God, what a victory!

Jeremy Harding

  • Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of Small War by Michael Kelly
    Macmillan, 354 pp, £16.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 333 60496 2
  • Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter by Anne Sebba
    Hodder, 301 pp, £19.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 340 55599 8
  • Women’s Letters in Wartime edited by Eva Figes
    Pandora, 304 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 04 440755 6
  • The War at Sixteen: Autobiography, Vol. II by Julien Green, translated by Euan Cameron
    Marion Boyars, 207 pp, £19.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 7145 2969 9

Michael Kelly has produced a vivid, responsible account of his own itinerary, as a contributor to New Republic, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, through the Gulf War: from Baghdad to Amman; on to Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia; into Kuwait and back into Iraq, via Basra; thence to Kurdistan. There are few sops to terrible beauty, whatever Kelly’s dust-jacket champions may say, and no excessive enthusiasm for the darker side of his material, either in the abandoned Iraqi torture chambers of Kuwait City or on the road to Basra.

Michael Kelly is a remarkable war artist, however. His reports have an artist’s sense of occasion, and even of genre: portrait, landscape with figures, life class and so on. Drafting and sketching at enviable speed, he gets his readers from one place to the next with ease. Denied access along with the rest of the press to the fighting itself, Kelly is alert and interested, far from any official front, studying pro-Iraq badges (‘Saddam. One Like You Makes Dream Come True’) in Jordan, watching Palestinians in the Occupied Territories slowly crushed under the weight of their support for Saddam, or discovering how a rich Kuwaiti hotelier kept most of his money and his family safe by buying off the Iraqi occupiers – mostly with TV sets.

It is only halfway through the book that Kelly enters the fray, so to speak, travelling up from Hafar al-Batin in Saudi Arabia to the Kuwait border and then across the ‘Saddam Line’, breached and deserted, in the closing moments of the ground war. The Iraqi defences are ‘pathetic affairs, a double line of trenches no more than four feet deep and so narrow that two men could not pass each other without squeezing by like passengers in a jet plane’. The soldiers in these positions have surrendered to an Egyptian brigade by the time Kelly arrives to watch them undergo ‘the first ritual of prison life, the stripping of self’:

Each man emptied his pockets. Their belongings made a pile in the mud, a sad litter of cheap plastic combs, letters from home, empty wallets, matches and the occasional cigarette, a few coins. In the background, two Iraqis lay dead, one covered with a coat thrown over his head and shoulders, but the other bare under the rain, bleeding still from the holes to his chest and back.

Not long afterwards, Kelly comes across a group of abject, shell-shocked Iraqis who have not yet surrendered, although they have taken the precaution of burying their rifles. ‘Many days bombed,’ a dishevelled Iraqi lieutenant explains: ‘Much air. Too much.’ They begged Kelly to take them prisoner but he and his colleague went their way, leaving the men with a pile of food and water, and cardboard containers of orange juice. ‘When I looked in the rear-view mirror,’ he writes, ‘they were all standing in the road, the wind whipping them, sucking on the little straws of the orange juice boxes.’

This image of Arab wretchedness drinking at a footling spring of Western convenience culture – the individual fruit juice – is one of the most severe in the book. Events are less shocking when Kelly goes back down the road, picks up the same Iraqis and hands them over to a Saudi support unit, who proceed to harass and bully them in recognisable ways, unacceptable certainly, but less humiliating than their first encounter with a foreign correspondent. By now, however, he has had enough. ‘I watched them weeping and begging for their lives,’ he tells us, ‘and I had to turn aside so they wouldn’t see me crying too.’ To his credit, Michael Kelly can cry in print without being a new man or an old hack, whose tears, like Emma Bovary’s, are apt to be as unconvincing as a row of cypresses outside a tavern. He does the thing we would prefer him not to do, and does it bravely.

Fewer tears are shed by the women in Anne Sebba’s admirable book. ‘You can’t betray the strains you are under,’ says Patricia Clough of the Independent, and much of this book is about the pressures of operating in a world where men have liked to have one set of rules for themselves and another for their women colleagues. The book is well-researched and likely to interest many readers who are neither women nor journalists. For one thing, her journalists stand in their own right, not merely in opposition to a men’s world. For another, like their male counterparts, they have pursued careers that catch the light of history. This is good material for anyone interested in the events and the public debates of the last hundred and fifty years or more.

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