Twelve years ago, a free-lance writer named Michael Kelly approached the editors of the New Republic and asked what it would take to get work during the Gulf War. "Be in Baghdad when the bombs drop," an editor told him. So that's where Kelly went, chronicling the bombing and later the ground war and its aftermath in Iraq and Kuwait. Driving alone through the desert, slipping past military checkpoints and armed with only chocolate bars and cigarettes to offer sometimes hostile soldiers, Kelly, in the pages of the New Republic and later in his book Martyrs' Day, conveyed the pity and devastation of war with a brave, unflinching grace. Though he would go on to become an accomplished magazine editor--most recently at the Atlantic Monthly--and a columnist for the Washington Post, Kelly never lost his thirst for reporting. A few weeks ago, at 46, he returned to Iraq as a correspondent embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He became the first American journalist killed in the war, when the humvee he was riding in plunged into a canal while evading Iraqi fire near Baghdad last week.
As a columnist, Kelly was known for his incendiary attacks on political elites. His contempt for the sanctimonious excesses of liberalism and his open loathing of Bill Clinton endeared him to conservatives, but Kelly's true enemy was the arrogance of power on all political sides. He wrote with a passion that reflected his love of language and its possibilities. As an editor, he earned the devotion of colleagues with his generosity and good humor. He would spend hours with a young writer, explaining how and why he made each sentence better. He dictated his last column from Iraq over a satellite phone a day before his death. "I'm fine," he said to friends and family who called to wish him safety. He told them he was having the time of his life. --By Romesh Ratnesar