The Gulf War of 1991 faded quickly from American consciousness. The extravagant hopes it raised and the dizzying pride it inspired-the vision of an American-led coalition defending justice across the globe—ebbed with remarkable speed. The tide of innocent blood spilled and unavenged in Somalia and Bosnia has served as a reproach and a bitter epitaph to the New World Order launched in the deserts of Arabia.
Michael Kelly’s Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War is a timely reminder of the ambiguous nature of the Gulf War. Kelly covered the war as a journalist. During the conflict and its aftermath, he traveled through Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Kuwait, talking to people who are usually faceless and voiceless in history—cab drivers, merchants, and soldiers. His war is not the war Americans watched on television. Though inevitably he describes air strikes, explosions, and the dramatic sweep of Coalition armor across the desert, Kelly’s true subject is the inner war, the war of ideals and passions, confusion and hatred, rather than that of the technical operations of diplomats and generals. His is not a tale of a triumph over aggression and tyranny, nor is it an isolationist or pacifist indictment of the victory. Kelly records the effects of dictator-ship and war on the ordinary people with whom he sympathizes. He is a moralist, reminding readers once again of the ubiquity of human depravity and folly. There are heroes and villains in his book, but Kelly demonstrates that most people caught up in the war were victims, of their own and others’ obsessions. Kelly describes a modern-day ship of fools, but one whose deck ran red with blood and tears.
Kelly opens his book in Baghdad, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm. Baghdad was a city wrapped in illusion. Like their leader, ordinary Iraqis could not bring themselves to believe that President George Bush seriously intended, by force if necessary, to eject their occupying army in Kuwait.
Kelly brilliantly evokes the totalitarian atmosphere of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which contributed much to this air of unreality. Iraq in 1991 was a thoroughgoing police state; statutes on the books included twenty political offenses that could result in the death penalty. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and secret police permeated every sector of Iraqi society. Virtually no one in Iraq could feel secure from these internal spies. Members of the political police, empowered to torture and kill at will, swaggered openly about the streets informally uniformed in sunglasses, black vinyl jackets, and Italian slacks. Adding to the omnipresent sense of supervision were the ubiquitous portraits of Saddam, adorning every street in the city and depicting the leader in a variety of poses and outfits.
Since its tumultuous birth at the end of World War I, Iraq has been an unsettled nation, the scene of numerous rebellions and wars. Though Saddam did not create the violent tenor of Iraqi society, he intensified it. His war with Iran in the 1980’s achieved little and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Kelly visited the most important of the war memorials in Baghdad and watched the officially choreographed, but disconcertingly unenthusiastic, ceremonies celebrating Iraqi war dead. Gestures had become more important than meaning in Iraq in 1991. Perhaps the most elaborate monument to the empty grandiosity of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the rebuilding of fabled Babylon. Once the greatest city of antiquity, Babylon had by the opening of the twentieth century been long covered by sand. In 1989 construction crews began raising Saddam’s New Babylon atop the excavated ruins of the original city. In New Babylon, beautifully paved roads led nowhere. The remains of the magnificent Gate of Ishtar were topped with ugly mass-produced bricks. On the site of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a new ziggurat was erected, capped by a concrete building destined to house a casino and a cafeteria.
The allied bombing that began on January 15 proved a sobering shock to the Iraqis. For a time at least, the self-deceptive web of government propaganda was rent, though official spokesmen publicly kept up a brave front. Kelly witnessed the spectacular fireworks caused by the Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, and he even happened on a Tomahawk cruise missile assault that destroyed part of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense complex. Having seen enough, Kelly joined other journalists on a wild drive to the Jordanian border, punctuated by allied air strikes on targets along the route.
In Jordan, Kelly encountered a different species of delusion. Saddam Hussein, hoping to detach Arab members from the allied coalition ranged against him, had declared his intention to drive the Israelis into the sea. This ploy beguiled the large Palestinian population in Jordan. The Palestinians became infatuated with the notion that Iraqi tanks would somehow liberate their lost homeland. They greeted Saddam’s Scud missile attacks on Israel with a fervent rapture. Kelly found himself intrigued by a Jordanian merchant doing a booming business selling watches bearing Saddam’s image and small keychains and pins shaped like Scud...