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Smart Missiles, Dumb Media : MARTYRS' DAY: Chronicle of a Small War, By Michael Kelly (Random House: $23; 351 pp.)

March 14, 1993|Jonathan Raban | Raban, author of "Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth" (Simon & Schuster), has most recently written "Hunting Mister Heartbreak" (HarperCollins)

It can't be long now before some grammatical tribunal rules that use of "the media" as a singular noun (as in "the media was against us") has ceased to be a solecism and become a simple statement of fact. Most people who aren't journalists tend to think of the media as a cloven-hoofed beast with a single interest, a single point of view and a single bad prose style--an opinion largely justified by the way journalists now cover great political events like wars and presidential campaigns.

"By the press bus" often would be a more accurate byline than the conventional "By John Q. Reporter." Never was this more dismally true than in the day-to-day reporting of the Gulf War, when the military echoes in the term "press corps" became deafening as the Pentagon sent its journalistic brigades into action and the Iraqi Ministry of Information fielded its ragged platoon. The war of the smart missiles was a war of dumb video cameras and even dumber laptops.

During that time, readers of the New Republic and the Boston Globe could turn for relief from the martial Muzak of CNN to the genuinely singular dispatches of Michael Kelly, who sometimes appeared to be the only American journalist in the Middle East with a voice and a pair of eyes of his own. As a stringer, Kelly enjoyed the "certain shabby independence" which Samuel Johnson held to be the redeeming privilege of the free-lance; as a stylist, he brought to the war a kind of icy lyricism.

He wrote beautifully about terrible things. He was a great noticer of details that other journalists missed, and he saw that the journalists and their activities were an essential part of the story. He got into trouble and had adventures. Kelly in the Gulf was heir to Stephen Crane in Greece, Evelyn Waugh in Abyssinia and Hemingway in Spain: His New Republic pieces were biting reminders of the necessity of the first person.

"Martyrs' Day" is three good books condensed into one. It is--against the odds--an unquenchably happy travel book about the Middle East, full of sights and smells and chance encounters, with a chipper rolling stone for a hero. It is a finely pitched narrative of the war, told from a succession of different viewpoints as Kelly samples and circles the hostilities, going from Baghdad to Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Kurdistan before returning to Iraq after the war's end. It is also a book about journalists, a true-life "Scoop," in which the author is not afraid to cut himself with his own razor.

In January, 1990, when the hacks of the world gathered in the Al Rashid Hotel to wait for the beginning of the story, a French photographer busied himself taking portraits of his colleagues, anticipating that good money was soon to be made out of the sale of pictures of famous journalists, to go over their obituaries. On the first night of the bombing, journalists (Peter leaning out the window with a mike, Bernie under the table on hands and knees) were the news, and there was an eerie sense in which the Allied attack was itself a network spectacular--a horror show designed to give the creepy-crawlies to a single mustached viewer in his underground command bunker. The networks were in close touch with the Pentagon; 90 minutes before the show began, CBS correspondents in the hotel received a coded message from their New York headquarters, "Your wife is fine, but your children have developed a cold," which sounds so like A Message In Code that one wonders if it, too, was really intended to reach the ears of Iraq's chief couch potato.

When the bombing started, Kelly was getting gently drunk with a bright young Englishman from the London Times, with whom he stood admiring the brilliant firework patterns in the Baghdad sky: "The tracer rounds made lines of incandescent beauty, lovely arcing curves and slow S's and parabolas of light." The studied aestheticism is a Kelly hallmark. It is his interesting way of being hard-boiled. While other reporters pull out the stops on the shock and the horror, Kelly is usually to be found elsewhere on the battlefield, whittling nonchalantly on a simile. Never one to toe the party line, he is at pains to remind the reader that he smokes cigarettes--which in 1993 is tantamount to talking about your drooling problem. Both the similes and the cigarettes are emblems of his detachment from the press corps, whose members he regards with a mixture of comradely affection and exasperated amusement.

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