this fire fight while trying to go to Starbucks.  Kelly supported the war and used his powerful position as editor of one of America's more influential magazines to flog that war and then decided to put himself in harms way by "embedding" himself in a forward unit during the invasion of Iraq.  Of course no one deserves to die for their beliefs, but Kelly had a lot more say in the matter as to the risks to his own personal safety than troops "stop lossed" into repeated tours of duty or the Iraqi civilians whose opinion about the war nobody asked. 

Nor was Kelly some passive figure who merely "supported" the war. He repeatedly wrote and edited in a manner to exclude and bully people opposed to the war. Is that an overstatement? I don't think so:
[H]undreds of thousands of marchers—and many more millions who did not march—believe quite sincerely that theirs is a profoundly moral cause, and this is really all that motivates them. They believe, as French President Jacques Chirac recently pontificated, that 'war is always the worst answer.'

The people who believe what Chirac at least professes to believe are, in the matter of Iraq, as wrong as it is possible to be. Theirs is not the position of profound morality but one that stands in profound opposition to morality.
This is not an argument about how the war is a good idea, instead Kelly is making the argument that to oppose the war even on practical or historical grounds is to embrace an idea "that stands in profound opposition to morality."  It is one short step away from comparing anti-war protestors to terrorists.  It is not an attempt to have a debate about invading Iraq at all.  It is an attempt to stifle that debate and ridicule those who disagree with Kelly (who by the way were right while Kelly was wrong).  As well as an attempt to caricature all those who opposed the war as doing so because they were pacifists who think 'war is always the worst answer' or because they take their cues from Jacques Chirac.  This is cheap commentary par excellence (and for the record Chirac was right and Kelly was wrong).

Nor does his writing seem to contain much insightful analysis or grounding in reality, surely traits necessary to be a "great editor."  Indeed, some of his "analysis" sounds like it was based on talking points fired off by Karl Rove:
We are in a position of triumph, and potentially much greater triumph. A few months ago, all was still in tatters. Hussein still defied with impunity, still ruled unchallenged over his torture state, still schemed to advance his dreams of himself as the atomic Saladin... The will of one man, George W. Bush, changed all this.
Also, like Andrew Sullivan making up claims about Saddam's use of nerve gas, the "dreams of himself as the atomic Saladin" claim is just dead wrong.  Nor is this passage very accurate, even during the initial days of the invasion many of the problems that would plague the next decade were already apparent for those who cared to look.

Scocca points out that even the claim that Kelly was some great moralist because he was willing to put himself in danger is actually pretty weak beer:
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.
I guess that Kelly ranks higher than armchair generals like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, but in the end it's just not enough.  Kelly was a good man, but a good man in the service of a bad cause is not the type of hero we should look for.  

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