Last week, Michael Kelly, who edited The New Republic from 1996 to 1997, died while traveling as an embedded reporter with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. Michael's association with TNR began when he covered the first Gulf war, for which he won a National Magazine Award. It was through his courageous, eloquent reporting that this magazine came to understand the importance, for the United States and the world, of a free Iraq at peace with its neighbors. In tribute, we reprint excerpts from his March 18, 1991, dispatch from that war, "Kiss of Victory."
I had thought from the moment the first bomb dropped on Baghdad that the match-up between Saddam Hussein and a good portion of the civilized world was wildly one-sided, but the staggering, lunatic scope of the disaster he visited on his people did not actually bring tears to my eyes until the moment here, on the third day of the ground war, when I took my first, and I hope my last, prisoners of war.
I was driving down the abandoned highway to Kuwait City with my friend Dan Fesperman, a correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. We were "doing a unilateral," the press corps' term for getting around the Pentagon's press pool restrictions by ignoring them. I'd been told there was no way I was going to get on a good pool anyway-maybe deck space on a ship in the Red Sea, if I was lucky. So we drove to the war-over the desert, past a couple of checkpoints, and into Kuwait, being careful to avoid American patrols. We had heard that the day before a carload of British hacks had been stopped by American troops. Their officer radioed his commander, who told him that reporters not in a pool should be detained and treated as prisoners of war. The officer decided instead to look the other way while the Brits got the hell out of there, but the story made us wary. ...
[W]e were driving with care. The Iraqis had blown up the highway every quarter mile or so, which forced us periodically to swerve off the road and onto the desert, where we had to watch out for stray mine fields. Dan spotted the men first, at a distance of about half a mile, a ragged line of green blocking the road. "They are Iraqis, I think," he said. "You can tell from the uniform. ... Do you think they're armed?"
We drove on gingerly and stopped the four-wheel drive a few feet from them. They were ten soldiers, most of them in their 30s and 40s, unarmed, clearly underfed, unshaven, wearing only light uniforms against the cold late-afternoon desert wind. One waved a white rag tied to a bamboo pole; another fluttered a dirty white handkerchief. They held their hands high over their heads and nervously advanced a few feet as we got out of the car.
"No, no," we said. "We are not soldiers. We are journalists. We are Sahafi." It didn't matter. The men begged to be taken in. They were cold, they said in broken English, and had already walked six kilometers from their trenches. "We afraid of Saddam," said one. "Not afraid of Americans. United States is good. United States of America is good." Every other soldier in their unit had fled north, they said. "The Iraqi army is not here. Gone. Gone to Iraq."
We gave the men water and bread and chocolate bars, and cheese and salami, and little square cartons of orange drink, and left them. We said we would send someone to pick them up, and headed on toward the capital city. But it was getting dark, which is a bad time to get lost in a war, and then we came across a giant mine field, blocking the road and the desert for hundreds of yards on both sides. ... So we turned back. We found the Iraqis still walking with their white flags before them and decided we could not leave them there. All ten managed to cram into the car: one in the front seat, four in back, and three fitted around the ten jerry cans of gasoline in the rear, with two standing on the bumper.
After a couple of miles we came across a supply column of the Fourth Tank Brigade of the Saudi army, heading to front-line headquarters. We flagged down a truck and told the driver the news. Within moments thirty-five excited Saudi soldiers crowded around the Iraqis, slamming clips of ammunition into their automatic rifles and carrying on in tremendous excitement as they searched the prisoners. They threw the Iraqis' few possessions, and the food we had just given them, into the sand. One zealous Saudi soldier even grabbed a Koran one Iraqi had been clutching and tossed it aside. They made the terrified prisoners sit in a line, and they shouted and waved their rifles about. Half a dozen prisoners began weeping in fear and begging for their lives. The prisoner whose Koran had been taken away crawled over to retrieve it, and clutched it to his chest for protection as he moaned and rocked back and forth. Another plucked frantically at his hair and his crotch in little agonies of terror, and shouted for his God. But the Saudi troops eventually calmed down, and gave the Iraqis new packages of food, drink, and cigarettes. One young Saudi soldier soothed a distraught Iraqi by placing both hands on his shoulders and kissing him on the forehead. We left the prisoners in the care of a young Saudi lieutenant named Saud Otabi, whose beardless face shone with the pleasure of another glorious, bloodless victory.
It wasn't, after all, the Gulf War. It was the Gulf Rout. The Iraqi troops, hopelessly outgunned and outmaneuvered, never had the slightest chance. Nor, it seemed, did many of them want one. They just wanted to quit and go home. On the second day of the ground battle we drove with the Egyptian army through the Iraqi front lines. ...
By midafternoon 530 Iraqi soldiers and twenty-two officers sat barefoot in the sand by the section of trench they had given up, their belongings dumped in a pathetic litter nearby: some cheap plastic combs, a few letters, a coin or two. Two men lay dead on the ground, one with blood soaking through his shirt front and back, his mouth gaping at the sky. ...
"Personally, I did not fight at all," said one Iraqi lieutenant in quite good English. "Not one bit, and I urged my men not to fight either. We had no wish to be attacked. When we saw we were safe, that was enough. We did not wish to fight. Why to fight? For what?" He smiled a small, bitter smile, and gestured at the barren land around him. "For Kuwait?"
The lieutenant and his men had only stayed in the trenches, he said, because "otherwise Saddam would hang our families-babies, girls, brothers. They did it many times." Even if the Iraqi soldiers had wished to fight, the impossibility of their plight was staggeringly obvious on the ground. It could be seen in the Egyptian attack, which-on just this one relatively small and lightly defended stretch-encompassed two battalions totaling 10,000 troops, hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled 155mm howitzers, jeeps, half-tracks, supply trucks, and so on and on in an ever moving supply line that stretched by day's end sixteen miles to the Saudi lines.
The attacking forces filled the eye to the horizon in every direction, and filled the ear too, with the thuds and booms and the shelling punctuated by the soft, sibilant whistle of ground-to-ground missiles, which left a puffy white trail against the gray sky. Arrayed against all this was a thin line of demoralized troops, in the kind of fixed defenses that went out with the Maginot Line. Iraqi prisoners said almost uniformly that they had been living in fear and hunger and great fatigue since the war began, and some of them complained that Saddam had pulled back the big guns that were to defend their positions before the attack even began. A garrison in the western desert town of Al Abraq, liberated on the third day by most of an entire Egyptian division, had only one, possibly broken, armored personnel carrier to defend it.
The 400 Iraqi soldiers left to defend the town were so eager to surrender that some of them ran out from their bunkers and gave themselves up to the division's commanding officer while he was making a tour of the perimeter accompanied by only two aides and a soldier. It is a measure of how weak the resistance was that the Egyptian attack was waged without any air support at all. By the end of the third day of battle, the day Saddam announced that he was, really and truly this time, pulling out of Kuwait right now, the fight was over. The allied generals were saying their troops would liberate Kuwait City within two days at most, but that was a very conservative estimate.
The invasion had become something akin to the world's largest cross-country drive. That afternoon we drove to the head of the lead Egyptian column, and for a while amused ourselves and the troops by taking a position in our Nissan Safari at the very front of the front. Behind us stretched an unbroken line of men and material that now went back forty-some miles without a worry in the world, or at least in the 19th province of Iraq.
Donations in Michael Kelly's memory can be sent to: The Tom and Jack Kelly Education Fund, c/o Donna Papadopoulos, Sovereign Bank, 495 Paradise Road, Swampscott, Massachusetts 01907.